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Jersey Boys

A tirelessly upbeat coach and a shocking rise to the Top 10 have Rutgers and the Garden State partying like it's 1869

THREE AND A HALFyears ago Rutgers football coach Greg Schiano, while giving me a tour of whatwould be a new $12.5 million training facility, said, "When we go to theSugar Bowl in 2005...." Incredulous, I said something about how the closestRutgers would come to a sugar bowl would be if he stopped at a Crate &Barrel. My comment was a mix of realism and cynicism, something a Rutgerseducation—I am class of '73—breeds in students from the moment they learn theiruniversity was named after a Revolutionary War hero, Col. Henry Rutgers, who itwas thought would bequeath the school his vast fortune but instead stiffed itwith $5,000 and a lousy bell. On campus we knew it as the original R.U.Screw.

If Schiano waswrong about the 2005 Sugar Bowl, he was within an acceptable margin of error.After a stirring 28--25 comeback over No. 3 Louisville last Thursday, the 9--0Scarlet Knights, those perennial sad sacks, jumped to seventh in the AP polland sixth in the BCS standings, moving them closer to one of those swell bowlgames named after a plant or a fruit and not an auto-parts chain. Rutgers isone spot behind Notre Dame. Schiano is one year off being Nostradamus.

Perhaps the mostmiraculous sight this season was the scarlet sea that flooded the field afterthe Louisville game, with thousands of the 44,111 at Rutgers Stadium sheddingtheir realism and cynicism in a paroxysm of joy. You might have thought Rutgershad invented college football—which, of course, it did, defeating Princeton,6--4, in the first game, on Nov. 6, 1869. The goalposts survived Thursday'sonslaught only because they were lowered before the mob could get to them, asmart idea considering New Jersey has slashed its state university's budget by$66.1 million, forcing the cancellation of 459 classes, the laying off of 189employees and the cutting of six varsity sports.

Tearing downgoalposts was not part of the recent New Jersey football experience, but thegroundwork for a Rutgers resurgence was laid shortly after Schiano took over in2000. A former Miami defensive coordinator who is Panglossian in his optimism,Schiano recruited South Florida as if it were a Newark suburb and startedsnagging premium players like senior defensive tackle Eric Foster, one of thelinchpins of the nation's fourth-ranked defense. Schiano has also mined therich supply of in-state studs (67 of the 119 players on the roster are from NewJersey), and he has given his recruits better coaching. In '03 he brought informer Chicago Bears and Utah offensive coordinator Craig Ver Steeg. Schianohimself took over the defense last season.

Rutgers's risewas abetted by two events beyond Schiano's control. The craven defections byMiami, Virginia Tech and Boston College from the Big East left the ScarletKnights with a less taxing conference schedule. And Syracuse's dismissal ofcoach Paul Pasqualoni after the 2004 season was a blessing. The firingconvinced running back Ray Rice, who's from the New York City suburb of NewRochelle, to renege on a commitment to the Orange and pack his bags forPiscataway. Two years later Rice, who ran for 75 fourth-quarter yards againstLouisville, is the country's third-leading rusher (148.2 yards per game) and aHeisman candidate.

Rice is too youngto remember, but this magic season isn't the first time the Scarlet Knightshave been good. In the 1970s the nation's oldest program did fine in its way,holding its own against a schedule that included a couple of Ivies, Lafayetteand maybe a glamour game against Navy. (The Louisville win officially madeRutgers a .500 team: 578-578-42 alltime.) That was until president Edward J.Bloustein decided that Rutgers would become "bigger time, not bigtime." During the '80s the school became a full-fledged member of theDivision I rat race, chasing something it seemed incapable of catching untilits 7--5 season in '05. If the university didn't think the striving was worthit, then it wouldn't have made Schiano the highest-paid state employee thisyear, with salary and perks worth more than $1 million.

Schiano arrivedproselytizing for what he called the "State of Rutgers," afootball-crazy campus atmosphere with energy to rival that of any Big 10 or SECpower. It was a laughable conceit then but is a reality now. The rally againstLouisville from 18 points down was remarkable for its ability to excite NewJersey, which is less a state than an extended exurbia. (Last weekend Rutgersapparel was reportedly outselling Knicks gear at New York City sporting goodsstores.) The pro teams there—the NBA Nets, the NHL Devils—have never had solidfan bases because there is so flimsy a sense of identity. With the rise of theScarlet Knights, New Jersey has literally become a red state.

Of course, evenif a perfect season ends with a victory on Dec. 2 at No. 8 West Virginia, itwill be an imperfect season. Do the BCS calculus: A 12--0 Rutgers would almostcertainly finish too low in the rankings to have a chance to play for thenational title. So the Scarlet Knights are in a perfect position to be screwed,something the students, the alumni and the late, unlamented Colonel Rutgerssurely would understand.

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"I think of nothing but pitching when I'm on the rubber.