Inside the windowless war room at the Rutgers football facility, the names of 18 high school players are neatly written in blue marker on a supersized dry-erase board. It is early morning on Feb. 1, and for the coaches in Piscataway, N.J., and college football towns everywhere, national signing day marks the end of the Great Chase. After months (in some cases, years) of breathless recruiting, the coaches are left with nothing to do but wait for the sound that signals success: the whir of the fax machine. At 7 a.m. the coaching staff begins hovering near the copy room, awaiting the first letter of intent from one of the names on the board.
Rule No. 1 in the world of recruiting: There is no such thing as a done deal until the signed letter of intent arrives. Leading up to signing day, there are around-the-clock calls and texts, broken promises and more flip-flopping than in a presidential primary. For every coaching staff in America, these are among the most wrenching of days. But the week has been particularly dramatic in Piscataway. On Jan. 26, six days before signing day, coach Greg Schiano announced that, after 11 seasons with the Scarlet Knights, he was accepting an offer to take over the NFL's Buccaneers. Seldom before had the coach of a BCS program left his team with signing day so near. Schiano's abrupt exit, the pundits insisted, would lead to the unraveling of a much-heralded recruiting class.
Here's a look at six frantic days in Piscataway.
SIX DAYS TO SIGNING DAY
There's an old saying among college coaches: If you're being pulled from the road during a recruiting trip, either your wife's going into labor or there's been a coaching change. So when the Knights' assistants see their phones blink on the morning of Jan. 26 with orders to return to campus immediately, they figure that Schiano is gone. Five of them have made the one-hour drive to Ramsey, N.J., to see two stars from powerhouse Don Bosco Prep, defensive end Darius Hamilton and wide receiver Leonte Carroo. (The latter was already a Rutgers commit.) But soon the assistants are piling back into their cars, and on the ride back to Piscataway radio reports confirm their suspicions. Before athletic director Tim Pernetti appears at a 4:30 p.m. press conference to announce the departure of Schiano and the promotion of offensive line assistant Kyle Flood as interim coach, the Internet has already blown up with doomsday talk. Schiano's exit "will absolutely destroy recruiting this close to signing day," proclaims one national recruiting analyst.
A feeding frenzy on the Knights' commits begins. Offensive tackle Chris Muller of Boyertown, Pa., first hears of Schiano's departure from a UConn coach. In the next few hours Muller hears from 10 schools—"some, like Clemson, are completely out of the blue," he says—that are trying to get him to flip.
That night Muller meets with other Rutgers commits at a local pizza joint. They talk about visiting other campuses. They talk about possible replacements for Schiano. (Temple's Steve Addazio and Florida International's Mario Cristobal are rumored to be candidates.) They talk about whether, in the end, a recruit is choosing a coach or a program. Then Muller speaks with Pernetti over the phone. "I'm still in," Muller assures the AD. "But I'm not going to lie: Guys are nervous. We want to know who the new coach is."
FIVE DAYS TO SIGNING DAY
Pernetti has an idea: He wants to join the football staff temporarily as an assistant so he's eligible to call and meet with recruits. It's not an original move, but it is rare. He takes an online test to become an NCAA-approved recruiter, and within hours the 41-year-old former TV executive is working three cellphones to stay in touch with recruits as he crisscrosses the state for face-to-face visits.
There are two potential program-changing players that the Knights have eyed for years: Hamilton, a five-star defensive end ranked by Rivals.com as the nation's 11th-best recruit, and Devin Fuller of Old Tappan (N.J.) High, a dazzling dual-threat quarterback. For Pernetti's first in-home visit, he accompanies Flood to see Fuller, and the meeting does not go well. There's nothing worse than a coaching change shortly before signing day, because the trust that's been built over time between the staff and the player is gone. Schiano had guaranteed Fuller that he'd be a quarterback at Rutgers. Now there are no guarantees. "The bottom line is that I can't sit down and talk to the head coach about what position I'm going to play," Fuller says that day. "I just don't see a plan for me anymore."
FOUR DAYS TO SIGNING DAY
Schiano was, depending on whom you ask, either the savior of Rutgers football or a miserable failure. While he turned a laughingstock into a Top 25 program, the well compensated coach (he made $2.3 million last year) also never delivered a conference title. There's much at stake in the hiring of his successor. After a 9--4 season, the Knights could be in position to rule the now-watered-down Big East, but at the same time the school has poured millions into the program, and many at the university are losing patience.
While on the recruiting trail Pernetti has been simultaneously interviewing coaching candidates—in some cases he's flying out of state for the meetings. He knows that going outside Piscataway for the hire might galvanize disenchanted fans. On the other hand promoting someone from within, such as a seven-year assistant like Flood, could be the best chance to keep the recruiting class together. Pernetti's interview with Flood, a Bayside, N.Y., native with strong ties to local high school coaches, lasts more than three hours. "I'm the guy who can keep these recruits here," Flood, 41, tells Pernetti. "I know these kids. We have to believe in what we've built here and what we stand for. Rutgers is no longer a stop along the way—it's a destination."
THREE DAYS TO SIGNING DAY
In the age of texting, Twitter and Facebook, the recruiting process has become more overwhelming than ever for high school players. "At the beginning, you're like, Wow, this is cool," says Fuller. But then it changes: "It's not just coaches. All those recruiting websites wanting to check in constantly, they're the worst. My voicemail has been full for a month. By the end you just want it all to be over."
Fuller decides he can't wait any longer for Rutgers to replace Schiano. He announces that he's headed to UCLA, where new coach Jim Mora has assured him that he'll be a quarterback. More bad news in Piscataway: There are reports that Mike Giacone, a three-star tight end from Jersey City who's been committed to the Knights since the summer, has flipped and is heading to Boston College.
That night even New Jersey governor Chris Christie calls Pernetti with concern. "How's it going?" the governor asks. "How's the search? How's recruiting?" Says Pernetti, "I think we'll be O.K."
TWO DAYS TO SIGNING DAY
Over the last few days Flood has been telling the recruits the same thing: "I'm the interim head coach; I expect to be named head coach; and I expect to stay head coach for a long time." When Pernetti summons Flood that afternoon and offers him the job amid rumors that Cristobal passed on the offer, Flood says, "Let's get to work then." As Flood is leaving Pernetti's office, he gets a call from Muller, who has just heard rumors of Flood's hiring. Muller replies, "We've been waiting for this."
ONE DAY TO SIGNING DAY
The day after his hiring, Flood can feel the momentum swing. One by one recruits are calling to confirm their commitment now that it looks as though the program will be led by a familiar face. But one big fish remains: Don Bosco's Hamilton, who will announce his choice between Miami and Rutgers on a regional cable sports show. Pernetti is at a women's basketball game against Notre Dame when he pulls out his phone to watch Hamilton's decision being streamed online. The AD is not the only one in the arena watching, it turns out. A cheer rings across the Louis Brown Athletic Center as Hamilton puts on a black Rutgers cap. The Knights have just landed the top recruit in school history.
Just before midnight Flood gets a call from Ian Thomas, a three-star receiver from Reisterstown, Md., who had been considering Rutgers, Auburn, Notre Dame and Wisconsin. "I heard that Darius is coming to Rutgers—I'm coming too," Thomas tells Flood. "Coaches have been calling me all day, saying you just got hired and I shouldn't go to Rutgers. We're going to prove everybody all wrong."
The biggest surprise in Piscataway on signing day is that there are no surprises. The first fax arrives at 7:01 a.m., from defensive back Davon Jacobs of DePaul Catholic in Wayne, N.J. The final one comes in shortly after noon, from defensive back Jevon Tyree of South Brunswick, N.J. Despite losing out on Fuller and Giacone's change of heart, Rutgers has locked up the No. 24 class, according to Rivals—the best in the Big East and the school's first in the Top 25. A triumphant Flood holds his second press conference in 24 hours to introduce "the greatest recruiting class in the history of Rutgers University."
Late in the afternoon Flood is back in front of his computer, back in his familiar cramped office. He still hasn't had time to move into the empty head coach's office down the hall; there are recruits for the 2013 class to e-mail, after all. "It never ends," Flood says. A new countdown has begun: 213 days until the opener against Tulane.
Photographs by MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1 DEUCE 3 PHOTOGRAPHY
JERSEY BOYS Hamilton (94) and Carroo (1) were a couple of the prized in-state recruits at stake after Schiano (center) left the Scarlet Knights a mere six days before signing day.
MEL EVANS/AP (SCHIANO)
[See caption above]
MEL EVANS/AP (RUTGERS)
FLOOD ELEVATION On the eve of signing day, Pernetti (right) handed the coaching job to Flood, a Rutgers assistant for seven years whose ties to the local high school scene helped make the 2012 recruiting class a historic one.