by Russell Levine
The winds of change often blow through college football this time of year, as teams concluding disappointing seasons opt to get a jump on the sport's "silly season" by announcing coaching changes, while other programs, in possession of the ultra-desirable candidates, move to keep their most valuable commodities in place.
No program is caught more in the middle of this brewing storm than Rutgers, where coach Greg Schiano has brought a laughingstock to the doorstop of a Bowl Championship Series berth. But for the Rutgers administration, which is already struggling with budget deficits and cost-cutting, Schiano's success may come at to steep a price.
That's because Schiano's past is about to catch up with him. Before arriving at Rutgers in December of 2000, Schiano served as the defensive coordinator at the University of Miami, which is currently seeking a new coach after dismissing Larry Coker Friday, one day after the Hurricanes completed a 6-6 regular season with a win over Boston College.
Schiano-to-Miami speculation has been going on since the first month of the season, or as long as it took for Miami and Rutgers to get off to divergent starts. If there is a textbook definition of "hot young coach," Schiano is it. Just 40, he has turned one of the worst programs in Division IA into a budding powerhouse that just earned the second 10-win season in school history and will win the Big East and earn a BCS bid if it beats West Virginia next Saturday. The Scarlet Knights routed Syracuse Saturday to bounce back from their lone loss of the season.
Schiano is a dynamic recruiter with the audacity to continue to mine South Florida for talent even after he arrived at Rutgers. Conventional wisdom surrounding Rutgers had always been that all a coach needed to do to turn the program's fortunes was recruit talent-rich New Jersey, but Schiano saw things differently. Having come from Miami, he had an intimate understanding of the dynamics of Florida high school football -- namely, that there were more good players than the state's three powerhouse college teams, Miami, Florida, and Florida State, could accommodate. By bringing some of the leftovers north, Schiano gave his developing program the athletes to compete with the better teams of the Big East and gave it a chance to get back on its feet while he worked to repair long-damaged ties to leading Garden State high school programs.
But the factors that make Schiano attractive to a program like Miami are not limited to football. In a big-time college football world that has gone fiscally mad, Schiano's guaranteed salary of $911,000 for 2006 makes him both New Jersey's highest paid state employee and underpaid for his position. According to a recent study by USA Today, the average annual income for coaches in the six BCS conferences is $1.4 million. What's more, Schiano's buyout figure -- the amount another school would have to pay Rutgers to get him out of his contract -- is just $250,000, which won't be an impediment to any school that feels Schiano is its man.
Speculation that Miami feels that way about Schiano is just that, speculation. At this point, it's clear that the Rutgers coach may have a strong financial incentive to depart, especially from a cash-strapped university that will struggle to match any offers he may receive.
Schiano received a seven-year contract extension last December, but Rutgers may have to come up with another one in order to hold on to him. Some coaches have made a living at this practice, parlaying interest from other schools into ever larger commitments to stay. Louisville's Bobby Petrino has received a pair of hefty raises after being courted by Auburn, LSU, and the Oakland Raiders.
Even if finances are removed from the equation, comparing the Miami and Rutgers jobs looks at first to be a one-sided debate. But is it? Miami has won five national championships since 1983 and sent a host of first-round draft picks to the NFL. It sits in the middle of the most fertile recruiting ground in America. But beneath the surface, Miami and Rutgers have more in common than, say, Miami and Ohio State. Miami has been a national power for a quarter century, but it has done so without investing in its infrastructure. Both the on-campus practice facility and the off-campus, city-owned Orange Bowl are in need of upgrades. The Orange Bowl, which could charitably be described as decrepit, was abandoned by the NFL's Miami Dolphins in 1987, and by its namesake bowl game in 1996.
Here again is where Schiano's past and potential future collide. In his more recent past, he has built the Rutgers program from the ground up, winning battles with the administration to increase budgets and upgrade facilities. That work is largely done. The next coach at Miami will have to endure similar travails, though school president Donna Shalala has suggested Miami is ready to undertake the necessary upgrades.
The Scarlet Knights' success this season has also turned Rutgers into a tough ticket, and given Schiano's team the kind of home-field advantage he only dreamed of upon taking the job. Games against Louisville and Syracuse sold out well in advance, and temporary bleachers were added for the Louisville contest. Miami, despite its long-term success, does not have legions of loyal fans like most traditional football powers. The Hurricanes drew just 23,308 against Boston College.
Another glimpse of Schiano's past versus his future was on display this weekend. In the weekend's biggest game, USC routed Notre Dame to move within a win over UCLA of qualifying for the BCS championship game opposite Ohio State. The star for USC, with three touchdown catches, was receiver Dwayne Jarrett.
Jarrett grew up next door to Rutgers in New Brunswick and was recruited by Schiano. He said in a recent interview that he saw the talent Schiano was accumulating but opted instead for the proven power, USC. If Jarrett were being recruited this fall, would his decision be different? Maybe not, but after this season, a top recruit choosing Rutgers will no longer be an upset.
After beating Syracuse, Schiano was asked about his future. And while his response of "I have no plan to go anywhere else" was probably not as definitive a statement as Rutgers fans would have liked, it does appear the coach, a New Jersey native, is enjoying the fruits of his labor.
Will Schiano's past remain in Florida and his future in New Jersey? The answer may depend on Rutgers's willingness to further increase its investment in football.
John L. Smith Trophy
I had a terrific suggestion for the JLS Trophy from reader Sophandros, who nominates Southern Jaguars coach Pete Richardson for a play call during the Bayou Classic against Grambling Saturday. With just 10 seconds left in the first half, Richardson accepted a penalty, taking a field goal off the board and giving his team a first-and-goal from the Grambling 1-yard line. Despite being out of timeouts, Richardson ignored the quick pass and instead called for a QB sneak. The play was stuffed and the clock ran out, leaving Grambling with a 7-0 halftime lead. That Southern went on to win the game is inconsequential, Richardson's call is an awful one and could have cost his team.
Richardson's candidacy is strong, but this week's award goes to Arkansas coach Houston Nutt, for one awful play call and one awful series in the Razorbacks' loss to LSU Friday. If you haven't seen Arkansas play this year, do yourself a favor and tune into the SEC Championship this Saturday. The Hogs have the most unique and exciting offense in college football, and perhaps the best player in tailback/quarterback Darren McFadden. There's just one problem with Arkansas -- none of the three actual quarterbacks it has started this season can throw the ball. Arkansas was locked in a tight duel with LSU despite getting zero production from Casey Dick, who completed just three passes on the day. McFadden spent perhaps two dozens snaps at quarterback in what Arkansas calls the "Wildcat" formation, running a variety of quarterback draws, option plays, end-arounds, and even the occasional pass.
McFadden is a freak of nature. LSU had no answer for him or backfield mate Felix Jones. Arkansas averaged 7.6 yards per rush, and just 3.1 yards per pass attempt (a figure that includes McFadden's 2-for-2 passing day). Yet on one of the game's most critical snaps, Nutt put the contest in Dick's hands. Trailing 17-12 a minute into the fourth quarter, Arkansas had a fourth-and-3 at the LSU 26. McFadden lined up next to Dick in the shotgun formation, yet stayed in to block as Dick rolled out of the pocket to pass. He never got the ball off, getting sacked for a 15-yard loss that not only snuffed out the drive, but also gave LSU good field position.
After a wild exchange -- including 240 yards gained and three touchdowns in just over a minute of game play -- Arkansas had one final chance to win the game. Taking over at its own 27 with two minutes and no timeouts, Nutt still had time to run the ball, especially with a team averaging nearly eight yards per carry. Yet he went into desperation mode. The first down play was a deep ball to McFadden, who then came out of the game for two snaps to catch his breath. After two more incompletions, McFadden returned for one final incomplete pass on fourth down.
Nutt deserves a lot of credit for getting a team with some serious offensive limitations to 10 wins and the SEC title game, but he was guilty of out-thinking himself at his season's most critical moments. For that gaffe, he earns this week's JLS Trophy.
Rankings that may need some further explanation include:
- USC passes Michigan to no. 2. It's not that I'm so impressed with the win over Notre Dame, which is a seriously flawed team that will have two half-decent wins and two BCS at-large berths in two seasons. USC moves up because of the body of its work. I think the Pac-10 is stronger than most people believe, and I also can't ignore the Trojans' non-conference wins over Arkansas, Nebraska, and Notre Dame. If USC played Michigan on a neutral field this week, I'd lean toward picking USC. And anyone who dismisses USC because of its midseason struggles -- that also happens to be the period when Jarrett was out or not at full strength. Ask any Notre Dame fan what he brings to the USC offense.
- LSU takes a huge leap after beating a very good Arkansas team on the road. LSU will go to the Rose Bowl and play Michigan, and as a Michigan fan, the Tigers scare the daylights out of me. Yes, they were gashed by the Arkansas rushing attack, but who hasn't been?
- Notre Dame is the big loser, for obvious reasons. Notre Dame's wins over bad to decent teams kept it moving up as everyone else lost. But the Irish lost to the only two really good teams on their schedule by a combined 46 points. If anyone feels they deserve to be ranked higher, feel free to comment
Portions of this article appeared in Monday's New York Sun.