Where’s Olivia Pope when you need her? Washington D.C.’s top fixers would have a hard time repairing the damage that has been done to the Rutgers brand over the last 13 months.
It started with a messy transition in basketball where the school fired Mike Rice after videos surfaced showing him shoving, grabbing and throwing balls at players, and then failed to fully vet new coach Eddie Jordan.
It continued recently when new athletic director Julie Hermann declared that it "would be great" if the state's largest newspaper, The Star-Ledger, went ahead and died. The school then took another major PR dagger over the weekend when it rescinded a commencement speaker offer to Eric LeGrand, the former Rutgers’ football player who was paralyzed during a game in 2010. (LeGrand will speak at the school).
Outside of a disappointing 6-7 season in 2013, the Rutgers football program has not been a part of any of the negatives that have touched the university over the last year. But many in the New Jersey high school community agree the university’s issues have impacted the football program’s success on the recruiting trail.
“I think the football program has been unfortunately painted with the same brush so to speak,” Erial (N.J.) Timber Creek coach Rob Hinson said. “All the football recruits see is all the negative stuff going on with the school. I think it definitely has hurt them with all the things that are going on. Coach [Kyle] Flood and those guys have had to face the brunt of something that was everybody else's mess. It’s made it awfully difficult for them on the recruiting trail.”
Hinson is right. The Class of 2015 has gotten off to a disastrous start in-state for the Scarlet Knights. After ESPN 300 quarterback Brandon Wimbush committed to Penn State on Tuesday, it means Rutgers likely won't land any of the top four players in New Jersey. The only top-10 player in the state to commit to Rutgers at this point is three-star quarterback Michael Dare, while Penn State has already landed four in the top 10.
The 2014 class wasn’t much better as Rutgers signed only one of the top 15 players in the state and future Big Ten rivals Michigan, Northwestern, Michigan State, Maryland, Ohio State and Penn State raided New Jersey for talent. Rutgers’ 2014 class also made national headlines when it lost 12 decommitments during the final push to signing day.
"I know Rutgers is a really special place, because I graduated from Rutgers, my wife graduated from there, my brother-in-law graduated from there and my father-in-law was a three-sport letter winner there," Hinson said. "But all the stuff that's been floating around about Rutgers has made a lot of recruits sour on them. It has nothing to do with football, it's just recruits hearing folks asking all the time 'What's going on up at Rutgers.' For one reason or another, they’ve not been able to fix some of the PR issues that they’ve faced and it’s really hurt them with recruits."
Penn State was faced with similar challenges, albeit on a much grander scale after the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal that rocked college football in 2011. When Bill O’Brien was hired he had an impossible job of putting together a recruiting class in the wake of NCAA sanctions.
But the players, the university and the community rallied behind the program, helping O’Brien land a serviceable 2011 class and even better 2012 and 2013 classes. It set the table for James Franklin, who was hired in January. Penn State finished with a top-25 class in 2014 and the 2015 class ranks as the nation’s fourth best and got stronger Tuesday with the additional of Wimbush and Sterling Jenkins, the top-ranked prospect in Pennsylvania.
Instead of trending downward, the Nittany Lions are now one of the hottest recruiting programs in the country, and many observers believe they’ve been able to rebound from scandal better than Rutgers because of that support from the community and fan base.
“When you get rocked like they got rocked, but you're able to still manage a commitment from the university, and more importantly from the fan base, the students and the community, it certainly can change how things are viewed by recruits,” Piscataway (N.J.) High coach Dan Higgins said.
“When you can fill the stadium each week it sends a big signal to everybody. You can't tear that place down, it doesn't matter what happens. The place is still special, and I felt it myself when I was there for the Wisconsin game. It was chilling to be there and understand that it's a lot bigger than just a scandal or a football team. That helped them survive with dignity and class, and there's no question that has impacted the athletes that have had Penn State on the mind the last few classes.”
Juwan Johnson, one of the Nittany Lions’ top commits in New Jersey and the No. 3 prospect in the state, agrees with Higgins. He said prospects all over New Jersey are aware of what’s happened at Rutgers because of the nonstop media coverage and he believes the way Penn State handled things has made it easier to buy into future success.
“I wasn’t bothered by the Penn State scandal because I knew they had rebounded from it really well from it and the school had more to offer me than Rutgers and other schools,” said Johnson, who picked the Nittany Lions over offers from Alabama, Boston College, Georgia Tech and Michigan State, among others. “I just don’t think Rutgers can compete with Penn State now with all that’s going on.”
Hinson, Higgins and a number of other high school coaches in New Jersey believe Rutgers’ transition to the Big Ten will eventually pay off on the recruiting trail. There are still other quality 2015 in-state recruits on the board like linebacker Manny Bowen, athlete Daiquan Kelly, safety Ronnie James, tight end Jake Pickard and others who list Rutgers among their favorites, plus all of the coaches were unanimous in support of Flood and his staff.
“He’s a very personable guy that can relate to coaches in New Jersey,” Higgins said. “He’s a former offensive line coach that worked his way up the ladder through hard work. Everybody here respects that, and I know there are a lot of people hoping he can fix things, push past all the other stuff that’s hurting the university and start keeping New Jersey kids at home.”