It was only 10 games into his rookie season as a head coach when Chris Ash seemed to reach the point where he realized how difficult coaching Rutgers is, and the odds he was facing.
A 78-0 loss to Michigan five weeks earlier had been humbling, but not all that unexpected. But Ash’s face after a 49-0 loss at Michigan State, the worst Michigan State team this millennium, showed a man seemingly out of answers after the exam had just begun.
“Do I wish we were winning games right now?” Ash said that day. “Absolutely. But like I said when I got here, this wasn’t going to be easy.”
“There will be better days, I promise.”
Those days never arrived, which is why Rutgers athletic director Pat Hobbs did the right thing Sunday by firing Ash after a 1-3 start. Ash, who still is owed $8 million by the school because of the terms of his buyout, finished with a 7-33 record.
Now Hobbs’ next move should be one from one of his predecessor’s playbooks-hire Greg Schiano again.
Yes, Schiano hasn’t been a head coach since 2013, the second of two unsuccessful seasons with Tampa Bay. Plus, his reputation took somewhat of a hit when he was run out of the University of Tennessee in November 2017 without ever coaching a game (or having an introductory press conference) because of his connections to Penn State during the Gerry Sandusky era there.
But outside of that, his character as not been questioned, and if Hobbs and the Rutgers administration hire Schiano, they can be sure of at least one thing-he’ll never have a moment like the one Ash had in East Lansing.
That’s because Schiano has been through this at Rutgers. He became the head coach in 2001, following the disastrous five-year tenure of Terry Shea, who went 11-44.rr
So Schiano knows the landscape. Rutgers arguably is the toughest job in the Big Ten in football, and after the disastrous reign of Iowa-born-and-raised Ash, the Scarlet Knights need a Jersey guy who understands the territory and can recruit the area.
Schiano also understands the school itself, and already has good relationships with many of the boosters and donors whose money can be the lifeblood for a struggling program. Hobbs, according to a source, leaned heavily on one of those boosters in making the ill-fated hire of Ash in December 2015.
To some degree, Hobbs’ eventual mistake in hiring Ash was somewhat understandable. He had just been hired on the same day Ash’s predecessor, Kyle Flood, had been dismissed. And Hobbs’ only previous experience as an athletic director had been at Seton Hall, which doesn’t have football.
So at that time, Hobbs needed the advice of others.
After nearly four years of running the Rutgers athletic department, Hobbs knows why it is so difficult for the school to compete in the Big Ten in football. Cumulative 82-0 losses to Big Ten “rivals” Iowa and Michigan this month showed how Rutgers has been pushed around in the trenches, and simply doesn’t have the personnel on both the offensive and defensive lines to compete in a Power Five conference.
Schiano’s teams were known for their toughness, and he began the mantra “Keep Chopping” that Flood, his assistant and successor, carried on during his tenure. It would take time for Schiano to reverse this trend, but he has the cachet in both his home state of New Jersey and in south Florida (where he recruited successfully in the 2000s) to be able to do it eventually.
So really, it’s a fit for both sides. Schiano, still an icon in the minds of many Rutgers fans, needs his former employer as much as it needs him.
Also intriguing is the fact that Rutgers not only dismissed Ash, but also jettisoned offensive coordinator John McNulty, who was in his second tour of duty at the school in that position.
McNulty seemed like a potential candidate for interim head coach, but the fact that his offense continued to sputter for a second straight season likely negated those chances. Instead, Hobbs made an interesting choice, promoting tight ends coach Nunzio Campanile to take over as the interim. Campanile also will serve as offensive coordinator, nj.com reported.
What makes Campanile an interesting choice is that he, like Schiano, is a Jersey guy who understands the recruiting landscape in the state. Prior to coming to Rutgers last season, Campanile had been the head football coach at Bergen Catholic and the athletic director at Don Bosco Prep, two of the top football programs among private schools in northern New Jersey. Certainly those two have crossed paths many times, and if the eventual plan is to hire Schiano, it would create an interesting dynamic.
Consider that although Ash is gone, Rutgers goes on with its season. Not only on the field, but off it. That means recruiting. Campanile and his assistant coaches must continue to recruit, even while knowing they may not be there by December. But what could help that quest is the fact that Campanile, according to sources, has something both Flood and Ash lacked-the respect of the New Jersey high school coaching community.
With Campanile at least temporarily in charge, the program should have at least a little better chance of retaining the verbal commitments it already has for 2020, and of continuing to make whatever inroads with high school players that Campanile and the staff already have cultivated. Campanile’s ascension could prevent the upcoming recruiting cycle from being a complete washout for the Scarlet Knights.
Granted, this all is speculation. And certainly Campanile, like many interim coaches, wants to try to do such a good job that he gets considered for the permanent position. But if Rutgers indeed turns back the clock and goes with Schiano or somebody else, what Campanile does between now and then could help him secure a job with the next coach.
Rutgers still owes Ash a $7.5 million buyout for the remainder of his contract from 2020-22, plus the rest of his 2019 salary, but the school stated in a release the buyout will be paid “exclusively by department-generated funds.” As tough a financial hit as that will be, Hobbs certainly realized the alternative of more lost revenue from season-ticket sales, parking, concessions, etc. while the Ash regime continued wasn’t good financially either.
Schiano’s return would change all that in a way that the latest hot offensive or defensive coordinator, or even a young program-building head coach, would not. It would excite a fan base that has been mired in apathy during much of Ash’s tenure.
Sometimes the most obvious choice is the right one. And it is in this case.