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Greg Schiano is off to the NFL. Is he taking Rutgers’ bid for relevance with him?

Matt Hinton
Dr. Saturday

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What's the old saying? If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Or, in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' case, if at first you whiff on a college coach from one coast, go to the opposite coast for another: The Bucs have reached a deal with Rutgers' Greg Schiano today to replace Raheem Morris in its top job, finally luring one of the nation's most sought-after college bosses out of his home state and plunging Rutgers football into an existential crisis.

First things first: While Schiano may not have Chip Kelly's record or trophy case, but as a potential NFL candidate, he makes exponentially more sense. For one thing, he has actual NFL inexperience (albeit briefly) as an assistant with the Chicago Bears from 1996-98. Secondly, his schemes at Rutgers are generically "pro style" — that is, unlike Kelly, he doesn't specialize in a certain type of scheme that may not translate to the pro game. It can't hurt, either, that Schiano also oversaw an alarming concentration of future NFL mainstays — Ed Reed, Phillip Buchanon, Dan Morgan, Damione Lewis, Nate Webster — as Miami's defensive coordinator in 1999 and 2000, or that he was reportedly endorsed by one Bill Belichick, whose son walked on at Rutgers last year, and who (I'm guessing) leaves tiny stamped imprints of all three Super Bowl rings beneath his signature on letters of recommendation.

Most importantly, the man knows how to take on a challenge: This is the guy who built a reliable winner at Rutgers. When Schiano was hired in December 2000, he inherited a traditional afterthought coming off one of the worst decades of any program in Division I. At that point, the Scarlet Knights had finished last or next-to-last in the Big East standings in eight of their first nine years in the conference, and dead last two years in a row. Eleven years later, Schiano has led them to six bowls in bowls in seven years since 2005 and produced as many draft picks (17) as Rutgers had produced in the previous 30 years combined, including Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice in 2008 and the first three first-rounders in school history (Kenny Britt, Anthony Davis and Devin McCourty) in 2009 and 2010.

But even wins and losses and a handful of star players can't quite encapsulate how thoroughly Schiano transformed the culture in Piscataway. Traditionally, Rutgers belongs to the class of academically oriented schools in the Northeast that disavow the corrupting influence of big-time football: Before Division I was split into "I-A" and "I-AA" classifications in 1978, its schedule consisted overwhelmingly of teams from the Ivy League and the kind of wannabe-Ivy schools that would go on to form the Patriot League — that is, second and third-rate programs that care so little about sports that most of them still don't offer athletic scholarships. Rutgers is the only one of that group that soldiered on as a I-A program after 1978, but it took another 25 years and an enormous leap of faith in the head coach for the university to throw its weight behind building a legitimate, competitive football team.

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In one sense, the dramatic increase in football spending over the last decade was a bet on Schiano, and in terms of wins and losses and putting the football team in the national consciousness, it paid off. The Knights' 9-0 start in 2006 — punctuated by a nationally televised, Thursday-night upset over undefeated Louisville that briefly lifted them to the highest poll ranking in school history — was probably the height of national awareness that Rutgers University exists.

In other ways, though, it's still miles from sustaining a competitive program at the BCS level. In December, the Newark Star-Ledger reported that the combination of a stadium expansion, escalating coaches' salaries and declining attendance had forced the athletic department to spend $64..2 million in student fees, tuition and state tax dollars to cover its budget. That was more than twice as high as the $26.9 million the athletic department required to balance the books in 2010, which USA Today calculated last summer as the second-largest subsidy in the nation behind only UNLV.

For the 2009-10 fiscal year, the same year the recession-wracked university froze professors' salaries, shrunk academic programs and jacked up tuition, housing and other fees, Bloomberg found that more than 40 percent of the athletic department budget came from student fees and the university general fund. And that was three years after budget concerns forced the department to nuke six "non-revenue" programs altogether.

Obviously, Schiano's exit leaves a lot more hanging in the balance than the fate of a recruiting class. After nearly a decade of trying to keep up with the Joneses, Rutgers has a sea of red ink and zero championships or BCS bowl appearances to show for it. In two years (possibly sooner), it will be the only charter member of the Big East in football left in the conference, which has been forced to expand to the far corners of the continent for the sake of an automatic BCS bowl bid that's about to fall by the wayside, anyway, along with the millions it brought into the athletic department on an annual basis. At this point, the university has to step back and ask itself: Can we really afford to be a big-time football program?

There are already plenty of people on campus and in the New Jersey Legislature who have been shouting "No!" to that question for years. The next hire will tell us a lot about whether the administration and athletic department agree.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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