When New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin angrily upbraided his Tampa Bay Buccaneers counterpart, Greg Schiano, after a controversial skirmish during a game-ending kneel-down play last Sunday, the two-time Super Bowl winner wasn't merely lecturing an NFL newcomer about an unwritten rule or fiercely protecting the health and safety of his seemingly defenseless players.
Whether Coughlin knew it – and I suspect he did – the Giants' coach was also standing up to a perceived bully who developed a dubious reputation in NFL circles during his 11 years as Rutgers' domineering head coach.
If you took a poll of league talent evaluators, no one would have a higher approval rating than Coughlin right now, because he essentially informed Schiano that the rookie's devil-may-care attitude won't cut it at football's highest level. This is a sensitive subject in scouting circles, because Schiano was almost universally viewed as unaccommodating, intimidating and downright disrespectful by NFL representatives who paid visits to Rutgers from 2001-11, and there were plenty of groans and eye-rolls when he accepted the Bucs job last January.
As one veteran NFL coach said of Schiano earlier this week, "It's his way or [expletive] you. He needs to back up a little bit, or he's going to have a very hard time in this league over the long haul."
In conversations with nearly a dozen NFL general managers, personnel executives, scouts and coaches familiar with Schiano's time at Rutgers, I detected an almost unprecedented degree of resentment and disdain for a man who has yet to coach his third professional game. They believe his decision to instruct his defenders to blow up the Giants' line and lunge at quarterback Eli Manning in a typically uncontested scenario was indicative of the unapologetic arrogance that made Rutgers a notoriously dreaded stop on most scouts' itineraries during his tenure. In the words of one NFC personnel executive, "It was pure misery."
If Joe Paterno's restrictive policies turned Penn State into the most infamous college "visit," checking out prospective pro players on the Rutgers campus was considered an even less enjoyable experience.
"Penn State was off limits for all but two days a year, but they didn't make you feel as unwelcome," says one AFC team's top personnel executive. "At Rutgers, it was a really unpleasant day. You were made to feel like an outsider, like you weren't welcome. And everyone was scared to talk to you.
"[Schiano] tried so hard to be a hard ass and went out of his way to be rude. When you'd pass him in the hallway, you might say, 'Good morning,' and he'd look at you like you're a [expletive] idiot. A guy like him doesn't realize that probably half of us played the game at a really high level – it's completely condescending. He would go out of his way to make you feel as uncomfortable as he could."
The feelings of isolation weren't merely figurative: Schiano required visiting talent evaluators to spend part of the practice sessions sequestered in a small, sunken, dugout-like area far away from the non-visible field.
"They made you report to practice at a certain time – when it starts – but then they stuck you 200 yards away from the field in an [enclosed] alleyway," one NFC team's player personnel director recalled. "This is Jersey; it could be raining, sleeting, whatever. The field's elevated, so this was down the steps, where you couldn't see, and there's a security guard holding you there 'till you get the OK to come out and watch practice. Sometimes you stood for 45 minutes and only got to watch for 10 minutes. It varied. If you tried to talk to anyone on the staff, [Schiano] gave you the stare-down. I think it was just a lack of respect to NFL personnel."
Said the AFC executive: "There's a box, a little bitty box, way away from the field. All the scouts had to stand in that box like a bunch of little kids. You couldn't step out; you literally had to stand in it. My feeling is that given who was chosen to coach the Bucs, all Tampa scouts should have to stand in a box at every college in America."
Rest assured there are many others who share that sentiment. Several years ago, an NFL personnel executive – who has since risen to the ranks of general manager – walked up to greet a pair of Schiano's Rutgers assistants, who had paid a scheduled visit to one of his team's training camp practices. As one witness recalled, the personnel executive told the Rutgers coaches, "Welcome. There's a box over there. You can go stand in it." The executive pointed to an area well removed from the field and glared at the stunned coaches. A few awkward seconds passed before the executive said, without offering much of a smile, "I'm just [messing] with you."
Most people in the scouting community aren't put off by Schiano simply because of personal grudges, or because they believe he made a tough job even more difficult. They also view him as some sort of hypocrite for taking a job in a league whose interests he treated with such obvious disdain for so long.
Since major college football serves as what amounts to a free farm system for the NFL, it's tempting to view visiting talent evaluators as entitled interlopers whose employers benefit from such an arrangement. Yet there are obvious advantages for college coaches, too: The presence of scouts is viewed favorably by players with NFL aspirations, and when a coach and/or program consistently send players to the league, it can be used as a persuasive recruiting tool.
Consider that Alabama coach Nick Saban, a notorious authoritarian, is nonetheless considered one of the most obliging hosts by NFL talent evaluators, which may play a role in the Crimson Tide's prodigious pipeline of players landing on pro rosters.
Being friendly, or at least civil, to visiting talent evaluators also is good business: Many area scouts ultimately ascend to positions with the power to hire coaches, or at least to influence the hiring process. I've spoken to more than one general manager who has told me he would never choose to work with someone who had once treated NFL people as rudely as Schiano did at Rutgers. It's no wonder that when the Bucs chose Schiano to replace Raheem Morris, many NFL personnel men were stunned.
One thing working in Schiano's favor was his friendship with New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, whose son Steven played for him as Rutgers' long-snapper in 2011. According to reports, Belichick's recommendation to the Glazer family, owners of the Buccaneers, may have been a factor in Schiano's hiring.
Belichick's high regard for Schiano is curious given what was possibly the coach's most divisive moment at Rutgers, an incident that was related several years ago by author and Washington Post columnist John Feinstein. According to Feinstein, Schiano, during his first visit to Navy with the Scarlet Knights, ignored a pregame itinerary that called for both teams to clear the field a few minutes early so that the Brigade of Midshipmen could perform their customary march. Schiano, Feinstein wrote, defiantly kept his team on the field as the Midshipmen appeared, and later falsely claimed not to have been aware of the tradition. Belichick's father, Steve, was a longtime assistant coach and scout at the Naval Academy.
If Schiano's approach is patterned after that of Belichick, a control freak who makes a point of restricting the flow of information and doesn't seem to care about how he is perceived by outsiders, the front-office officials to whom I spoke believe there is a key distinction he should consider. In the AFC personnel executive's words, "To me there is a respect level and a pecking order. When you're Bill Belichick, you can get away with a lot more than when you're a rookie head coach and haven't earned the right to do things. There is a rite of passage."
The perception that Schiano presumptuously disregarded his status as an NFL newbie by ordering his defenders to go after the kneeling Manning last Sunday – and stood by his insolence in postgame comments to reporters – caused personnel executives around the league to rail against his behavior in private contexts. That Coughlin felt compelled to confront Schiano publicly carried even more weight.
"He pissed off The Godfather," said one front-office executive for an NFC team. "Here's Tom Coughlin, one of the most respected men in this league, telling him he's out of line, wondering why his [$97-million] quarterback was put in harm's way. You have to understand that the NFL really is a brotherhood – these guys are in the same union, and some of them socialize together, and some end up as teammates down the road.
"He's been perceived as a bully in the NCAA, and he's still trying to bully. This league has little patience with that. It won't fly. And even before this, the NFL's scrutinizing eyes were already upon him."
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Schiano may not care, but rightly or wrongly, a whole lot of experienced NFL talent evaluators have already stereotyped him as a self-centered autocrat who doesn't respect the game. You might say that they've put him in a box.
If he wants to escape it, now would be a great time to start.
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