Greg Schiano’s eyes swiftly glanced all around the room, his focus intense, the volume in his voice rising.
There were school officials and boosters, former players, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and more than 60 media members in the Rutgers football team room, but Schiano wasn’t just talking to them. He was talking to the entire state. He was talking to his current players, high school coaches and future recruits, to everyone who cares about Rutgers football.
“You can’t say any more that Rutgers is not all-in,” the school’s old and now-new football coach said sternly. “Rutgers is all-in. Now it’s our turn.”
The 53-year-old Schiano kept going, as if he were delivering a pregame speech. He acknowledged the boulder-sized task ahead in the rugged Big Ten East, which athletic director Pat Hobbs described as climbing Mount Everest. He underlined the need for everyone in the state to join as one in the difficult journey, as they had in his first go-around, when Rutgers climbed all the way to No. 7 in the country in 2006. He spoke of years-down-the-road goals, of winning a national championship, of building a program that would thrive after his departure. But most of all, he spoke to the people he hopes will help develop this program with him.
“We need [your support] right now,” the Wyckoff, N.J., native said. “Not the beginning of the season. We need it right now.”
After eight years away, first as head coach of the NFL’s Buccaneers, then as an assistant coach at Ohio State under Urban Meyer, Schiano is back home in Piscataway, where he led the Scarlet Knights to six bowl games in his final seven seasons, where he coached 83 players who signed NFL contracts, produced 26 draft picks and went 68-67 over 11 seasons.
He returns with an eight-year, $32 million contract and a $7.7 million budget for hiring assistants, nearly triple the previous budget. It will increase by 3 percent annually. As part of the contract, Schiano will be able to use private air transportation for recruiting and there’s an agreement that a new indoor practice facility and football operations center will be built, provided Schiano and Hobbs can raise 50 percent of the projected $150 million cost through private donations.
“I must say, I can’t remember more excitement in a press room,” Rutgers president Robert L. Barchi said.
A lot has changed since Schiano left the Garden State. Rutgers is now a Big Ten program, a reeling one that has nine overall wins in the past four years, an all-time record in the powerhouse conference of 7-45 and last reached a bowl game in 2014. The Scarlet Knights face the likes of Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State every year. But now Schiano, the one man who has been able to make this program relevant, is back.
His hiring nearly didn’t happen. Once Chris Ash was fired in September, five games into his fourth season, it was clear Schiano was the fans’ and boosters’ choice. Signs in favor of his return were frequently seen on game days. But talks between the two sides broke off Nov. 24, amid questions about his contract demands. Schiano admitted he wasn’t sure if it was going to happen then, feeling “very disappointed.”
There were reports he wasn’t Hobbs’ choice. There was outrage at the administration and calls for Hobbs’ job. Eventually, the two sides returned to the negotiating table, and Saturday night shortly before midnight, they struck a deal. It was four years to the day after Hobbs became the Rutgers athletic director.
“So, coach, you and I share a work anniversary,” Hobbs told him. “We’ll have to figure out what to get each other every year. Maybe we’ll just go to dinner and we’ll talk about the regular season, and in the not-too-distant future, I think we’ll be sitting there talking about our bowl possibilities.”
“Watch out for us together,” Schiano said. “We are going to make this thing special.”