'We belong in the B1G': Greg Schiano's emphasis on culture is creating new expectations at Rutgers
Greg Schiano stood at the podium inside Lucas Oil Stadium during B1G Media Days with a smile on his face and confidence in his voice. In his opening remarks, he reflected back on a conversation he had nearly 20 years ago, just two seasons into his first stint as the head coach at Rutgers.
Following a local radio interview, Schiano found himself in a room with one of the hosts. That’s when he blurted out his expectations for Rutgers.
“I go back to 2002. I was sitting in a small meeting room after a radio show, a weekly radio show, and I turned to one of the hosts and said, ‘You know what, we belong in the B1G,'” Schiano recalled. “And it was a long journey to get to the B1G and it occurred after I had left to go to Tampa Bay. To be back here as a member of the B1G at Rutgers, it’s a dream come true. It’s something that I worked very hard to accomplish, didn’t get it done, but eventually others got it done and I’m very, very fortunate to be here.”
You’ve heard the jokes. I’ve heard the jokes. Hell, Schiano himself has probably heard the jokes. The delivery varies, but the punchline is always the same: Rutgers doesn’t belong in the B1G.
Before Schiano returned to Piscataway for his second stint, it was hard to argue the Scarlet Knights weren’t in over their heads. They chalked up just seven conference victories in their first six years in the league and finished a season without a single win over a B1G opponent three times.
Averaging one league victory per season for that amount of time is…not good.
Attending his first media days (last year’s was canceled because of the pandemic), Schiano stood firm in his message: Rutgers is at home in the B1G. Its role is not to serve as the conference’s punching bag any longer, either.
“You know what, we belong in this league and, as I told (our players), so do you guys,” Schiano said. “And it’s just going to become more and more evident each and every year.”
Schiano wasted no time in building a team that was competitive in the B1G. Despite no spring practice and a hectic fall camp last season, Rutgers finished with a 3-6 record against a conference-only schedule. The Scarlet Knights registered as many wins in Schiano’s first season back as they did in four years under Chris Ash.
Rutgers ended a 21-game B1G losing streak with a 38-27 victory over Michigan State in the 2020 opener. Three of the six losses (Illinois, Michigan and Nebraska) were all one-possession contests.
For the first time since 2014, its inaugural season in the conference, Rutgers looked like a team capable of competing in the B1G. It was a noticeable difference from the previous five seasons.
In a matter of months, most of those spent getting to know his players virtually, Schiano won over the locker room. It transformed Rutgers into a formidable foe after spending so many years as every opponent’s guaranteed victory.
“Our team bought into our culture. That was my No. 1 criteria. If we were going to have what we would label a success — wasn’t necessarily tied to the result right away — but what it was tied to is did the culture get embedded in the program? Did our players own it? They clearly have,” Schiano said. “Then certainly winning some games after not having won very many built their confidence and they started to believe.”
The drastic improvement under Schiano wasn’t just noticed in Piscataway.
Coaches across the B1G are acknowledging the tremendous amount of progress Rutgers has made in such a short period of time. As early as Week 1, some realized the Scarlet Knights were going to start becoming a tough out.
“That was one of those ‘Wow!’ games,” Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald told NJ.com regarding Rutgers’ victory over Michigan State to start the 2020 season. “Especially as it early as it was.”
Jim Harbaugh had a first-hand experience with a new-and-improved Rutgers squad, one that nearly resulted in an upset loss for Michigan. Thanks to a late rally, the Wolverines escaped New Jersey with a 48-42 overtime victory.
“Much improved, much improved,” Harbaugh said. “We were in a game with them last year that was about as evenly played as you can play it. He’s doing a heck of a good job.”
Rutgers has taken that first big step. It’s elevated its level play drastically and was competitive all throughout the 2020 season. But Schiano didn’t return to Piscataway to be satisfied with mediocrity.
In his introductory press conference in December 2019, Schiano laid out his plans for the program. It wasn’t just to catch up to teams like Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and the other powers in the B1G. He wants to pass them.
Those comments were twisted into more jokes by anyone who had watched Rutgers on the field the past five seasons. But after the quick surge seen from the Scarlet Knights last fall, the laughter has subsided. Now, more than the previous seven years in the league, the B1G is paying attention to the program in Piscataway.
Schiano acknowledges that Rutgers’ ultimate goal of ascending to the top of the B1G East probably isn’t going to be realized in 2021. It’s probably not going to happen in 2022, either. But he points to that “CHOP” mantra and believes that, one day, the Scarlet Knights will be in the same conversation as the Buckeyes, Nittany Lions and Wolverines.
“If we can continue to build the culture, that’s the most important thing to me. I truly believe that culture drives the behavior,” Schiano said. “As long as we have the right culture and the number of people grows that live by that, our behaviors will become more and more consistent at the elite level and eventually that’ll get us where we need to go.
“I know if we stick to that, we’re going to get there.”