Greg Schiano leaves big shoes to fill

Hoisting trophies after bowl wins became a familiar sight during the Greg Schiano era at Rutgers. AP Photo/Julio Cortez

You can say all you want about the glaring holes on his résumé:

Greg Schiano never won a Big East title.

Greg Schiano never beat West Virginia.

Greg Schiano never did much more than break even in 11 seasons as head coach at Rutgers.

I say this: Schiano rescued Rutgers football. He turned a longtime doormat into much more than just a respectable program. He turned the Scarlet Knights into winners, all while graduating his players and turning out more than his share of NFL prospects.

For that, he should be forever embraced in New Jersey.

Perspective is hard to have in sports. The demands on coaches and players are exponentially higher today than they were 10 years ago, even at a place that endured as much losing as Rutgers did before Schiano arrived in 2001. Coaches are no longer given time to build, the way Schiano was. They are given time to deliver championships, with a ticking clock set to a handful of years.

Part of what makes what Schiano did all the more impressive is that he lasted so long without delivering a title. That points directly to the state of the program when he took over as a hot-shot defensive coordinator from the University of Miami. Rutgers had not had a winning season since 1992. Rutgers had not played in a bowl game since 1978.

Slowly but surely, Schiano went to work. Ahem. He chopped wood. He started winning games. It took five hard, long seasons for the results to show.

In his last seven seasons with the program, Rutgers went 56-33 with six winning seasons and a 5-1 bowl record. The only losing season was 2010, when the Scarlet Knights had to endure a devastating injury to Eric LeGrand that not only rocked every player on the roster, it rocked Schiano to the core.

That 4-8 campaign led to renewed questions about whether Schiano was the right man to continue to lead Rutgers into the future. Some Scarlet Knights fans were antsy because they had seen progress, but not enough progress. Where were the rings? Where were the championships in the most winnable conference among the six automatic qualifiers?

You see, this is what Schiano did. He won so much, winning seasons were no longer good enough.

Not even this past season. Rutgers came oh-so-close to getting that coveted title in 2011. A turnaround campaign had the Scarlet Knights playing for a share of the conference title on the final week of the regular season. All they needed was a win over UConn, a team Rutgers had an advantage over in nearly every category on paper.

But Rutgers put forth one of the most dispiriting efforts under Schiano, inexplicably losing 40-22. It was the best shot for a league title since 2006, and Rutgers looked as if it forgot how to actually play football.

Still, a rebound victory over Iowa State left Rutgers with the longest bowl winning streak in the nation (five) and with expectations to compete for a Big East title in 2012. Several sites have Rutgers in their way-too-early preseason Top 25.

Nearly everybody on a top-notch defense returns. Those who follow Rutgers believe this is the very best team the program has fielded since the Ray Rice days of 2006. Schiano talked at length earlier this month about the possibilities for this upcoming year.

"I’m encouraged by the direction the program’s headed, and I’m encouraged by the people in the program," Schiano said. "The coaching staff and players and support personnel. It takes a long time to build that kind of human capital in a place and I’m excited about it.”

He had to be excited about the impressive recruiting class coming together as well.

But an opportunity he probably thought might never open up presented itself. Schiano decided to jump at the challenge of coaching in the NFL after pouring 11 seasons of himself into his Rutgers job. The timing of his departure is terrible, no question about it. He is letting down a lot of young men, and a lot of fans.

That is a hazard that comes with coaching.

Now, though, we may get some answers about whether another coach can elevate this program further than Schiano did. The Rutgers athletic department is in dire financial straits, so the options for bringing in a dazzling head coach less than a week before signing day might be limited.

Whoever comes in must not only save what is shaping up to be an excellent recruiting class, he must also win immediately.

Scratch that.

He must win championships immediately.

That is the standard now.