Rutgers doesn't join the Big Ten until July 2014, but the Scarlet Knights can't wait to get started as a league member. Unlike Maryland, there was no hesitancy among fans or administrators to join the conference, and the school had billboards celebrating its Big Ten membership ready to go hours before it became official.
I recently caught up with Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti to ask about his program's readiness for the move. Pernetti, who played for the Scarlet Knights and spent time as a television executive, says his fans are in "a frenzy" about leaving the Big East for the Big Ten.
What does joining the Big Ten do for your football program?
Tim Pernetti: I think it does a lot of different things, all positive things. We've already started to feel the positive effects of this in recruiting, in the visibility of the program. I think we're an excellent fit in the Big Ten even from a style standpoint, the way you see football played in the league. But I also think that it's going to give us the ability to be a really good league member off the bat, to be able to help deliver -- as Jim [Delany] said -- that bridge to the East Coast, to be able to help build the brand in the region. I've always felt strongly that this market, where we sit, is a totally unclaimed market when it comes to college sports. And it's got a real opportunity for someone who approaches it strategically the right way. There's a lot of eyeballs and a lot of revenue and a lot of ad and sponsorship dollars and opportunity in the market.
There are a lot of Big Ten alumni in the New York/New Jersey area. How much have you heard from them since this move became official?
TP: We've heard from a lot of those people. Look, it's hard to target this stuff, but we've gotten thousands of deposits from people who have never had season tickets here before, and I'd venture to guess that some of those people are probably Big Ten fans from other schools.
I've been to your campus and know your facilities are very good. What types of infrastructural things do you think you need to improve to be ready for the Big Ten in 2014?
TP: I think in a lot of ways, we're priced to move and ready to go. From a football standpoint, we've done an excellent job of creating some real state-of-the-art facilities. We expanded our stadium three years ago to 53,000, and we're in very good shape there. Obviously, there are always things you want to get done.
Our No. 1 priority, and it really was a priority prior to the Big Ten coming and remains so, is the RAC, the Rutgers Athletic Center where we primarily play basketball. It's over 30 years old and is in need of a massive overhaul, which will include construction of new practice facilities, strength and conditioning, treatment and training, academic support, a training table, etc. And a renovation of the game arena, centered around technology. It's a $30 million project that we've been fundraising for. We're a little more than a third of the way there. This building houses 19 of our 24 sports, so that one is really, really important. … But the ramp-up period will give us the ability to get some of these things done in advance so we're ready to go when we enter the league.
The football team had a strong year in 2012. How ready do you think you will be to compete for, say, a league or division title right away?
TP: I think that we will definitely be prepared to enter the league and compete right away. And I think that recruiting is only going to get better in the Big Ten. You look at the rosters for football, and there are a lot of student-athletes at different Big Ten schools that are from New Jersey. I think the ability to compete in the Big Ten and compete at the highest level and stay in New Jersey is going to be a very attractive opportunity for a lot of recruits.
We feel like this program has been built by a lot of people over an extended period of time, and we feel like we're going to be ready as a football program to compete right away. That's the most exciting part of it. The best part is also stability. I don't have to deal any more with questions about what's going to happen with the conference. "Where is Rutgers going to end up?" And I said for several years, that with all our assets we were going to end up in a good place, and I'm sure people wondered what I was thinking. But that's what I really believed, and that's where we are. And now we can get away from that chaos and actually deal with building and moving forward.
You mentioned recruiting. A lot of Big Ten schools are excited to gain a foothold in the New Jersey area. Do you worry about more competition for prospects?
TP: I think the competition is the best part of what we do. If you worry about competition, you shouldn't be doing this at all. I said on the day when we announced the relationship with the Big Ten, I think our obligation as a new member is not only to bring value and introduce the Big Ten into this region as it undergoes growth and Eastern orientation, but I think it's equally as important to embrace the competition. I'm sure, that as we went through the conversations about the Big Ten, that a lot of their coaches were salivating about the opportunity to have more of a presence recruiting in this area, because we have produced in the state of New Jersey so many great student-athletes at the highest levels of multiple sports.
But we have kept the best players at home more and more in the past few years. You know, Anthony Davis, who will be playing in the Super Bowl in a few weeks, we beat Ohio State for him. Then there's Savon Huggins and Darius Hamilton. We've been competing with the Big Ten. I think the misperception is that you only compete within your league with recruiting, but we've recruited with national programs, including every Big Ten school, Notre Dame, you go down the list. That's kind of the neighborhood we've been playing in, and we intend to stay there.
Penn State makes a natural rival right away, and Maryland is a potential one. What about other rivalries in the league and how they might develop?
TP: Rivalries, they've got to grow organically. I think sometimes fans and the media, with all due respect, they kind of push the rivalries. But if they don't grow organically, its tough to sort of make them happen because you want to make them happen. When I played at Rutgers, Penn State was always a rival. It was a great game. We used to go there every year and play them and go back and forth. It was always something our fans looked forward to and it was always circled on our schedule. And I think that's going to be great to have back on our docket on an annual basis, because our fans are accustomed to it. So that will be terrific. It will probably already be the No. 1 rivalry for us right now, before we even play a game in the league. That's the way our fans look at it, that Penn State is always our top rival.
We've had some great competition against Maryland. That's been a little more sporadic on our schedule, but that will be one that's excellent for us. The hardest part about where we've been in the Big East is, we never really had that one [rivalry] that jumped off the page for you. I think right away, Penn State has and will continue to, and I think the Maryland thing has a real opportunity for us. And from there, whatever evolves, evolves, and I think that's based on a lot of good, close games over a period of years.
Will your fans need time to get used to the traditions of the Big Ten?
TP: Our fan base is ready to go. I don't think they're looking for any kind of getting-to-know-you period. They kind of know these programs from afar, but they're excited about competing in this league and all the great assets the Big Ten brings -- the stability, certainly the financial resources, all the academic collaborations. Our fans totally get it. And I don't think there are any fans in the country who have spent more time on conference expansion than Rutgers fans. This is a great thing to be able to deliver for them, but I don't think there will be a whole lot of learning curve. We'll introduce the league to our traditions and we'll learn theirs and away we go.
How involved will you be with decisions on division alignment, scheduling and those sorts of issues?
TP: The neat thing about the new affiliation with the Big Ten is that almost instantly, within a week after the announcement, we started to receive schedules of future meeting, invites to future meetings, invites to conference calls. Our coaches have been on conference calls, our administrators have been on calls. I've been included on the last two AD calls. And it's not to just sit in the background and listen. Jim does a terrific job of framing the issue and literally goes down the line and gets input from every single school. I've really enjoyed my interactions thus far with this group. It's a really hard-working, smart, strategic-thinking group. We've got a lot of big things ahead of us, but so far so good, and we have been included on everything. ... We don't have a vote [until 2014] but we've been given an opportunity to provide as much input as anybody else.
The prospect of Michigan, Ohio State, etc., coming to your stadium in the near future, how exciting is that?
TP: Oh, it's great. Even from my seat. I'm so excited about those games, mainly because it's going to give us an opportunity to deliver a lot of great settings and a lot of great matchups for all of our fans. We had Penn State scheduled already for 2014, and from the day we announced that the buzz has just been through the roof about Penn State coming to campus. Now the prospect of that happening every other year, and the prospect of a lot of the Big Ten institutions coming every other year, it's got our fans in just a frenzy. So we're pretty pumped up about it.
Finally, there's been a lot of talk about the New York City market. Some see it as the Holy Grail. Others say that's overrated because it is a pro sports town. With your TV background, what are your thoughts on what the Big Ten can gain by getting into that market?
TP: Well, I think the market is ripe for the taking. And while you do have a lot of distractions in the market with professional teams, we have proven especially as we have had more and more success in football -- you know there are a lot of claims about who is the college team in New York -- I just point people to the ratings over the last several years. Because they speak for themselves. The viewership that Rutgers has been able to deliver in the market, I think it's indicative that there's a college football audience that's passionate and loves their college football in this market.
For years, when I worked in programming at ABC, I used to sit there and decide which games we were going to put on in which region. And there was never a great, ironclad blueprint for New York City. So we always just used to put the Big Ten on in New York, because it had the biggest following in the market, and it always delivered really solid numbers. So I think the market is definitely there for the taking. It's just that we have to do a really good job as a conference of educating people, building the brand, creating events, and then I think we'll have the ability to control it.