I don’t normally venture into the realm of college football around these here parts. It’s not that I’m not a fan of the NCAA game – I am – it’s just that, well, I don’t really know what the heck I’m talking about. Now obviously, that’s never stopped me before when it comes to other sports, but at least I know enough about baseball, pro football and basketball to give the allusion that I have a clue (i.e., I know several of the players’ names). But college football is so all-encompassing that I can never seem to catch up. There are a million teams, from thousands of conferences, and all the games are played on Saturdays, when I’m usually partaking in the required husband-related duties that will free me up for a full Sunday of pro football. Not to mention – and I’m not ashamed to admit this – I don’t understand the BCS. It’s difficult to be a fan of a sport when you don’t know the rules, and when somebody wins a championship, you’re not exactly sure why. Plus, sometimes you’re not even sure which game was the championship. (See: 2003.)
To boot, I’ve never been a fan of a particular team. Being a die-hard fan of a college football team, I would imagine, gives one great insight into the sport itself. A fan of a team would know at least one conference inside-and-out, and would have strong, albeit possibly biased opinions. (That’s the one thing, by the way, that drives me crazy about college football – I don’t watch enough games to forge my own opinions. I have to listen to the so-called experts tell me what’s going on. Auburn is better than LSU? Steve Slaton is a Heisman candidate? Ummm..okay! Whatever you guys say. But, as we all know, experts are morons, with the possible exception of Kirk Herbstreit, who seems to kind of know what he’s doing. But I don’t even trust him.) I guess there are two main reasons why I never aligned with a team. For starters, I did not attend a college with a big-time football program. It wasn’t even really a small-time program, either. It was sort of a no-time football program. We did not have a football team. (My high school also didn’t have a football team, but swimming was huge, so it sort of evened out.) The big sport at my college was lacrosse, which is kind of like football, except without all the fun. (I mean, who needs Ohio State versus Michigan when you have Johns Hopkins versus Loyola?) The second reason I never became a fan of a college football team may seem strange, considering that I grew up right next door to one. Of course, that team was Rutgers, which goes a long way towards explaining why I was never swept up in the hoopla of hometown college football.
Let me first explain that I was not not a fan of Rutgers because they were traditionally horrible. That did not weigh into my decision in any way. In fact, there was no conscious decision. Rutgers was always kind of just…there. Sure, I attended a game or two each season, but I certainly never felt any kind of affinity for them. There was no aura about Rutgers, never an irresistible urge to fall in love with the hometown team. At least, not for me. They never seemed to capture the imagination of a young, impressionable sports fan. Maybe it was the utter lack of tradition. Maybe it was the players. (Ray Lucas is our Tony Rice.) And, although it wasn’t that they were just bad, maybe it was the fact that they were so comically inept. Maybe it was the fact that I never forgave the school for putting me on the waiting list when I was applying for colleges. (Bastards.) I don’t know. Whatever the case, I always wished the program the best, but never lived and died with every passing Saturday.
Lord knows I’m not the only one who has felt this way. The knock on Rutgers football has always been, how could a State University – especially within a state that breeds as many talented football players as New Jersey – be treated with such indifference within its actual quarters? This has always been the riddle. It’s even stranger for me personally. My entire family grew up in New Brunswick, and many of my family members attended Rutgers, played sports at Rutgers, and remain die-hard fans of the football program. Yet, this allegiance has never transferred over. In areas like the Deep South, you are born into a college football program, even if you live two hours from campus, and regardless of whether or not you attend that school. I grew up 10 minutes from the Rutgers campus, and each 2-9 season passed with nary a shrug of the shoulders.
Let’s put it this way - when I was in high school and college, my summer job was working in the mailroom at my uncle’s law firm in downtown New Brunswick. It was usually the case that several Rutgers’ football players would intern there in the summers as well. Their membership in the fraternity of Rutgers football afforded them little more than a passing glance. Imagine, however, getting in the elevator everyday at work and seeing Brady Quinn. Imagine bumping into Reggie Bush at the copy machine. Not quite the same affect for the Scarlet Knights.
The reason I mention all of this is because, as the Rutgers football team enjoys its most successful season in decades, I want to reiterate that I am not hopping on any bandwagons. But that doesn’t mean I’m not happy for them, and for all the people I know who have stuck with them along the way. I have to admit, I was skeptical as to the Greg Schiano turnaround plan dating back to the beginning of last season, when Rutgers ceremoniously blew its opening game to Illinois in vintage Rutgers fashion. (On second thought, “vintage Rutgers fashion” would have been losing 42-3, not blowing a big lead late. So…scratch that.) Since then it’s been a whole new football team. They even went to a bowl game last year, losing a shootout with Arizona State, 45-40. Before that game, the mere mention of Rutgers in a bowl game would have elicited more laughter than a Friday night at the Stress Factory, another New Brunswick institution. This year, the Scarlet Knights are undefeated at 8-0, and ranked No. 14 in the entire nation. This Thursday, they’ll be facing another undefeated team and Big East foe Louisville, the No. 4 ranked team in the country. It’s the biggest Rutgers’ football game since, pretty much…ever.
So, good for them.
From what I’ve observed so far this season (I actually have caught almost every RU game), Rutgers may not be as good as their record would indicate. They’ve played a fairly weak schedule, and their biggest win of the year so far was at Pitt, a team coached by the immortal Dave Wannstedt. Quarterback Mike Teel is good for at least a couple of turnovers a game, and has yet to prove he can carry the team on his shoulders. Then again, he hasn’t had to. This Rutgers team is led by the dominance of Ray Rice, a suffocating defense, the versatility of Brian Leonard, and the inspiring confidence of Schiano. Besides, the negatives with this team are nitpicking, because their biggest success has been the return investment for fans who have survived years of heartache and embarrassment.
Like my friend Matt and his dad, who have been season-ticket holders since before Matt and I were in high school. Like my uncle Dave and his parents, all Rutgers’ alums who virtually never miss a home game, and who followed the team all the way to South Florida this season. Like every longtime RU fan whose biggest thrill of the season, for years, was when Miami came to Piscataway and wiped the floor with the hometown team. What they receive in return is a chance to watch their beloved Scarlet Knights put a stronghold on the Big East Conference, and leapfrog their way towards even more respectability. What they receive in return is a matchup between two top-15 ranked teams, at Rutgers Stadium, something that never seemed remotely possible. What they receive in return is No. 4 Louisville at No. 14 Rutgers, on freakin’ ESPN2, with everything on the line.
Not quite Michigan and Ohio State, but it’s a start.
And it sure as hell beats Johns Hopkins and Loyola.
I’ll be watching. Maybe not with my heart in my throat, but definitely not with my head in my hands.