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Keith Strudler: Coming Home

As has been proven time and time again by everything from romantic comedies to Van Halen reunion tours, you can in fact go home again, even if it might be a bit awkward. That definitely applies to the world of sport, especially given the assumed mobility and short tenure of most coaches and athletes. The most recent and notable example of this has come this week with the long-awaited but assumed dead in the water homecoming of former and now future head football coach of Rutgers University Greg Schiano. As many of you know, Schiano was Rutgers’ head coach from 2001 to 2011 and led the team from the cellar of the Big East to a stretch of six bowl games in his final seven years – all of which laid the foundation for Rutgers’ invitation to the more competitive Big Ten. Schiano left for an ill-fated job in the NFL, and Rutgers soon fell far south of equator, having now won only three Big Ten conference games in the past four years. Meanwhile, Schiano’s bounced around as an assistant and recently endured a fairly humiliating sequence where University of Tennessee boosters publicly blocked his hire as their new head coach.

Which leads all roads back home. After two failed coaching regimes since Schiano’s departure and what feels like a generation of turmoil, Rutgers has decided that the only person that could possibly reach the success of Greg Schiano is. . . Greg Schiano. All of which led to one of the more butchered hiring processes since the dawn of HR, including a stretch last week where the deal was announced dead on arrival, possibly because Schiano wanted guarantees for additional spending on new practice facilities and his coaching staff. With many Jersey residents still salty about the amount of money already spent on the Rutgers football program, that seemed to be a dead end.

To make a long story short, after this grinding halt, several influential Rutgers supporters – meaning wealthy – essentially provided both a carrot and a stick scenario to make sure the deal got done. Which leads us to today, when Greg Schiano was officially announced at a press conference where he used words like “excellence” and “national championship” and all the sorts of things a football coach says while he’s still undefeated.

I will refrain from delving too deep into the logic and potential success or pitfalls of rehiring a past head coach. To be fair, every situation is probably unique unto itself, just like any hire would be. By all accounts, Schiano left on good terms and always kept Rutgers near and dear to his heart. So there’s no reason to believe that he can’t use the same strategies that lifted the program in the first place. Maybe more philosophically, Schiano brings the virtues of both an internal and external candidate. He knows the system, but he’s also spent a few years seeing how things work at other places. So perhaps it’s the best of all world. Either way, we’ll learn in due time whether Schiano was in fact the best hire. Regardless, it can’t get any worse than it is right now.

But beyond any predictions of future efficacy, I do think brining Greg Schiano back home did help Rutgers accomplish two of the most important things any program can do besides actually winning games. In hiring Greg Schiano, Rutgers gave its moribund fan base – and I’m being generous – it gave it two very important things. It gave fans a sense of momentum and a glimmer of hope. And that, more than wins, is what every sports fan desperately wants.

For the past several years, Rutgers fans have watched each season like a step deeper into quicksand, with real prospect for change. It’s been like the last six miles of a marathon for almost a decade. Slower every step. And now, without so much as hiking a football, that downward slide may have come to an end. Maybe they get a few more local recruits to stay local, or even bring speed positions up from Florida. Maybe they hire a few new assistants that promise new systems and attitudes. Whatever it is, there’s a glimmer of hope that this is actually the bottom. See, fans will endure losing seasons if they think next year will be better than the last, something Rutgers fans haven’t said since, well, the old days of Greg Schiano. Which, more than anything, is why this hire makes sense. And why in this case, you can in fact go home again.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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