When a college basketball fan thinks of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Except for fans who remember the program’s remarkable run to the 1976 Final Four, that first thought will almost certainly be negative. It’s warranted, too: The university hasn’t earned a pair of dancing slippers since 1991.
That’s not only more than two decades of failing to make the NCAA Tournament, but 25 years of incompetence. Coupled with the perception of a program run into the ground ever since the Mike Rice fiasco, Rutgers’ long-term drift suggests that the idea of better days in the near future seems far-fetched.
To put this even more bluntly: Since the start of the 2006-’07 season, the Scarlet Knights have averaged 12 wins per season. Such a lowly number, even for a non-competitive power conference program, would lead a person to more readily believe William Hayes’ thoughts on mermaids and dinosaurs than the notion that Rutgers can be consistently competitive.
The good news for the fan base is that a new era is about to begin. Even better, the athletic department (with a new athletic director) didn’t try to make an “alum hire” or one that would make shock waves in the college basketball community. Instead, it made the best hire possible.
Former Stony Brook coach Steve Pikiell lacks the household name that would make other fan bases giddy. Sure, he won’t make an incredibly immediate impact on the recruiting trail that would lend credence to the idea of a better tomorrow. What he happens to be is a man with vision, a plan, and the foresight to take the long-term approach to rebuilding a program … which is something he has already shown he can do.
That’s what will be lost during the early years of the Pikiell era. Without trying to throw a wet blanket on how everyone thinks, a large portion of fans and the media will see an underwhelming first few seasons, then ponder whether or not he was the right choice for the job. The problem with that approach: It’s far too shortsighted.
Rutgers is a mess. There’s a reason why it hasn’t been to the Big Dance in 25 years. While playing in the Big Ten is no cakewalk, even the worst of the worst tend to bubble up every decade or so. This hasn’t been the case for the Scarlet Knights. There’s been no bubbling of any sorts — well, outside of its scandals.
Pikiell took over a Stony Brook program in 2004 that was in even worse shape than Rutgers. The Seawolves have been around for only 17 years, so it isn’t exactly a fair to comparison to make, but that program was also coming off an era of ineptitude. It was also not perceived to be a program of any relevance. Furthermore, it was still essentially a complete upstart of a Division I program.
Like Stony Brook in 2004, Rutgers is irrelevant today. We can speak to more nuanced aspects of the program, but the fact remains that the only time non-Scarlet Knights fans think about the university’s basketball team is during times of scandal (or to acknowledge the aforementioned irrelevance). That’s as obvious a sign of RU’s failures a clear indication that the ship clearly needs to be steered in a new direction.
A word of caution: This ship can’t be steered in haste. There are no quick cures for a program with — relative to those it competes against — a “lack” of resources.
At the very same time, patience is a virtue all involved must uphold. At a lower-level Division I school, it still took Pikiell a few seasons to figure out how to turn the Seawolves into a perennial AEC contender. In fact, it wasn’t until year five, a full recruiting class plus an extra year, that people began to notice the changing of the guard in the AEC. After that, it still took another six seasons — with mostly impressive success during that time — for Stony Brook to earn an auto-bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Will this new coach definitely work for Rutgers? No one knows. Too many variables — Rutgers’ own incompetence, the coach’s inability to adjust to the Big Ten, etc. — are in play. All things being equal, though, unlike other eras of Rutgers basketball that either ended or started in a storm of sadness, the Steve Pikiell era is starting as it should: mostly silent, without setting crazy expectations, and admitting this is Rutgers, not a destination home for America’s top tier recruits.
To get there, as Pikiell has previously shown, will take time. Considering the fan base has already waited 25 years as is, what’s a few more?