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Darkness On The Edge of Town: The Big Ten Bets Big on Joisey.

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Is New Jersey's largest public university, the 8th oldest college in America, and one-time home to Calista Flockhart finally ready for the athletic big time? Jim Delany, who grew up down the road from Rutgers, believes so.

New Jersey: Betwixt and between.
New Jersey: Betwixt and between.

I'll be there on time and I'll pay the cost,
For wanting things that can only be found
In the darkness on the edge of town.

Bruce Springsteen, Darkness on the Edge of Town

In 2005 an academic symposium devoted entirely to Bruce Springsteen was held at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, New Jersey. Academics from across the United States, Sweden, Canada, Italy and Britain presented papers dissecting everything from the singer's patriotism to his ruminations of the working man. Over 150 papers were presented commenting across numerous themes. One theme that was of particular and expected prominence was Springsteen's ties to his native New Jersey. "Springsteen is to New Jersey what Santa Claus is to the North Pole," said one paper's abstract. Indeed.

Springsteen's lyrics connected early and often with a state and its youth that felt a misunderstanding within itself and by others. Springsteen's music was able to distill the complexity of the emotions of his times and, perhaps even more importantly, his place and export them to an audience both within and beyond the border of New Jersey. It may seem maudlin to juxtapose Rutgers athletics with the characters and conundrums of any Springsteen song, but for the people of Joisey everything can be traced back to a Springsteen song.

The rhetorical identity, the emotional foundation of so many of his songs is the exploration of stubborn optimism bubbling up from beneath despair and difficulty. In the world of a Springsteen song there is a perpetual, abiding faith in oneself, a belief that one's destiny is that one day your life will be a hell of a lot better than this shit, if you can just hang on. I struggle to find a better, more apt descriptor of Rutgers athletics, and especially Rutgers football.

Consider the recent baggage with which Rutgers enters the Big Ten:

So persistent were the scandals and embarrassments coming out of Rutgers that Jim Delany was asked if he had second thoughts on ever inviting Rutgers to the Big Ten:

"No buyer's remorse at all. When I go to Jersey, I go to New York, I go to support, not to judge."

A quick Freudian deconstruction of Delany's response yields a very tidy reality check on the invitation of Rutgers to the Big Ten, which is this: It was never an invitation of Rutgers or New Jersey to the Big Ten. It was, of course, an invitation of New York City to the Big Ten.

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  via farm3.static.flickr.com

"The curtain rises on a vast primitive wasteland, not unlike certain parts of New Jersey."

Woody Allen, Without Feathers

Ask most Americans who've never lived or spent time in New Jersey about New Jersey and you're likely to get either a remark about the New Jersey Turnpike, Bruce Springsteen or if they're a smidge younger a comment about Bon Jovi, or perhaps there might be a Sopranos mention or, again, if younger, a snarky remark about Jersey Shore or corrupt Jersey politics or, just as likely, you'll get an indifferent stare. Ask a New Jersey resident about New Jersey and you may not get much different. Is there New Jersey pride? Well, kinda. It's clear though the digs over the years, now firmly embedded in popular culture, have taken their toll. In the abstract, Joisey people by and large do not lack for self-confidence. While Iowa is known for classic Midwestern modesty, New Jersey is known for...well, not nearly what it should be known for. Which is a shame.

New Jersey is responsible for a not so inconsiderable slice of American life as we've come to know it. The first American brewery opened in New Jersey in the mid-1600s. The first Indian Reservation was in New Jersey. The first baseball game was played in New Jersey. The first radio station broadcast was made from New Jersey. The first medical center was built in New Jersey. Les Paul invented the solid body electric guitar in New Jersey. American entertainment is better because of New Jersey and because of many of its former and current residents, such as Frank Sinatra, Springsteen, Dionne Warwick, Jerry Lewis, Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep, and Kevin Spacey (to name a very few). It's hard to imagine America without the writings of the likes of Philip Roth, Judy Blume, Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg. Not to mention, the game Monopoly does not exist without New Jersey (based on the streets in Atlantic City).

Yet, when we think of New Jersey we've been conditioned to sneer and snicker at its idiosyncrasies -- no self-serve gas stations, the Jersey jughandle, diners, diners, and more diners, and that mystery pork meat, Taylor Ham. The sad fact is, New Jersey is known as much, if not more so, for being a comedic punchline than anything else. It's been the target of Saturday Night Live jokes since their very first season (Roseanne Roseannadana: "Mr. Richard Feder of Fort Lee, New Jersey writes..."). Before that Woody Allen contributed greatly to the tradition of New Jersey slights from famous and not so famous comedians by characterizing New Jersey as the beginning of oblivion beyond the Hudson River. Comedians and comedies have always seized (instinctively) on the state's history as one of uncertainty and confusion.

When the area that roughly constitutes New Jersey was still controlled by the British Crown, the area between the Hudson and Delaware River was promised to two different parties and after considerable dispute it eventually ended up in the control of Sir George Carteret, who governed the Isle of Jersey, and Lord Berkley, the Duke of York. Which explains why New Jersey, to this day, has an identity crisis - part New York and part Philadelphia with who-knows-what in between. Visitors have long related to New Jersey as a throughway between two great cities. This is unlikely to ever change as well.

Sadly, the addition of Rutgers to the Big Ten, in company with their recent athletic scandals, has refreshed the notion of New Jersey as a punchline within the confines of the Big Ten expansion discussion. Rutgers shames New Jersey and then New Jersey shames Rutgers. Of course, Rutgers does itself no favors in this regard either, as evidenced by their own website describing the Rutgers Football Experience:

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Oh, yes, that paragraph does conclude with the sentence: "All within a 30 minute drive from Rutgers."

Dammit Rutgers!

As a resident of the Garden State I can tell you Rutgers University is not deserving of these slights, it really isn't, no matter how much gasoline they throw on their own bonfire of ineptitude, but it's used to it, contributes to it to easily and too often, and as you can see, even embraces it to a surprising degree. The university, much like the state in which it resides, has had a confusing and unappreciated athletic history itself. Especially in football. Most who follow the game closely know that Rutgers won the first "National Championship" in college football. But, if you sincerely follow this history closely then you also know that it was a championship contested by all of two teams (Princeton being the other). Beating one team is not exactly a rigorous test of supremacy. However, that history is there and it's a proud one for Rutgers.

What has happened in between that first championship and the recent invitation to the Big Ten is what most people focus on. Which is to say, there is nothing there to focus on. Although, I think a lot of people would be surprised to know that the football program has gone to eight bowl games in the last nine years. In fact, Rutgers actually has for the first time in its history some athletic momentum. The vast majority of that momentum comes directly from the new inclusion in the Big Ten. Not only has the football been good enough for postseason play and not only did they do enough to entice an invite into the Big Ten, but fans are growing, ticket sales are increasing, and students are finally beginning to care. Some anyway. It is not a gale force of momentum, but it's momentum nevertheless and it is coming at the right time to a school that has, more or less, for the past half-century been apathetic to its own athletic involvements.

"I think they will have to be really efficient. I think they will have to pull together," Jim Delany said as Rutgers celebrated its official entry into the conference. "It does no one any good to pull in different directions. I think it's important that the university, its alumni, its followers, its fans, unite behind Rutgers - one Rutgers - in order to be efficient. That's what we have really in the Big Ten. People get behind their program. There is a great deal of pride."

Jim Delany, born and bred in New Jersey, is right about this 'One Rutgers' concept. Cohesion and identity is the challenge for Rutgers. Rutgers main campus in New Brunswick and Piscataway has a total undergraduate enrollment of just over 31,000. Add in the other campuses (in Newark and Camden) and you get well over 40,000 undergraduate students. Rutgers is a unique metropolitan campus setting in that the main campus is actually split into five mini-campuses: Douglass, Cook, College Avenue, Busch and Livingston. Each mini-campus has its own distinctive identity and vibe. Each mini-campus has its own student center and dining options. And while most large universities with a Division I football program have sub-cultures on campus, they have long benefited from an enthusiastic history of Saturday afternoons as a unifying event that brings the entire campus together as one. Not so much for Rutgers. That history just isn't there says my Rutgers buddies, not like at other schools in the SEC and Big Ten, and only recently has there been any concerted effort to cultivate campus unity through sports.

From 1962 to 1991 Rutgers football was an independent, unaffiliated with any conference. The lack of conference affiliation was hurtful to Rutgers, twice it was passed over for prestigious bowl games despite going undefeated. From 1938 to 1993 Rutgers played their on-campus home games at Rutgers Stadium, which had a seating capacity of a little over 31,000. Not exactly a large party room. Rutgers has also played a number of "home" games up the turnpike in Giants Stadium, but this was mostly in deference to the opponent who was likely to generate, if not bring with them, a large crowd and the all-important ticket sales. In 1994, on the grounds of the old Rutgers Stadium, a "new" Rutgers Stadium was built with a capacity of 41,500 and it would eventually be expanded to the current capacity of 52,454. Rutgers is coming along and despite the fact it is older by 50 years than the next oldest Big Ten University (Michigan); it is best described as in its infancy as a big time college football program.

Rutgers fans are, as you would imagine, lackadaisical in comparison to any other Big Ten school, including Northwestern. While Rutgers draws its students mostly from New Jersey (about 80% of Rutgers students are Joisey residents), most of these kids have grown up in the shadow of two major urban centers thus they largely have grown up with professional sports within arms reach, or amidst a myriad of competing entertainment options. Thus, caring about college football is a learned behavior for new students and it takes place primarily once a student is on campus. Freshmen, it should also be noted, are not required to live on campus. This, along with the myriad of campuses, impacts the unity question Delany refers to above.

Also, despite its national academic ranking being somewhere in the 60s (which, while admirable, puts the university in the middle of the conference), Rutgers is an egghead school at heart. Rutgers is, as is a quasi-requirement of Big Ten entry, one of more than 60 research institutions selected to be in the Association of American Universities and awards one of the highest numbers of doctorate degrees each year among American schools. Floating around for years is a story that as The Ivy League was formally being created in 1954 Rutgers was considered for inclusion. The legend goes that Rutgers would've been required to give up its Land Grant status, return to being private, and would have been required to have given up other academic considerations. There is no evidence anywhere that any of this is true, but among some in the Rutgers community, especially the academic community, the sentiment of that fable is real. Rutgers faculty have always longed to put academics first and many have believed that athletics compromise that endeavor.

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It is understandable that faculty would be adversarial to the sucking sound that is the cost of athletics at Rutgers as the school is ranked 10th among the now 13 public institutions in the Big Ten in revenue in 2013, according to USA Today, but had the highest subsidy in the nation at about $47 million. So, instead of ticket sales or targeted giving (fundraising), student fees are footing way too much of the bill. This mindset likely goes back before cost was ever a factor though, all the way back to when Rutgers first played Princeton in football. The faculty quashed a three game agreement because they sensed an overemphasis in sport, rather than academics. But later on athletic reservations were also a function of economic anxiety, anxiety that was never been adequately addressed until the invite into the Big Ten. But, even with the invitation to the Big Ten, economic concerns remain prominent.

Rutgers embattled Athletic Director, Julie Hermann, will be judged ultimately on her ability to cultivate a vision for Rutgers athletics and find a way for it to be paid for without taxing students (it should be noted, that only 15 public universities charge a higher in-state tuition than Rutgers). The football stadium, although new-ish and nice, is still too small and will need to be expanded even further, and the basketball arena is a disaster and nowhere near Big Ten ready. Most other athletic programs are an after-thought (outside of perhaps Vivian Stringer's basketball team) and in order for Rutgers to fully emerge from its small-time sports-as-an-afterthought attitude it needs to become self-funding. That hill will have to be climbed while Rutgers slowly ramps up to full revenue sharing (Rutgers is six-years away from full financial membership).

"We certainly hope that we're earning our keep in every way that we can to encourage a little more support between now and full financial membership. But for sure, we are bent on being fully sustainable by June of '22. If we can do it earlier in '21, we're going to try to do that. It's been fun to watch our supporters step up and buy these tickets and pay for seat gifts and grumble about parking, but to write the check. I don't blame them, I understand."

Julie Hermann, Rutgers Athletic Director

Now that Rutgers is in the warm embrace of the Big Ten, and now that Rutgers is free of the burdens of its past and finally developing a mature plan to succeed, expect success to come. Since the 2000 season, the number of NFL players born in New Jersey is at 135. As a comparison 43 were born in Iowa. As of the 2013 season Shonn Greene, Knowshon Moreno, and Donald Brown are your #1, #2, and #3 active rushers in the NFL born in New Jersey. Joe Flacco is your leading active QB. For Iowa? Darren Sproles, Kyle Orton and a guy named David Reed are your #1, #2, and #3 rushers. Kyle Orton is also your QB. New Jersey may not be to recruiting what California, Texas or Florida or even Ohio are, but it compares very favorably with Pennsylvania, Illinois and Michigan and leaves Indiana, Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin and, of course, Iowa well in their rearview mirror. New Jersey has more than its fair share of talent and because of that Rutgers has potential.

Iowa fans should be able to, at minimum, relate to parts of the Rutgers football journey toward relevance. Iowa has had its own measure of underachievement in football and more recently basketball, with little more than self-belief for sustenance. The fanbase at Rutgers may not instantly (or ever) bring about the widespread level of commitment and passion from New Jersey that so many Iowans show across multiple sports for the Hawkeyes, but those that do deepen their love for Rutgers athletics will never be easily confused with the fans of, say, UNL, OSU, PSU, Wisky or even Michigan. I believe Rutgers could win 10 straight Big Ten Football Championships and their fans would assume a posture that would mostly resemble how we would react, which is to say they still wouldn't gloat or bloviate as cartoonishly as those fans. But consider this, Rutgers is surrounded with the most crucial resource of all, talent. There is no other FBS program in the state in which to share that talent. So as ludicrous at 10 straight sounds right now, it might be a fact that Rutgers is a hell of a lot closer to that pipe dream than most Big Ten schools. But because Rutgers has this history of confusion, confliction, and heartbreak and have endured enough screw-up, smirking and sneering to know that success will never be a given, I believe they share in ways not obvious on a superficial level, the Iowa value for hard work and a sanguine attitude in the face of difficulty.

I'll be attending Rutgers games for the first time, ever. They're family for me now. And, it's my sincere hope this post chips away at the distance many Iowans likely feel when they think of Rutgers and New Jersey. Rutgers is going to work hard to do the right thing by Iowa and the Big Ten and be a good citizen, it's in their DNA to try no matter how rough the journey.

As Bruce would say,

Badlands, you gotta live it everyday,
Let the broken hearts stand
As the price you've gotta pay,
We'll keep pushin' till it's understood,
and these badlands start treating us good.