There are few college basketball programs with a reputation for losing and disappointment that matches Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights have had four winning seasons since 1992, haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament in 25 years and three of their last five coaches were fired under less than honorable circumstances.
So what are we to make of the Scarlet Knights’ 11-3 record this season?
If you were a college basketball fan on Long Island during the last decade, you know exactly what’s going on.
Rutgers’ first-year head coach is Steve Pikiell, the same Steve Pikiell who turned Stony Brook from a struggling fledgling Division I program into a perennial 20-win America East Conference team that reached the NCAAs last season.
Despite suffering their third loss Tuesday night at No. 14 Wisconsin, Pikiell has the Knights revved up and looking forward to hosting Penn State in Big Ten game on New Year’s Day.
“It’s a surreal feeling,” junior guard Mike Williams said. “I’ve been through a lot my first two years at Rutgers. For me to be on the other side of the tracks, it’s just great.
“He brought so much energy and style and flair to this program. As soon as he came in April, he’s been ready to go ... He’s energetic. I just like playing for this man.”
Learning the trade
Pikiell may lack splash but, in him, Rutgers got someone who knows everything about rebuilding a program from the perspective of player, assistant coach and head coach.
He played for Jim Calhoun’s first team at Connecticut — the Huskies’ last in a five-year losing string — and was a captain on the 1990 and 1991 NCAA team, then joined the staff afterward. He was a top assistant at Central Connecticut when Howie Dickenman turned the Blue Devils into a tournament team. Next he was an assistant at George Washington as Karl Hobbs did the same.
Then he did it himself at Stony Brook, his apprenticeships ultimately turning him into a master architect.
“I was ready for the challenge at Stony Brook and it was a great experience,” said Pikiell, who compiled a 192-155 record in 11 seasons there. “I’d seen rebuilds from every angle — UConn, Central Connecticut, GW — and I wanted the challenge at Rutgers.
“Maybe I viewed the Rutgers job 100 percent differently than most people. I saw a great university playing in a great state in a great league . . . It was a great opportunity and I like challenges. Every day I come to work and something comes up where I can say ‘when I was at Central we had the same thing’ or ‘when I was at GW, we had the same thing.’ I have something to draw on.”
He got a big lift from the administration when it upped the payroll for the entire men’s basketball staff to more than a $1 million. It allowed him to bring on former mentor Hobbs, New Jersey icon and former Pitt assistant Brandin Knight, Seawolves right-hand man Jay Young and keep longtime area expert Greg Vetrone in the fold.
There’s no denying this is something new. Building a program to win in the Big Ten Conference is a very different animal from building one to win in the America East. Still, Pikiell believes the same principles apply.
“There’s a lot of ways to do it. You have to build around kids that want to be at your school first and foremost and I like kids that are workers and gym rats,” Pikiell said. “We’re going to do a good job of developing whoever we get — I’ve got a staff of world-class developers.
“Eventually a [blue-chip] kid is going to give us a shot and there’s going to be kids that want to play in the best league in the country and against the best players and best coaches in the best media market. So we’re going to keep plugging away.”
He cited former Seawolves star Jameel Warney, who went from virtually unrecruited to three-time America East Player of the Year, as a sort of prototype, saying “Jameel wanted to be at Stony Brook and I want kids that want to be at Rutgers. It’s a challenge, but I want kids that want that challenge. If you want shinier programs, they’re out there and you can do that.”
Emphasis on effort
Watch Rutgers play today and you get the gist. The Knights almost always win the effort categories: getting loose balls, crashing the offensive boards and defending. It’s the same as when the culture changed at Stony Brook just before it began its ascent.
To understand why Rutgers has dragged along the bottom, only occasionally gasping air in the NIT, it required some study. Pikiell sought to understand some of the things that had gone wrong for the program to prepare for his interview with new athletic director Pat Hobbs for the job. Consistency was always a cornerstone in every rebuild he’d been a part of and Rutgers had none of it.
“I really sat down and did my homework before the job [interview],” Pikiell said. “There have been so many changes at the university. It’s our third league in five years — one change is huge. There have been five basketball coaches in the past 11 years — one change is huge. It’s four athletic directors in seven years — one change is huge.
“If people wonder why it’s hard to build here? It’s hard to build a house when you keep changing contractors.”
Speaking of contractors, it seems they show up shortly after Pikiell’s plans take root. He was at Stony Brook when the Island Federal Credit Union Arena was built to give the program a home to be proud of. Rutgers is building an $80 million practice and training facility to keep up with the Joneses in the Big Ten.
But as far as basketball contractors go, Rutgers may have the right person finally
“At Stony Brook I was able to go through all the steps of the building process as head coach and the people there gave me a little bit of time,” he said. ” I am very confident in the job I am going to do. I have been here before.”