USA TODAY US Edition
Ash brings new attitude to Rutgers
Recruiting at crux of overhaul; signs of change evident
During his first days as Rutgers’ new coach in December, former Ohio State defensive coordinator Chris Ash stalked through the halls of the Scarlet Knights football facility and took note of what needed to be changed.
The doors inside the facility used to be locked, requiring coaches, players and members of the support staff to punch in numbers on a touch pad to gain access. Let’s keep these doors open, Ash said.
He didn’t like the color of the walls, so he had painters update the facility with a brighter shade. Ash thought the lobby on the lower level felt like a hospital waiting room, so the area now features music and a more interactive video board and, in the coming weeks and months, will see an upgraded wall celebrating the program’s growing list of alumni reaching the NFL.
He changed where players live. The previous dorms were built in 1974, and it showed. Ash called them “some of the worst I’ve seen in 20 years of coaching.” So he called student affairs, which moved players to better and newer dorms.
Does Rutgers need an upgraded weight room? It sure does, Ash said, so the athletics department raised $1.5 million to renovate a training area, set to debut at the end of this semester.
All of these changes — several complete, most in progress, some in the planning stages — were completed in response to the two questions that have come to de- fine Ash’s short tenure: Does it help us in recruiting, and does it help us in player development?
“Things have to change,” he told USA TODAY Sports. “The expectations have to change. The standard of performance has to change. The facility has to change. There’s a whole bunch.
“If what we have here at Rutgers doesn’t help us do those things, then we have to blow it up. We’ve got to go change. I’m not talking about a year down the road, two years down the road, three years down the road. … It needs to change now, because in college football that window of opportunity is so small. Whatever, at all costs, whatever we have to do, let’s be creative and get it done now.”
WORK TO DO There’s no time better than today. Fresh off a four-win season — coupled with miles of off-thefield drama under the previous coaching staff — Ash and Rutgers will spend every moment of this offseason trimming the gap that separates the Scarlet Knights from Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan, the front-runners in a crowded and top-heavy Big Ten Conference East Division.
“It was a bad year in all regards,” Ash said of Rutgers’ 2015 season, which included a threegame suspension for then-coach Kyle Flood, who violated university policy in speaking with a faculty member about a player’s academic status, and the arrest of five football players for their alleged roles in two separate incidents of assault and burglary on campus.
“I’m not here to judge what happened. I don’t really care. But I know this: I watched film on Rutgers last season, when I was sitting at Ohio State, and what I saw on film was a team that quit. When they were faced with adversity, they quit. That tells you there’s a problem. There’s a problem with the way they were trained. There’s a problem with the way they behaved, what they believe.
“So when you come here, there’s a dark cloud over this building. The challenge is to try and remove that. It starts with positive energy and a positive attitude every single day.”
Altering Rutgers’ energy and attitude — in addition to the cosmetic alterations underway — is a good starting point for Ash’s process. Yet there might be more than a gap between Rutgers and the league’s elite; it might be a chasm, the sort of separation requiring years of careful climbing before placing the Scarlet Knights in the same breath as the Spartans, Buckeyes and Wolverines.
“We have a lot of guys who expect to win,” offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer said. “Do we know and understand what the Big Ten East is and the Big Ten in general? Yeah, we do. We know and understand that.
“We also have a group of guys that didn’t get to where they came because they laid down. We’ve got a bunch of guys who competed and lived their lives based around competition and improvement and not willing to settle for anything less than winning championships.”
RECRUITING CHALLENGE Attempts at narrowing the gap must begin with the program’s recruiting base, which was rejuvenated by Rutgers’ move to the Big Ten before the 2014 season while creating inroads for the new conference in a fertile talent bed. Not one of the top 15 prospects in New Jersey during this last recruiting cycle signed with Rutgers, according to Rivals .com, while five of the top eight recruits — including the nation’s consensus No. 1 signee — joined Jim Harbaugh at Michigan.
As with the new staff ’s quest for broader change — leading Rutgers back to bowl eligibility, then toward the top of the East — attempts at rebuilding Rutgers’ reputation inside the state have stood front and center during the last three months.
“The word’s gotten out about the energy that’s in this building, and it all starts with Coach Ash’s leadership,” defensive coordinator Jay Niemann said. “He has a very detailed plan for how we’re doing this, and it’s spread across the state and hopefully beyond.”
On-campus recruiting weekends and meet-and-greet events with Ash and the new staff have been eye-opening for local coaches and prospects, Mehringer said. After essentially speed-dating recruits on the fly in December and January, the last few weeks have given the new coaching staff an opportunity to stress their strongest talking point: This is a new Rutgers.
“Yeah, this is a different brand of Rutgers than what you’ve read about,” Mehringer said. “A different brand of Rutgers than what you’ve seen on TV. But it’s got to be something they see, not something they hear.
“The best thing about working for Coach Ash is that he’s always got a plan, and it’s very detailed. He doesn’t bring anything to the staff that isn’t well thought out, and that includes our plan for recruiting.”
Ash isn’t shy on this point: For Rutgers to make its mark in the East — and in the Big Ten at large — this program must make recruiting its top priority. More than anything, from the walls inside the facility to the weight room, a willingness to battle with the elite of college football for the top talent in its home state signals the program’s greatest change in the few months since his arrival.
“I think it’s important that we get the message out that this isn’t going to be the Rutgers of the past,” Ash said. “I want everything to be at a championship level, at a first-class level in all areas. The plan that we’ve had in place is going to plan, according to plan, and we’ve just got to keep it going.”