A concern by many Rutgers University faithful upon their entry into the Big 10 conference in 2014 was whether the athletic programs would be able to keep up with the rest of the powerful established athletic programs in the conference. Eight years later, Rutger athletics is doing more than fine. While there were plenty of early struggles, there has been considerable improvement in many programs.
In 2014, Rutgers football had a strong first season in the conference under head coach Kyle Flood that featured an 8-5 record, a win over Michigan and a bowl win. The next five years were not so kind. Kyle Flood had a few systemic issues and was let go the following season. His successor, Chris Ash, failed to solve the recruiting challenges in New Jersey and struggled mightily, plummeting Rutgers football to the bottom of the Big 10. The football program appears to be making a rise with Greg Schiano back in charge in 2020. Schiano, who has plenty of experience in New Jersey recruiting, has been able to keep many of the higher ranked local players home which has steadily improved their recruiting rank. The team has been more competitive and the program is making steady improvement.
Head coach Steve Pikiell has made a steady climb with Rutgers basketball since taking over in 2016 . The team survived some early struggles last season and more than held their own with a fourth place showing in the conference. They have now made the NCAA tournament two seasons in a row and are firmly in the middle of the pack in the Big 10. Pikiell has stepped up in recruiting as well, bringing in top 40 recruit Cliff Omoruyi in 2020 and just recently adding another top recruit in Gavin Griffiths for the class of 2023.
This year, and particularly this spring, Rutgers’ other athletic programs have had impressive success within the conference and the country. The women’s soccer team went undefeated in conference play and made it all the way to the final 4 where they lost to Florida State. The men’s soccer team had a winning record and played close to .500 in the conference. Rutgers wrestling ended up inside the top 20 while competing in the toughest division in the country. Another top 20 program, the women’s field hockey team, went 19-4, won the Big 10 championship, and made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Which brings us to the Rutgers 2022 Spring season where a few programs continued the success. The women’s lacrosse team went 16-5 and made it to the 2nd round of the NCAA tournament. The men’s lacrosse, ranked inside the top 5 in the country most of the season, went to the final 4 where they lost to Cornell.
Men’s baseball had a great spring as well. They won a record 44 games and made it to the final of the Big 10 tournament losing to Michigan. Despite having the same record of 3-1 in the tournament, Michigan went on to the college world series, while Rutgers got snubbed by the selection committee.
While that loss stung, as did other tough losses that ended great seasons, it’s good to know that eight years after joining the Power 5 conference, Rutgers athletics as a whole is more than holding their own with the rest of the Big 10. It’s no longer a question of do they belong, but can they follow the lead of the field hockey team and consistently win championships within the conference. Time will tell but it appears many Rutgers programs are on the right trajectory.
Give credit to athletic director Pat Hobbs for positioning Rutgers Athletics for success. He’s shown an ability to find the right leadership for each program. Under Hobbs’ watch and a fertile recruiting ground in New Jersey, Rutgers will have a chance at consistent success within the conference for years to come.
Photos: Sean Ward, Steve Tichenor