Ever stop to wonder why you never hear much about New Jersey collegiate football? The main reason may be the absence of a single major college team bearing the state's name. In every other state but New York, the sports-minded citizenry has at least one school to rally around, to call its own.
New Jersey's most notable football schools, if they can be called that, are Princeton and Rutgers, rivals in the first intercollegiate game ever played, in 1869. Princeton is a private Ivy League bastion divorced from the "big time." Rutgers, on the other hand, is the state university attempting to put Jersey on the football map.
The bid for recognition has begun to bear fruit. Last season the Scarlet Knights were "welcomed" to Tennessee by fraternity banners that jokingly asked, "What's a Rutgers?" When they left, everybody knew -- or at least the 84,000 who witnessed Rutgers' rude 13-to-7 upset of Tennessee's Volunteers.
Last Saturday Rutgers took on an even more imposing Southern foe, top-ranked Alabama, in the stiffest imaginable test of the school's football progress. Alabama extended its winning streak to 26 games with a 17-13 victory, but the close score indicated just how far Rutgers has come. The defense had to do a superb job to hold a team averaging 42 points a game to two touchdowns and a field goal.
For years Rutgers has existed on a steady diet of less-esteemed Eastern opponents, living in the shadows of the region's more powerful independents, such as Penn State, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse.
Until 1933 Rutgers had never even beaten neighboring Princeton, which now sees so littel hope of competing against its old rival that their series has been terminated.
The push to upgrade Rutgers' athletic image actually began in 1973, when teh school's current president, Dr. Edward Bloustein, arrived on campus. One way of increasing a school's visibility and recognition with the public, he realized, is through sports.
Rutgers' basketball team first began to draw attention to the university in the spring of 1976, when it reached the final four of the NCAA tournament. The football team made its mark the following fall by concluding a perfect 11-0 season with a dramatic, televised win over Colgate in Giants Stadium, the 76,000 -seat home of pro football's New York Giants in East Rutherford, N.J.
Basketball coach Tom Young, who has a 149-57 record guiding the Scarlet Knights, has been able to recruit successfully in the New York metropolitan area , which lies some 35 miles north of New Brunswick. For Frank Burns, who's guided the football team to a 62- 20-1 record and its first-ever bowl appearance (a berth in the inaugural Garden State Bowl two years ago), the biggest challenge has been to mine the in-state talent.
"There's no state loyalty in New Jersey," a recruiting coordinator for Midwestern power once explained. Penn State and the Big Ten Schools have traditionally skimmed much of the cream from New Jersey's high schools, yet rutgers has begun to slow down this exodus.
"Once we got mostly third-line playes," says Bob Smith, the school's sports publicist, "but now we're getting the second-line kids, and even some first-liners."
The victory over Tennessee probably aided Rutgers in recruiting, as will this year's impressive showing against Alabama.
"No question about it," athletic director Fred Gruninger has said. "Those kinds of games help. They will convince people of the quality of our program. People will say, 'Maybe I'll take a look at Rutgers,' when before they wouldn't."
The goal, Burns explains, is to upgrade the program to the point where Rutgers can "be competitive with the better teams in the East." It would appear that that objective is within reach, though Penn State shellacked the Knights last year, 45 to 10.
Rutgers will get another crack at the Nittany Lions in 1982, when it also plays Tennessee and Auburn. Next year's schedule includes Pittsburgh and a return engagement with Alabama.
The lure for "name" schools to play Rutgers is the opportunity it affords for major news media exposure in New York. For while Rutgers hosts most home games in its 23,000-seat New Brunswick stadium, the most attractive dates are moved to the Meadowlands complex.
Ultimately the school may move toward solidifying its identity by changing its name to New Jersey University or New Jersey State, according to Smith. "Rutgers is an odd name," he admits. "The school, which is officially the State University of New Jersey, was named after a Colonial philantropist, Henry Rutgers, a little-known fact." The school's football prowess isn't though -- at least not any longer.