Rutgers’ Surprise Gator Bowl Appearance Gives It A Chance To Market Its Football Program And University

When Greg Schiano was asked Thursday about being in Jacksonville, the Rutgers coach said, “I love Florida. I think it’s a great place, and I told these guys right away. I said, ‘It’s going to be in the 70s all week,’ and they’ve had a chance to enjoy it.”

For the Rutgers football program, it certainly is a moment in the sun both literally and figuratively, and also an unexpected one in the spotlight. A moment, the school believes, that can have positive effects for both the program’s brand and that of the university itself. 

That is one of numerous reasons why the Scarlet Knights were so eager to take Texas A&M’s place against Wake Forest in Friday’s Gator Bowl when the Aggies dropped out because of a dwindling number of players due to Covid-19 issues, transfers, opt-outs and injuries. 

Of course, Rutgers (5-7) didn’t expect to be in a bowl after losing its season-ending showdown against similar bowl-hopeful Maryland, which beat the host Scarlet Knights, 40-16 on Nov. 27. That victory sent the Terrapins to the Pinstripe Bowl and the Scarlet Knights home for the holidays. That is, until the Aggies’ opt-out changed their plans.

“It’s not usually the way you get ready for a bowl game with eight days notice,” Schiano told reporters in Jacksonville on Thursday, “but we take it any way we can get it, and we’re really, really happy about being here. Excited about playing in the game. The players have had a tremendous time, and now it’s time to play. We’re looking forward to it.”

Once everyone was on board, the choice was easy, as the positives far outweighed any negatives, according to Schiano’s chief of staff, longtime Rutgers athletic administrator Kevin MacConnell. 

MacConnell, who also worked with Schiano during his first tenure as Rutgers head coach, used a hypothetical that first came up when Rutgers was invited in 2005 to the Insight Bowl, its first post-season appearance since 1978.

“If you bought a 3 1/2-hour block of time on ESPN,” MacConnell said, “what would that cost you, what is that worth? And the game is the lead-in to the College Football Playoff games, which I think is great for the exposure. 

“If you could pick a time,” he added, “that’s a pretty good time.”

The game is scheduled to kick off at 11 a.m. Eastern time on ESPN, prior to the Cincinnati-Alabama CFP semifinal, also on ESPN, at 3:30 p.m..

MacConnell also pointed to such things as “The media exposure, the social media stuff that our guys can keep pumping out to recruits, all of that exposure—we just did a soft launch for (2022) season tickets, so that’s a nice surprise. (The bowl) has got to help. 

“We didn’t expect to have anybody talking about us once the season ended,” he added. “So, it’s hard to put a dollar figure on it, but there’s absolutely no downside.”  

Schiano and MacConnell have marketed their program before. During Schiano’s first tour of duty with the Scarlet Knights, MacConnell was the school’s associate athletic director for external affairs. In December 2004, per the Tampa Bay Times, Rutgers rented five billboards on I-4 West near Tampa featuring 27 Floridians on its roster. The message: “Season’s Greetings From Rutgers Football.”

Back then, MacConnell told the Tampa Bay Times, “Tampa is a very big market for us, and the billboards have helped with recruiting.”

Recalling those days, MacConnell said this week of Schiano, “He was like no other coach I’ve ever worked with. He was into that.”

Certainly this visit has the potential to help recruiting in Florida, something Schiano noted during a virtual news conference the day before leaving for Jacksonville. It’s Rutgers’ first bowl since 2014.

“We’re back in a bowl game,” he said, “and we’re in an area that’s been very, very good to us. The state of Florida overall and the Jacksonville area have been very good to Rutgers football over the years. So to be back down there in that location, for what amounts to probably half a week and the media coverage, all those things, that’s always good, any time you can more in the vision of these young guys (potential recruits).”  

And as Schiano noted Thursday, the reason Rutgers got this chance ahead of other hopefuls with 5-7 records was that it had the highest APR (Academic Progress Rate) score among those teams. 

“The program put itself in a position to do it,” said Schiano, who also credited the work done in this area by predecessor Chris Ash. “And why? Because of the academic work that these guys did. We didn’t win enough games to be bowl-eligible, and we own that. … The work they did in the classroom is what allowed them to be first up when an opportunity opened, so I tell them all the time. There are no coincidences. We talk a lot about you reap what you sow.”

Schiano made it clear the biggest reason the Scarlet Knights decided to make the trip was that the players wanted to do so, even before Rutgers had officially been invited.

“I reached out,” he said, “and asked a few of the guys if they wanted to do it because I didn’t want to be the only one that wanted to do it, and our players were great.

“Before I could get to them all,” he added, backup quarterback “Johnny Langan texted me, ‘Gator Bowl, let’s go,’ with the gator emoji. These guys with the emojis. I kind of got the feel, OK, they want to do it, and then we waited to see if we were going to be the team that got to come.”

Of course, even though the Scarlet Knights are a 16-point underdog to Wake Forest (10-3), the champions of the ACC’s Atlantic Division, Schiano and his team didn’t come to Jacksonville just for sun and media exposure.

“I know how competitive he is,” Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson said of Schiano, whom he has known since they were both graduate assistants at different colleges in the early 1990s. “And I know that he wouldn’t have said, ‘hey, we’re in’ if he didn’t already study our film and say, ‘we can beat these guys.’ He is a competitor.”

First-team All-Big Ten punter Adam Korsak flew back from his native Australia, and passed three Covid tests to be able to rejoin his teammates.

“It’s great to be here,” Korsak said, “and it’s a tremendous opportunity.”

And one that could pay dividends on and off the field for Rutgers.

Schiano said, “Now we’ve got to go play well. That’s going to be the key.”