There’s no doubt about it: Rutgers needed a change.
The Scarlet Knights cleaned house last year, firing head football coach Kyle Flood and athletics director Julie Hermann (head men’s basketball coach Eddie Jordan's exit followed a few months later, making for a brand-new look in Piscataway across the department's three highest-profile jobs).
While Hermann made plenty of negative headlines throughout her tenure, Flood’s final year brought a whole lot more than just losing football, with a seemingly never-ending stream of arrests and dismissals and the head coach himself suspended at one point following a controversy in which he sought to influence the grade of one of his players.
So a change was necessary, and a change is what happened: a new athletics director in the form of Pat Hobbs and a new head football coach in the form of Chris Ash.
Ash’s credentials are strong, a veteran of powerful Big Ten coaching staffs. He worked under Bret Bielema during three straight seasons at Wisconsin that ended in Rose Bowl berths, and he’s fresh off a two-year stint as Ohio State’s defensive coordinator, during which Urban Meyer’s squad lost just two games and won the 2014 national championship.
But most importantly, perhaps, is the page his hiring has allowed Rutgers to turn and the fresh start he brings in the wake of Flood’s tumultuous final season.
“I haven’t looked back much,” Ash said last week during Big Ten Media Days. “I’m aware of what happened in the past, but what happened in the past doesn’t determine our future.
“We came with a plan. We met with every player, we told them what that plan was, we told them what we needed to see out of them. It hasn’t been necessarily smooth the whole time. I told them in December at my first team meeting that this room would not be the same when we kicked off in our first game against Washington, and it’s not, we have lost some players for various reasons. But we’ve changed that room also through our culture and our environment that we created, and we’re really excited about it.”
As Ash mentioned, it hasn’t necessarily been a smooth transition 100 percent of the time, and that was to be expected. Almost everyone in the program was brought in by Flood, and in that sense this situation isn’t all that dissimilar from every coaching change around college football.
But certainly there are unique elements to the end of an era that featured not just a bunch of losing on the football field — the Knights won just four conference games in their first two seasons in the Big Ten — but years’ worth of negative headlines crammed into one unfortunate season.
“It is a different environment,” Ash said. “There’s a high level of accountability, there are high standards, and we hold them to those standards. That’s not for everybody, it’s not easy to do. It’s hard to be one of those elite top 10-percent type of players every single day. It’s hard for coaches to be that type of a coach every single day. But it’s what we want in our organization, we want those top 10-percent guys to be as good as they can be every single day. It’s not easy, though.”
At least one player thinks the change is exactly what Rutgers needed.
“Change isn’t bad. Change is new, and new is not always bad,” defensive lineman Darius Hamilton said. “I think it’s exactly what this team needed. I think everyone’s very eager to have him on board. One thing I’ve sensed since coach Ash has walked through the door is excitement, excitement around the building, excitement around the state, excitement around the community. Kids’ whole mind frames have changed and work ethics have changed. Kids are staying after with no coaches, just themselves and other players in their unit to make it better day in and day out. It’s really a great sight to see.”
Like any coach that comes into a losing program with intent to make it a winner, Ash will require time. Especially in the loaded Big Ten East — with annually dominant powers Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan, as well as a sleeping giant in Penn State — patience will most certainly be a virtue.
But Ash’s track record as an assistant should inspire confidence, as should his demeanor, which at least at Media Days showed he was all in at Rutgers.
“He’s a real passionate guy,” Hamilton said. “When you’re a player and you’re just as passionate about college football as your head coach is, it makes it real easy to play for him. … He cares about the little things, he cares about leadership. He’s really everything that you look for in a coach. And he’s a real proven guy who’s taken a chance on us and this program.”