Big Ten

Chris Ash focused on culture, not wins, at Rutgers, but 'yeah, we can win'

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Chris Ash focused on culture, not wins, at Rutgers, but 'yeah, we can win'

It seems that everyone wants to know whether Chris Ash will be able to rack up wins at Rutgers. Even Chris Ash’s son.

“My son, Tanner, has been great. He had two questions about Rutgers before I took this job," Ash said. "First thing he said, ‘Dad, can we win?’ I said, ‘Yeah, we can win.’ And the only other thing he cared about, ‘Can we get ranked sometime, Dad?’ I said, ‘Yeah, we can get ranked.’ And he said, ‘Take the job.’ So we did.”

Ash was introduced as Rutgers’ new head coach on Monday, and the former Urban Meyer assistant certainly won his press conference, showing he was a strong pick to lead and somewhat reshape a program that had been through so much negative stuff this past season.

But what about those wins?

Ash talked about transforming culture — something Rutgers desperately needs — and that the wins aren’t at the forefront of his mind. But he still realized that he will be judged on his team’s record, something that’s going to be a mighty big challenge in the Big Ten, particularly a loaded Big Ten East that features his former team Ohio State as well as Michigan State, Michigan and Penn State.

“We're not going to make a lot of goals that talk about results with winning games and championships,” Ash said. “We're going to worry about making goals that make us better tomorrow than we were today. That's all it's going to be about. The wins will come. Hopefully championships will come. But that's not my focus. That's not going to be the program's goal, at least early on. It's about getting better every single day.”

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Certainly Ash’s focus on everything but the results of games makes a lot of sense.

Flood wasn’t fired entirely because he couldn’t win. The team’s 4-8 finish this season was disappointing, but it was the first and only sub-.500 regular-season finish of Flood’s four-year tenure. Flood’s first three seasons featured an eight-win season and a nine-win season. Just last year, Rutgers was celebrating a bowl victory, the third bowl appearance by Flood in three seasons, each of which was played in a different conference.

But this season was an absolute mess, an entire tenure of bad news packed into one year. More than 10 players were arrested, many were suspended, many were kicked off the team. And Flood himself was suspended three games after he knowingly violated university rules in attempting to change a grade by meeting with one of his player’s professors.

So while four wins wasn’t good enough, the lack of on-field success in 2015 was hardly the main reason Flood was fired.

It’s up to Ash to rid that taste from the mouths of everyone at Rutgers and everyone watching around the country.

“It takes time. And we want to create a culture that tries to educate the players on how to make the right decisions, but it will take time,” Ash said. “It will start by clearly defining what our culture is going to be. It will take time to clearly educate, communicate and motivate those players to make the right decisions and make those decisions for the right reasons because of the other team members that are in this room with them. We want guys to be able to make the right decisions because they know if they make the wrong one, it's going to let down one of their brothers, one of their teammates. And that doesn't happen overnight. Doesn't happen because I walked in the door. But it starts with having clearly defined culture, clearly defined expectations, constant communication, constant education and constant motivation about doing the right thing on and off the field.”

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Time will tell if that approach will be successful at Rutgers.

A much bigger challenge, though, will be competing on the field with the conference’s big boys. Despite experiencing more success in the last 10 years than the program had ever seen, Rutgers is still looked at as one of the weakest programs if not the weakest program in the Big Ten. Plenty are still scratching their heads over Rutgers’ addition to the conference, and a chaotic environment this past season hasn’t alleviated any concerns. And on the field, finding opportunities to win games has been tricky. It’s hard to envision a season in the near future in which in-division games against Ohio State and Michigan State wouldn’t be viewed as near-automatic losses. And with Jim Harbaugh and James Franklin in the middle of turnaround jobs at traditional powers Michigan and Penn State, those games could be added to that category.

Ash, though, sees the potential, and he’s not delusional, either. New Jersey is a fertile recruiting area, and though it will be a challenge to get commits from the Garden State to stay at home, maybe the defensive coordinator from the national-champion Buckeyes can work some magic.

“I was fortunate enough to be around a lot of really good coaches, head coaches, that have mentored me along the way and given me a lot of advice. And one of the things that I was told a long time ago: If you're going to take a job, make sure it's a job that you're willing to run to. And this was a job, I don't care what's happened in the past, this was a job I'm willing to run to,” Ash said. “This is a job that has tremendous potential.

“There's a ton of talent here in this state of New Jersey. I have competed against this team for the last three years. I know what type of talent is in this room right now. We've got some work to do to build the right culture, build the right chemistry and get maximum effort out of these players. But this is a job — I didn't have to be talked into this at all. I actually would have passed up on some other opportunities to have a chance to come here, and I'm excited about it.”

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Ash has run a terrific defense the past two seasons at Ohio State and worked at Wisconsin prior, building familiarity with the Big Ten. His credentials are good, and he certainly showed himself a good choice to lead a program on Monday.

Everyone wonders if and when the wins can come at Rutgers. Ash is certainly going to try, and he’s starting from the ground up.

“What I'm looking for in this football team, OK, I want to build a fast, physical team that plays with relentless effort, tremendous enthusiasm and plays for each other,” he said. “I want our opponents to turn on the film and say, ‘You know what? This is a real one. We'd better strap it on because these guys are going to come and they are going to play hard. They are going to play together, and they are going to play for four quarters.’ And that's the type of program that I want to try to build here at Rutgers.”

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

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USA TODAY

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

Tough news out of Evanston this morning: Northwestern announced that running back Jeremy Larkin will retire immediately after being diagnosed with cervical stenosis.

Cervical stenois is the narrowing of the spinal canal in one's neck, according to Mayo Clinic. Larkin's condition is thankfully not life-threatening, though it does prevent him from continuing to participate in the game of football. 

"Football has been a lifelong passion and it has been a process to reconcile the fact I won't be on that field again, given I've played this game since I was five years old," Larkin said.

"I'm extremely appreciative of the Northwestern sports medicine and athletic training staffs for uncovering this condition, and for my coaches and the medical staff for always putting my health first.

"I came to this University to engage at the absolute highest level on the field and in the classroom, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to continue one of those while supporting my teammates from the sideline." 

Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald called the news "heartbreaking."

"This is heartbreaking because I see every day how much Jeremy loves the game, loves his teammates, and loves to compete," Fitzgerald said in a statement. "But this is the absolute best possible outcome for him.

"The discovery of this condition allowed Jeremy and his family to make an informed decision for his long-term health and well-being. For those of us who have known Jeremy Larkin since his high school days, his future is exceptionally bright. I can't wait to see the impact he makes in our world."

Larkin is a sophomore from Cincinnati. He finishes his Northwestern career with 156 carries for 849 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns.

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

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Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

Former University of Illinois tennis star Kevin Anderson completed a marathon upset against an all-time great on the highest stage of professional tennis.

Anderson came back from two sets down to beat Roger Federer in Wimbledon’s quarterfinals 2-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 13-11 on Wednesday morning. He will play in the semifinals of the tournament for the first time in his career.

As a native of South Africa, Anderson played three seasons with the Fighting Illini and won the NCAA doubles championship during the 2005-06 season as a sophomore. The 32-year-old was a three-time All-American in singles at Illinois.

Now, as the eighth ranked singles player on the ATP World Tour, Anderson is a force to be reckoned with at the professional level. He made it all the way to the US Open final in 2017.

The former Illini star will look to keep his recent success going when he represents Illinois in the semifinals of Wimbledon this Friday.