Although they went to high school in different states and play different positions, Ryan Hart, Brian Leonard and Ryan Neill have the same stories about committing to the Rutgers football program.
Specifically, the reaction of friends, teammates and recruiters from other schools after hearing they were becoming Scarlet Knights, right down to the look on their faces that suggested, "What are you thinking?"
Many assumed the trio fell into a college football abyss, a program that had not been to a bowl game since John Travolta was burn, baby, burning the disco inferno. A program whose perpetual losing was rivaled only by the Dukes, Temples and Vanderbilts of the sport.
"I was highly recruited in high school," said Hart, a senior quarterback from Coral Springs, Fla. "I got a lot of criticism and jokes about going here, but you know what? I thought it was a good decision. I knew that it was a good fit for me."
On Wednesday, Hart, Leonard, Neill, and the rest of the Rutgers traveling party stepped not out of an abyss, but a jet at Sky Harbor Airport, where they landed to prepare for next week’s Insight Bowl against Arizona State.
Who’s laughing now? The Scarlet Knights (7-4), who are revived, justified and in the postseason for the second time, the first since 1978.
"My present is here in Phoenix," said Leonard, a junior fullback who was told by a Syracuse recruiter he would never play in a bowl at Rutgers. "This will be my best Christmas."
When Greg Schiano was named the Scarlet Knights’ coach in 2000, he was only 34 years old — young enough to invest the time, patience and perseverance necessary to turn around a moribund program.
On Nov. 6, 1869, Rutgers played Princeton in the very first intercollegiate football game. The rest of the school’s gridiron history is not as proud, so much so that the year-by-year won-loss records are absent from the 2005 media guide.
Research elsewhere reveals four winning records in the 24 years before 2005 and a combined 11-44 mark in the four seasons prior to Schiano’s arrival. And when the new coach met his team for the first time, it had fewer than 40 players.
"If we weren’t the worst program in America, we were pretty darn close," Schiano said. "Step by step, we tried to build the right way."
As it slowly built manpower, Rutgers took its lumps in Schiano’s first two seasons, winning just three games and losing 20.
"I think there was a culture of losing here, where it was just accepted that we would not be able to compete with other teams," Schiano said. "That’s something that takes a while to erase."
The energetic Schiano, who was defensive coordinator at Miami (Fla.) for two years before coming to Rutgers, began lessening the losing mentality by increasing the Scarlet Knights’ talent level.
His connection to south Florida created recruiting inroads there, and the top talent in New Jersey — after years of showing absolutely no loyalty to Rutgers — is more willing to listen when the program calls.
In 2004, results finally began showing on the field, as the Scarlet Knights started the season 4-2. But they faded out of bowl contention.
This season began with a blown big lead and an awful overtime loss at Illinois. But six wins in the next seven games clinched bowl eligibility, and a season-ending win against Cincinnati sent them to the Insight Bowl.
"Every year, the fan support and student support has gotten a lot better," Hart said. "Now, we’re going to a bowl game, and everybody wants to talk about Rutgers football and how we’ve turned it around. It’s really nice to be a part of it."
Indeed, excitement in New Jersey is so high the state government has set aside $25,000 for stipends for Rutgers students to travel to Phoenix.
The Scarlet Knights hope to repeat the history of Kansas State, who ended a long postseason drought by playing in the same bowl in 1993 — it was called the Copper Bowl then and played in Tucson — before developing into one of the nation’s top programs.
"They say they painted that town purple," Schiano said. "Hopefully, we’ll paint this town scarlet."
Few players are likely to enjoy the Insight experience more than Neill, a senior defensive end from New Jersey who could have gone to Penn State, Iowa, Northwestern or Pittsburgh. He suffered all the losing and played through repeated knee injuries.
Last January, as Neill visited family in Florida, his wife, Tiffany, bought him tickets to the Outback Bowl in Tampa on New Year’s Day. Her reason? She did not know if he would ever see a bowl game.
Now, Neill will play in one. He feels it will be just the start of the rewards he will reap for hanging in at Rutgers.
"There are things at a lot of programs — programs I could’ve gone to — where I wouldn’t have had to suffer through all of this," Neill said. "But the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that if you believe in something, you have to stay with it. You keep going.
"I think I’ll be able to live the rest of my life that way."