There are plenty of conventional ways to illustrate the magnitude of a lengthy gap between occurrences in sports.
The last time something happened, the president was … the No. 1 movie was … the cost of gas was … fill in a random geopolitical thing … et cetera.
Rutgers basketball, though, is not a conventional institution.
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Sure, we can give you the basics: The last time the Scarlet Knights went to the NCAA Tournament, George H.W. Bush was in the Oval Office, “The Silence of the Lambs” was tops at the box office, it was $1.14 a gallon to fill up your car, and Germany had just formally regained complete independence.
But the best way to recap how incredible the Scarlet Knights’ 30-year odyssey between Big Dances is to lay out all the ridiculousness that has transpired with the no-longer star-crossed program over the last three decades.
The drought is over. Here are 30 strange Rutgers hoops events and moments from along the way:
Mike Rice. We start with the one that needs no explanation. A national player abuse scandal that rocked the entire university to its core, cost a coach and athletics director their jobs and started a chain reaction of events that sparked a raging dumpster fire the athletics department has only recently recovered from.
Naked free throws. The OG Rutgers scandal. Two former players and a former student manager sued in December 1999, alleging coach Kevin Bannon forced them to run nude laps after losing a free throw competition during a 1997 practice. Bannon was fired a little over a year later. Oh, and the two players made the Big Dance at the schools they transferred to.
Fred Hill Jr.’s weekend at the ballpark. Hill, sitting on a white-hot seat after the school was too cheap to fire him, launched into an expletive-filled diatribe toward the Pittsburgh coaching staff at a Rutgers-Pitt baseball game (his father, the late Fred Sr., was coaching the Scarlet Knights) in 2010. Athletics director Tim Pernetti order Hill to stay away from Bainton Field after Pitt complained. Hill didn’t listen and tried to watch the next game in his car. Pernetti found out and the incident led Rutgers to get rid of the embattled coach.
A pandemic cancels the NCAA Tournament. The ultimate RU Screw. But one that has mercifully been overcome.
Footnotes to Mount Ricemore
Rutgers hires Julie Hermann, who was accused of abusing players when she was a coach, as athletics director. It was downhill from there.
The SNL sketch. “You know why I threw a toaster at you? ‘Cause you’re toast.”
Notre Dame’s Mike Brey telling Gov. Chris Christie it might be wise to shut down the program post-Rice. A long-forgotten headline that still sticks in many Rutgers fans’ craws.
Eddie Jordan didn’t actually graduate. Coaching resume snafus are not unheard of (Steve Masiello and George O’Leary come to mind). But when your scandal-devastated program hires one of its all-time greats to rebuild and it turns out he never actually got his degree even though you said he did? That is a new one. All that said, Jordan turned this into a positive and set an example by finishing his schoolwork and getting his diploma.
Eugene Omoruyi’s midnight transfer. The big man was Rutgers’ captain and leading scorer and was revered for his toughness. And then he was gone like the Baltimore Colts rolling out to Indianapolis in a Mayflower rental truck under the cover of darkness (Google it kids), eventually transferring to Oregon in a stunning turn of events no one saw coming and that has never really been explained.
A bazillion other transfers. Dahntay Jones, Mike Rosario and way too many other names to mention.
The 2011 Big East Tournament vs. St. John’s. “Get da Big East commissionah on da phone!” St. John’s won, 65-63, after the officiating crew inexplicably walked off the court with time left on the clock after a Red Storm player stepped out of bounds. WFAN’s Mike Francesa was not amused.
Snowgate. Gary Waters’ relatively successful tenure as coach was marred when he infamously missed a game against Marquette after being snowed in following an athletics hall of fame ceremony at Kent State. Rutgers used the unfortunate series of events to help grease the skids for his exit. Waters ended up leading Cleveland State to the Big Dance a few seasons later and the Scarlet Knights slid into the abyss.
J.R. Inman’s manifesto. The former Rutgers player trashed Hill in a long, profane, homophobic Facebook rant that included the iconic “Steak of Turmoil” line.
Freddie vs. Gonzo. Both Hill and former Seton Hall coach Bobby Gonzalez were publicly reprimanded by the Big East following their dueling clown show at the end of the Scarlet Knights’ 64-61 win over the Pirates in the 2008 “Bambi on Ice” game.
Crushing losses and near-misses
The 2004 Virginia Tech loss. A 71-70 late-season loss to the Hokies on a disputed tip-in at the buzzer knocked the Scarlet Knights off the NCAA bubble. It would be over a decade before Rutgers was back in the hunt for the Big Dance
Rutgers’ 61-point loss to Louisville in 2014 AAC Tournament. The 92-31 loss to Rick Pitino’s Cardinals was eventually vacated by the NCAA. But the scars remain for Scarlet Knights fans.
Jordan Wieskamp’s miracle shot for Iowa. I still don’t know how it went in.
The collapse in ‘99. The Bannon-coached team was 17-7 in mid-February before losing four straight and five of its last six to crash out of NCAA Tournament contention and into the NIT.
The Rose Hill debacle. It feels like a lifetime ago. But Rutgers’ upset loss at hapless Fordham in 2018 was a panic moment for the fanbase. The Rams had not hosted a Big Ten team since 1935. And it figures to be at least another 90-plus years before the Scarlet Knights go back. On a related note, former Rams star Nick Honor now plays for … Clemson!
The coaching carousel
Rutgers almost hires Jay Wright. Athletics director Bob Mulcahy zeroed in on Wright, who had led Hofstra to back-to-back Big Dances, after firing Bannon. But Rutgers’ bureaucracy slowed the process and Villanova was able to swoop in after Steve Lappas magically resigned to take the UMass job. Wright has since won close to 500 games and two national titles with the Wildcats. But it is hard to quantify just how damaging the miss was because Wright, a former Rollie Massimino assistant, was likely destined to take the Villanova job eventually.
Almost hired John Beilein, too. A published report said the then-Richmond coach visited campus to interview in the spring of 2001. He ended up leading Michigan and West Virginia to a combined two Final Fours and national finals, four Elite Eights, seven Sweet 16s, 11 tournament appearances and an NIT championship.
And it didn’t hire Mike Lonergan. The former George Washington coach was a top candidate after Jordan was fired. GW then fired him several months later after a Washington Post report detailing player abuse. A rare break for the Scarlet Knights.
The Greg Schiano protest. We use the term “protest” loosely, but the hoops game against NJIT between the initial breakdown of talks and Schiano’s hire on the second try was a very strange evening at the RAC. Rutgers had extra security on hand in the event of a spectacle, but only a handful of fans showed up to politely express their anger before a boring romp over a mid-major opponent.
This and that
Rutgers upsets No. 4 Wisconsin. Arguably the most inexplicable win in program history. Jordan sobbed in his press conference after the Scarlet Knights stunned the Badgers at the RAC in 2015. They then went on a 15-game losing streak to end the season.
Seton Hall goes out of its way to duck Rutgers during the 2020-21 season. Here come the angry emails again.
Eddie Jordan doesn’t coach rebounding. The second-most amazing quote by a Rutgers coach in history, trailing only Chris Ash’s “this might take six, seven years” crack after losing to Kansas in 2018. Jordan said doing rebounding drills wasn’t in his portfolio after Rutgers got embarrassed on the glass by Seton Hall in a blowout 2015 loss.
Rutgers abandons the Princeton series. Jordan stopped playing the Tigers after they won the 2013 meeting at the RAC and Pikiell has not scheduled them either. This layoff should end soon because it’s embarrassing for Rutgers.
The UMass protest. Rutgers was leading No. 4 UMass by a basket at halftime in 1995 when a sit-in protesting a racist remark by then-university president Francis Lawrence forced the game to be suspended at the RAC. The Scarlet Knights ended up losing by 15 after the game was resumed a month later in Philadelphia.
Herb Pope’s headbutt. The Seton Hall forward got away with headbutting Rutgers’ Eli Carter, avoiding ejection, before hitting a dagger 3-pointer to lead the Pirates to victory in 2012.
The APC opens its doors. We’ll end this on a high note. It was not absurd, but it was certainly remarkable. After decades of getting in its own way while talking about building a practice facility — or just flat-out giving up on building one — Rutgers actually did it. And the Scarlet Knights are now reaping the rewards.
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James Kratch may be reached at [email protected].