I grew up in Old Bridge, NJ, which is a twenty minute ride down Route 18 away from Rutgers University. From 1987 to the time I moved out and matriculated at Syracuse University, there was nothing in life more important to me than college football. The sport was my manna, better than anything baseball or hockey or even the NFL could provide. It still is to this day.
And not once from the time I started caring about college football to the time I became a Syracuse fan in 1996 did it even occur to me to go to a Rutgers football game.
It didn't occur to any of my friends either. No one ever had tickets to a Rutgers game. No one cared who they were playing or what their chances were. No one wore Rutgers Starter Jackets. No one had a Rutgers football bumper sticker. No one admitted to even acknowledging that Rutgers football was a thing that happened. Because no one cared.
Can you imagine growing up twenty minutes down the road from the University of Michigan and never even considering attending a football game? Or THE Ohio State? Hell, even Northwestern. It just sound preposterous.
I remember distinctly an article in the Asbury Park Press in the early 90's that discussed how weird it was that Rutgers was so bad at football. The article posited that of the 5-6 things that a college needed to be successful at the sport (recruiting base, proximity to major media market, etc.), Rutgers hit on every, single category. And yet, they consistently churned out 2-win, 3-win and 4-win seasons almost every year. You have to try to be bad to be as bad as Rutgers was back then.
I was at Syracuse from '96 to '99 and I got to witness the nadir of it all first-hand...The Terry Shea Era. Syracuse beat Rutgers in my first three seasons there; 42-0, 50-3, 70-14. Their lone victory, a 24-21 win in 1999, was aided only by two things: A ridiculous wind that shut down both offenses and kicking games, and Paul Pasqualoni's inability to realize this. Shea somehow outlasted me, returning for a fifth season in 2000, but losing to SU 49-21. The universe course-corrected.
When Shea was fired, Greg Schiano came in. It took a while and Schiano somehow survived four losing seasons before finally turning Rutgers into a credible, mediocre football program with flashes of excellence. Since then, it pains me to say that young college football fans only know a world where Rutgers is a perennial bowl team and Syracuse is known for being in the basement.
But what's been more amazing about Rutgers' rise and eventual move to the B1G, is the way their fans have evolved, seemingly-overnight, into what they would love to make you think is one of college football's grandest traditional fanbases.
Stop by a Rutgers message board sometime and marvel at the talk of New York City TV ratings, demographics, recruiting prowess and their place in the history of the sport. Yes, Rutgers played in the first college football game. But you'd think they won every game since the way these start-up kings go about it.
Despite the fact that they are the oldest of old, Rutgers is the nouveau riche. Try as they might to talk like the traditional powers and try as they might to act like the historical college football programs...they're not. I know it cause I saw it firsthand. I was there in the 80's and 90's when Rutgers Fan was a dirty word. I was there when the stadium was empty, the fanbase was miserable and the interest-level was nonexistent.
These days, Rutgers exists in this kind of middle-ground that we're used to seeing out of so many college fanbases (SU fans are getting a great look at it from Clemson in our new conference). It's the we-deserve-to-be-acknowledged-as-the-best-even-though-we-never-seem-to-quite-make-it-there-on-our-own syndrome. The teams that always seem to get hyped up in the preseason to win conferences and go to BCS bowls but never quite make it. The schools that are supposed to make "The Leap" but always lose in Week 11 to prevent it. The programs that act like they've got multiple National Titles under their belt when the truth is, they're not even wearing a belt.
That's Rutgers Football. Good luck with all that.