Welcome back to B1G 2019, Off Tackle Empire’s week-by-week preview of all fourteen Big Ten teams!
One feature we’re adding this summer is “Better Know a B1G Blog,” wherein we get a chance to hear from the various schools’ own bloggers about what makes their site, their school, and their fans unique in both the Big Ten and the college football landscape.
I’m grateful to Aaron Breitman, the manager of the Rutgers SBNation blog On the Banks, for taking the time out to answer some questions for me without hesitating to think “Does this guy actually know what he’s doing, or is this all made up?” (Maybe he did have that thought—he answered my questions anyways. Draw what conclusions you will, and go follow Aaron and On the Banks on Twitter!)
OTE: Tell us about On the Banks: Your origin story, any particular in-jokes or memes we should be aware of, or any other Rutgers-specific quirks we should know about when we pop over to read an article! How long have you been writing for OTB?
OTB started during the Schiano era about a decade ago. We’ve grown over time and social media has been a great tool for us. As you know, the media world has changed a lot in that time, and it’s only been a good thing for us. We’ve gained more of a following and built a good relationship with the athletic department the past few years. Our podcast regularly features Rutgers coaches as well as others who cover the school or who are involved in some way. The tag line on our twitter page has been insomnia for the sleeping giant, tapping into a theory I know has been debated on your site at times. (Keep up the good fight, Zuzu!)
I have been writing for OTB for exactly 4 years now this May and took over as managing editor in August 2015. Its been a fun and rewarding experience, while also being extremely difficult to navigate at times through several scandals and awful seasons in multiple sports.
I’m starting to think I’m a bad omen or jinx for Rutgers. I was born in April 1977 (yes, I’m getting old), which was just a few months after Rutgers went 11-0 in football, finishing 17th in the final AP poll, and right after the magical undefeated run to the Final Four in men’s basketball. Years of mediocrity and lots of losing soon followed. As a Rutgers student from 1996-2000, the football team went a combined 8-36, which included a winless season and a 1-win campaign my senior year. Thanks Syracuse!
After the most successful decade in Rutgers football history (2005-2014), the program has gone a combined 11-37 since I’ve been running the sight. I was literally in charge for three weeks before the multiple scandals broke out for the 2015 season (players arrested and kicked off the team, the Flood academic mess, Carroo suspension). My first year with the site I also covered every game on the beat for the worst Rutgers men’s basketball team in three decades, which thankfully ended the Eddie Jordan Era. Even Hall of Fame Head Coach C. Vivian Stringer lost her touch and the women’s basketball team went into a four year NCAA drought until this past March. God, I really suck.
OTE: Man, that’s the kind of self-loathing we really crave.
Give us an idea of what kind of #content you think exemplifies the qualities of On the Banks. What’s been your favorite writing assignment or experience for OTB?
We try to bring knowledge, professionalism, opinion and most importantly, passion to everything we cover. We are all still fans, first and foremost. However, that doesn’t mean we aren’t critical. We called for Flood’s firing early on in his last season and for Eddie’s dismissal in early January of his last season. We certainly take the big picture approach and try to find positives even when things are looking down, but at the same time my philosophy is we need to be real. If all hope is lost, than it’s fair to make the argument as to why as well.
We also make it a point to cover as many different athletic teams at Rutgers as possible. Obviously football and basketball are covered the most, but it’s been fun to track and promote the progress of the Olympic sports teams at Rutgers as well. Throughout the past five years since joining the Big Ten, Rutgers was strong in women’s soccer, wrestling, and men’s lacrosse. However, this past year field hockey made the NCAA’s, women’s basketball finished in 3rd place in conference play, and even Gymnastics beat ranked teams this past winter. Softball has made major strides this spring, as they finished 6th in the Big Ten. Baseball is battling Northwestern this weekend for the 8th and final spot in the Big Ten tournament. Rowing is nationally ranked. Track & Field has had some success.
Yes, I fully understand the national and conference perception of Rutgers will, in large part, always be based on football and men’s basketball. This past season was a lot of fun with men’s hoops, and I’ve really seen the perception of the program change for the better under head coach Steve Pikiell, even among other Big Ten fanbases, which has been enjoyable to see.
Of course, football has been a disaster in the Chris Ash era, and it’s been hard to take. But my bigger point is the athletic department as a whole has made major improvements under athletic director Pat Hobbs since he arrived in late 2015. I think Big Ten fans overall value all sports played within the conference and I think it’s important for Rutgers to be as competitive in as many of them as possible. Hobbs has certainly made that his mission and has made what appear to be very good hires in every sport but football so far. It’s been rewarding to have a lot of Rutgers fans appreciate that we cover so many different sports and appreciate their successes, even if it’s not with a more mainstream sport. We aren’t the type of site to finally pay attention and write that it’s time to appreciate the top-ranked team in the country at the end of the regular season in a sport other than football and basketball. (yes, I’m trolling.)
As for me personally, I’ve experienced a lot as a Rutgers fan. I sat behind the basket in 1989 as soon to be teenager when Rutgers beat Penn State in the Atlantic 10 championship to go to the NCAA’s. It was the game most say was the loudest the RAC ever got. Another great hoops moment I witnessed in person was beating Georgetown off a Geoff Billet shot at the buzzer to advance to the 1998 Big East Semifinals at the Garden. I was at the Louisville game in 2006 and almost accidentally knocked a girl off the the upper deck celebrating late in the game from our first row seats, so I guess I should just be happy I didn’t end up in jail for murder. I was also at the infamous 2012 de facto Big East championship game that Rutgers led Louisville 14-3 at the half. When my friend started talking about how amazing it was going to be for Rutgers to go to the Sugar Bowl, I treated my group of friends and entire concourse to a profanity-laced tirade about him being a mush and to refrain from speaking words that was later recounted at his wedding.
Spoiler: after an awful holding call unrelated to the fake field goal that led to a touchdown, which would have put Rutgers up 21-3, they blew it and settled for a four way tie atop the Big East. Brutal. So I’ve experienced pure joy at times and had my heart ripped out much more often the past three decades, so I hope that helps shape our site for the better.
As for my favorite articles, that’s a tough one. I do enjoy covering perception or big picture issues. I wrote a couple years ago about how it was time for Rutgers fans to embrace the hate from the rest of the Big Ten fan bases. It generated some predictable responses from two other SB Nation Big Ten sites, but also was picked up NJ.com/Star Ledger which helped our voice reach a larger audience.
For hoops, the Big Ten Tournament run was memorable but I’ll cite an article I wrote on Pikiell soon after he was hired about why I believed he would ultimately succeed here.
Football hasn’t been fun in the slightest to cover, but for those that say OTB isn’t critical and too fluffy, here is something I wrote after back to back losses to Kansas and Buffalo last season.
As for the site overall, we’ve had so many quality pieces written over the years. The one that resonated the most with outside readers and generated the most views in site history was an article written by Scott Logan, a founding member of the Rutgers Riot Squad, pleading with students to end a derogatory chant against Penn State.
I did want to thank anyone who has ever visited our site or read anything we have produced. We take a lot of pride and responsibility in being a voice within the Rutgers fan base.
OTE: What’s one stereotype about the OTB commentariat and Rutgers fanbase that Big Ten fans as a whole get wrong?
The lazy perception that there are just a few Rutgers fans or the one’s that there are lack passion. It’s utter nonsense.
Granted, being located in the most populated area in the country can make it seem like there isn’t a large fan base to some, but it isn’t true. Sure, Rutgers certainly doesn’t have the tradition of athletic success of some Big Ten schools, or the advantage of being the biggest show around for hundreds of miles, as is the case at other, less successful conference institutions.
However, Rutgers has a lot of passionate fans and supporters, many of whom have been loyal for decades. One key difference to the midwestern schools in my Jersey biased opinion is that Rutgers fans can be more fickle in that there is so much to do in this area. New York City, Broadway, the Jersey shore, the culinary scene, etc give plenty of options other than dedicating every fall weekend to football.
Of course, the epic losing of late has made the decisions easy. However, I find that fans haven’t necessarily gone away, as the online response is strong with our site and with several others. It’s that people have refused to blindly support an administration that made many mistakes over the years. Look at how far behind facilities were at Rutgers when they joined the Big Ten. There wasn’t much of a plan by the school at the time, other than joining the Big Ten made a lot of sense in the long run, but no one was prepared for the major challenges and hard times to come in the short term. The good news now is that under AD Hobbs facilities are being built and money is being raised at an all-time high. It’s amazing what leadership and vision can do.
Also, I did want to say that fans from most Big Ten schools have been very nice to our site, and we welcome comments on our articles always. It’s great when another fan base helps give perspective or insight on their team when a game approaches or they let us know they are noticing progress that Rutgers is making. We’ve seen plenty of the other end of the spectrum too, especially on social media, but that’s par for the course. My message and belief has always been let them talk and wait patiently for the tide to eventually turn.
OTE: What are you most excited about for the Rutgers 2019 season? For the uninitiated fan of another Big Ten school, what are the storylines surrounding your program? Where do you see Rutgers in the pantheon of Big Ten football going into 2019?
The biggest reason to be excited is Rutgers has a very talented backfield with Raheem Blackshear and Isaih Pacheco. They can make big plays in different ways. Blackshear is the speed back who can kill you in open space, Pacheco can run right over you. They offer a good balance and give the most hope that the Rutgers offense can make significant improvement this coming season.The two best recruits coming in for next season are also running backs in Kay’Ron Adams and Aaron Young. Rutgers needs playmakers and appear to have a few to work with in the backfield now, which is encouraging.
Of course, the rest of the offense is a major question mark, from a large group of unproven receivers to a line that hasn’t been very good in years to the puzzle without the right piece in the quarterback position.
The inability for Rutgers to score and even sustain drives has crushed any chance to be truly competitive on a consistent basis in the Ash Era. The defense has been about average under Ash, but needs to take a step forward this season.
To be honest, it’s hard to really get excited about the season ahead. Coming off a 1-11 season will do that. It’s Ash’s fourth season and major improvement is needed. I’ll never lose hope completely, but I’m not going to blow sunshine down people’s throats either. I really hope Ash does work out, because that would mean the program will return to respectability sooner.
The fact is Rutgers enters the 2019 season as the worst power five team in college football. Some Rutgers fans agree, others are in denial. It’s very sad to see this program at this stage, but it is what it is. As Zuzu wrote on this site earlier this week, the numbers don’t lie. Being that we are entering the 150th anniversary on such a down note is disappointing. However, I do believe that better days will come for Rutgers football, but it’s going to take time.
OTE: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us! Anything else—tailgating advice, Piscataway bars to visit, local cuisine, etc.—we should know about Rutgers and On the Banks?
We published a very detailed guide to tailgating at the start of last season, so everything you need to know is here.
We have more game day traditions than most Big Ten fans probably assume. Also the New Brunswick campus has it’s pretty sights as well as plenty of bars and restaurants along Easton Ave and George Street, to name a few. Most Rutgers fans are welcoming and friendly and despite what some people on this site might think, can even take a good ribbing from other fan bases.
Thanks for having me, keep up the good work at OTE and I look forward to Rutgers blowing the minds of other Big Ten fans in the future when winning at most sports becomes the new normal.
Thanks, Aaron! For great Rutgers perspective and some A+ writing, check out Aaron and the rest of the gang over at On the Banks. And if you’re a Rutgers fan who’s new here, welcome! We hope you stick around. Thanks for taking the time to read us at Off Tackle Empire, and thanks again to Aaron and OTB.