The first game of college football was played on November 6, 1869 on a field in the heart of New Brunswick, New Jersey between Rutgers College and The College of New Jersey, now known as Princeton. This season is in the 150th year since that game was played making this season the 150th anniversary of the greatest sport on the planet, College Football. It also means that Rutgers has just that much more college football history than other teams. Sure, it may seem like we may not have done a lot with those years, but that’s not what this write up is about. It’s to celebrate and commemorate this old college team that helped start all of this greatness and to share with you the highlights, great spots, and the story of Rutgers’ 150 year football history— To reflect on and share with you our greatest coaches, our greatest seasons, and some of our greatest players in a century and a half of existence.
Rutgers took some time to find its rhythm after that first college football game in 1869. An independent existence and schedule inconsistencies saw Rutgers having some decent seasons in the last part of the 19th Century, but nothing that really set the tone for Rutgers Football until many years later. Rutgers went 6-4 in 1882 (all seasons prior to that after the advent of college football were between only 2 and 4 games), so Rutgers actually had a fairly successful first “major season” as far as a multi-game schedule resembling the later style of football goes.
After that it took Rutgers 11 years of inconsistent play to have another fairly successful season achieving 8 wins out of 14 in 1891, Rutgers’ first season with a head football coach, William A. Reynolds. This was Reynolds’ only season with Rutgers. At this point, by the way, the Rutgers mascot was referred to as “The Scarlet” and/or “Queensmen,” referencing the college’s founding as Queens College in 1776.
In 1893-94, Rutgers was temporarily not independent having joined the MSIFL, the Middle States Intercollegiate Football League. It seems to have only been comprised of Lafayette and Rutgers, but Rutgers was league champion in 1894, having gone 2-0, before the conference went defunct at Rutgers went back to being independent.
Let’s head into the 1900’s. By the turn of the Century, Football had become popular around the U.S. and schedules were more consistent. Conferences were starting to pop up all over and historic rivalries were beginning to take hold. The Big Ten as the oldest modern conference being founded in 1896.
Rutgers, however, was still independent and prior to 1913, didn’t really have any consistency at head coach. Then George Foster Sanford came in. Sanford is Rutgers’ first great football coach. In his eleven seasons at Rutgers he had a career record of 84–46–6. He even went 6-3 in his inaugural season.
Sanford was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame posthumously in 1971. Sanford coached two nearly perfect seasons (1915 and 1917) and it was in these two seasons that famous Rutgers Alumnus, musician, athlete, and political activist Paul Robeson played.
This was taken from the Rutgers Football History Capsule.
The Scarlet Knights outscored opponents by an average of 44-3 in 1915 and 33-2 in 1917. Sanford, a member of Rutgers’ Hall of Fame, also helped to introduce Rutgers to the New York metropolitan area, playing games at the Polo Grounds against teams like Notre Dame, Nebraska, Louisiana State and West Virginia. A few years later, in 1924, two-time All-America end and fullback Homer Hazel helped coach John Wallace continue the tradition of first-year coaching success, as Rutgers posted a 7-1-1 mark.
I would argue that Sanford is Rutgers’ most important coach, setting the stage for where we are today, though the journey to get here was still very much full of ups and downs past Sanford.
The next coach after Sanford was John H. Wallace, a former Rutgers Football running back, and teammate of Paul Robeson, who played under Sanford. Wallace also had a great first season, going 7-1 in 1924, but was likely riding off of Sanford’s success, because he only lasted 3 seasons, going 12–14–1. I bring Wallace up though because it was during Wallace’s coaching that in 1925 Rutgers officially changed its mascot to the Chanticleers, a Gamecock-esque mascot that I personally think is great. Vintage Rutgers items show the Chanticleer clad in Scarlet looking pretty tough.
In 1929 Rutgers became part of a scheduling alliance called the “Middle Three Conference” which consisted of Rutgers, Lafayette, and Lehigh. Of course you may not consider these programs powerhouses, and sure at this point in College Football history the Blue Bloods were already established, but this write-up is about the success that Rutgers did have independent of these other teams. Rutgers did well in this little alliance and in its 1929-1975 existence, Rutgers was the outright champion 24 out of 47 seasons, and tied for 1st in an additional 6 out 47 games.
Moving forward to 1938, Harvey Harman was Rutgers’ next great football coach. Harman had a short first time tenure at Rutgers coaching for four years before serving as a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy for World War II, but went 26-7-2 in those 4 seasons. During Harman’s Naval service, Harry Rockafeller, the graduate manager of athletics and former All-American player under George Sanford and another teammate of Paul Robeson, would take the reigns of Rutgers Football (again) for four seasons starting in 1942 (he had previously coached from 1927-1930).
Rockafeller, though he didn’t do too great in his 4 seasons taking over Harman, going 14-10-1, and in his overall Rutgers career went 33-26-1 in his two coaching stints, he’s relevant to Rutgers Football History because he became Rutgers’ Acting Athletic Director and full Athletic Director from 1952-1961. After World War II, Harman returned again to coach at Rutgers for another 10 seasons in 1946. The first four seasons of Harman’s returned tenure were very good going 7-2, 8-1, 7-2, and 6-3 respectively. Sadly, in his last 6 seasons he didn’t quite achieve what he had past, but still, Harman was a great coach for Rutgers having gone 74–44–2 overall. He was posthumously inducted into College Football Hall of Fame in 1981.
By the way in 1955, Rutgers University decided by campus-wide election to change their “chicken” mascot to Scarlet Knights which beat out other contenders such as the old school “Queensmen”, the “Scarlet”, and some new recommendations like the “Red Lions”, the “Redmen” and the “Flying Dutchmen.” (Just imagine a world in which Rutgers’ mascot is the Flying Dutchmen). Allegedly, when Coach Harman was asked why he supported changing the Rutgers mascot, he was quoted as saying, “You can call it the Chanticleer, you can call it a fighting cock, you can call it any damn thing you want, but everybody knows it’s a chicken.”
After Harman’s era, John Stiegman was next up. In Stiegman’s 3rd season, 1958, the MAC (Middle Atlantic Conference) began sponsoring football for all of its teams, including Rutgers. Key emphasis on Football as Rutgers was one of the original 13 founding MAC members in 1922, but it was for other sports. Rutgers, Lehigh, and Lafayette still remained a part of the Middle Three Conference, and all 3 were members of the MAC from 1958-1969. Rutgers was the first ever MAC Football champion, with Coach Stiegman leading Rutgers to an 8-1 season in 1958, its only loss to the Quantico Marines apparently because All-American tailback Billy Austin had to miss a game due to a broken hand.
Head Coach John Bateman (1960-1972), Rutgers’ next Head Coach, went 8-1 in 1960 and led Rutgers to its first ever true undefeated season in 1961. Rutgers went 9-0, coming first in the MAC again. This 1961 Rutgers Scarlet Knights Football team ended their season with a fourth-quarter, 25-point comeback win over Columbia. That team included All-American center Alex Kroll, and was ranked 15th nationally (and previously ranked 20 in 1960). In his 11 seasons, Bateman went 73-124. Rutgers went 6-3 in its 100th Anniversary of Football season under Bateman in 1969.
For the Rutgers fans reading this, I’m sure you’re finally excited that I’ve gotten to what many Rutgers fans feel is our greatest coach ever. In 1973 Frank Burns became Head Coach of Rutgers Football and built great teams recognized for fundamentals and defense. Burns was a Rutgers Quarterback under Head Coach Harvey Harman from 1945-1948.
On paper, Frank Burns is “Rutgers’ Greatest Coach” with his overall record of 78–43–1 punctuated by a legendary, undefeated 11-0 1976 season where Rutgers finished ranked 17 Nationally, and led Rutgers to a shocking 13-7 upset victory over Tennessee in 1979. Frank Burns also took Rutgers to its first bowl game, the Garden State Bowl in 1978, losing to Arizona State 18-34. Under Franks Burns, Rutgers also had perhaps its greatest moral victory loss in history when Rutgers fell 13-17, to a highly-favored Alabama team coached by Bear Bryant at Giants Stadium in 1980. Bryant actually said,
“We didn’t beat Rutgers. All I can say is we won.”
— Bear Bryant
Franks Burns’ last few years weren’t too great, but his legacy is forever. However, the university and New Jersey decided to reaffirm its commitment in football, dismissing Burns and hiring Dick Anderson in 1984 along with being assisted by $3 million state-funded package which helped build and finance the Rutgers Hale Center (the main football hub), practice bubble, and artificial turf for the practice fields.
Anderson went 7-3 in his inaugural season and his 1984-1989 career was highlighted by upset wins over nationally-ranked teams like Penn State and Michigan State, and a nationally-televised victory over Northwestern in the program’s 1,000th game. To again quote the Rutgers Football History Capsule:
“Anderson’s teams produced some of the most exciting players in Rutgers history, including record-breaking passer Scott Erney, career tackles leader Tyronne Stowe (533 from 1983-86) and football/baseball star Eric Young. Anderson’s last game at Rutgers was a memorable one. It was the 1989 Emerald Isle Classic versus Pittsburgh in Dublin, Ireland, the first time a Rutgers team played overseas.”
Doug Graber (1990-1995) would follow Dick Anderson as Head Coach and was known for emphasizing in-state talent. His first recruiting class included three first team all-state selections and two second-team All-State selections among the 12 recruits from New Jersey. Graber’s best season saw Rutgers going 7-4 in 1992, 3rd in the Big East, which Rutgers joined in 1991.
Sadly for Rutgers, the years after 1992 would be bleak and consistently full of not great seasons. Then, a young head coach named Greg Schiano, a New Jersey native and former Bucknell Linebacker with various defensive coaching stints (but no head coach experience), took time to build Rutgers Football into something great in the almost modern football era, with his true break out season in 2005 going 7-5.
This 2005 season would snap Rutgers’ over decade long awfulness streak. This season led to Rutgers’ 2nd ever bowl game, the Insight Bowl, which interestingly enough was also against Arizona State and was another loss, but a much closer 40-45 loss this time.
2006 rolled around and is arguably Rutgers’ most famous season in recent memory. Rutgers upset #3 Louisville and this is considered the greatest win in Rutgers Football history. I still get chills when I listen to Chris Carlin’s iconic radio call.
Greg Schiano would lead Rutgers to Bowl Game WINS for the next FOUR seasons in a row (2006 included), then a down year in 2010, and another bowl game win in 2011, his last season before leaving Rutgers for the NFL.
Now... what happens after this in the 150 years of Rutgers Football History is the part that gets a little sadder and more painful for Rutgers fans, a little more familiar to most of you, and... I’m not going to write about it. I think this write up of mine from September last season summarizes the hard, fast fall Rutgers Football experienced after 2011 and how we got here. I will mention some positive focal points for Rutgers Football since 2011 including being tied for first in the Big East in 2012 going 9-3, and three consecutive bowl games from 2012-2015, with the latter being a win against North Carolina in our first year in the Big Ten. And of course that points out that Rutgers joined the Big Ten in this time frame (2014) a move that I do think is a net positive, though less positive given recent history.
I hope with this write up for Rutgers Week, in the 150th year of College Football since that first game in New Brunswick, New Jersey, that maybe I’ve given you some appreciation for Rutgers Football. I get that it’s easy to make fun of when looking at its recent history, but while I wrote this, I found even myself learning more cool things about Rutgers Football that makes me of all people appreciate it even more. We’re not a Blue Blood, we didn’t go down that path, but we still had our great moments. In fact, I could argue that because of the way we started with college football, we were destined to never be like an Ohio State or a Michigan. An analogy would be like how a new, good idea for a business doesn’t gain traction right away or isn’t executed properly, but some years later a new business comes in taking that same idea and making it better based on the original foundation. Rutgers set the stage for the big, great programs. Without Rutgers, would we even have Ohio State, Penn State, Alabama, USC, etc?
Something to ponder...