There are a lot of idiosyncrasies on the Patriots’ roster. They have one wide receiver, Julian Edelman, who played quarterback in college. They have a star cornerback, Malcolm Butler, who played for Division II West Alabama. The long snapper, Joe Cardona, is on active duty in the United States Navy. They even have a wide receiver, Chris Hogan, who played lacrosse in college at Penn State before deciding to give football a try at Monmouth, an FCS school.
Perhaps strangest of all is the franchise’s insistence on picking players from Rutgers. In New England’s divisional-round victory against the Texans, the team’s trio of Rutgers defenders — safeties Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon, as well as cornerback Logan Ryan — each intercepted Brock Osweiler. It was the most Rutgers-centric NFL playoff game ever; the only thing that could’ve made it sweeter would have been if the picks had been thrown by Osweiler’s backup, Rutgers transfer Tom Savage. The Patriots also have former Rutgers linebacker Jonathan Freeny, who’s currently on injured reserve. In fact, the Pats have employed 10 Rutgers players since 2011.
McCourty, Harmon, and Ryan will be tasked with stopping Falcons wide receiver Mohamed Sanu, also a Rutgers grad, in the Super Bowl. With four Scarlet Knights on the two active rosters, Rutgers is tied with Alabama for most former players in the Super Bowl — and the presence of Freeny gives the State University of New Jersey the tiebreaker.
Alabama and Rutgers have nothing in common besides various shades of red. The Crimson Tide have won four of the past eight national championships; the Scarlet Knights have won four conference games since moving to the Big Ten in 2014. Alabama outscored its opponents 358–134 in SEC play; Rutgers was outscored 224–0 by Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, and Penn State.
From the top down, Rutgers athletics have been defined by dysfunction. Not only is the football team failing to win games, it also faces NCAA sanctions, in part because of the time ex-coach Kyle Flood tried to get professors to change a player’s grade.
It’s one thing to break the rules; it’s another to lose while doing it. The school’s basketball program is terrible, just 4–40 in three years of Big Ten play. The last time they made national headlines was when the team’s coach got fired for throwing balls at players’ heads and yelling slurs at them. After that incident, Rutgers fired its athletic director and hired Julie Hermann, who had a player abuse scandal of her own when she coached at the University of Tennessee. She lasted a little over two years in New Jersey; her tenure went poorly.
The program’s only calling card is that it’s a member of the prestigious Big Ten, but everybody knows Rutgers wasn’t added because of its athletic prowess. The commonly accepted backstory is that the conference wanted to add a school near New York City, so that the league-owned Big Ten Network would get added to the cable plans — and cable bills — of millions of metro-area subscribers. While the move has earned the conference tens of millions of dollars per year, the long-term logic seems faulty, especially as the stability of the cable industry wavers.
Outside of an occasional desire to attempt things that may not be strictly legal, Rutgers’ various heaps of flaming trash stand in sharp contrast to Belichick’s Patriots, the nearly permanent pinnacle of NFL success. But through some mix of family, football, and — oddly — lacrosse, Belichick has developed an affinity for Rutgers players.
Belichick might have seen Chris Hogan play before he made it to the NFL. On April 18, 2009, Hogan was still a Penn State lacrosse star. He scored three goals in an easy 9–4 Nittany Lions win over ECAC opponent Rutgers. For the Rutgers lacrosse team, that game was mainly noteworthy because they had gotten to play in the school’s big football stadium before the football team’s annual spring game, and that led to a boost in attention and attendance. The team’s coach, Jim Stagnitta, was upset about the loss but made sure to thank head football coach Greg Schiano for letting the team play in front of some fans who might otherwise not have watched a lacrosse game.
Belichick was at the lacrosse game, but he probably would’ve been there anyway. His son, Steve, was on the team, and the Patriots coach attended many Rutgers home and road lacrosse games during the NFL offseason. Belichick was friendly with both Rutgers coaches: A one-time college lacrosse player and volunteer coach, Belichick lent his ear when Stagnitta needed advice about the team, and he also talked to Schiano when visiting his son.
Steven wasn’t as good as Hogan at lacrosse — a defenseman, he never scored a goal in 34 career games — and after exhausting his lax eligibility, he decided to walk on to the football team as a long snapper. Schiano was enthusiastic about his presence on the team and about the youngster’s future as a coach. While young Belichick never got into a game, Schiano assigned him “projects” and let him break down film with defensive backs.
This favor began a miniature love affair between the elder Belichick and Schiano. NFL fans probably remember Schiano from his drama-fraught two seasons with the Buccaneers, highlighted by him completely losing control of the Tampa Bay locker room. His Rutgers teams weren’t great — his record was just 68–67, and his teams finished ranked only once. But he was certainly the greatest coach in Rutgers history: The Scarlet Knights won five bowl games under Schiano. They’d never won one in the 100-plus years before he took over and they’ve won only one since.
However, Belichick has routinely praised Schiano, saying that he has learned a lot from conversations with Schiano about how to operate a team and that everything Schiano has ever told him about football is “100 percent accurate.” He even credited Schiano with a decision to put the Patriots’ playbooks on iPads in October 2015. The Pats and Buccaneers scheduled joint practices in both of Schiano’s years as Tampa Bay head coach. And the relationship went both ways: While Schiano was in charge, Tampa Bay traded star cornerback Aqib Talib to the Patriots for virtually nothing.
In particular, Belichick has lauded Schiano’s ability to coach defensive backs, which might explain the three Pats who picked off Osweiler. Schiano’s defensive-back expertise even has a proxy on the New England coaching staff: Steve Belichick is in his first year as safeties coach.
Now, if Schiano is a genius at recruiting or coaching defensive backs, it doesn’t exactly show out elsewhere. He is partially responsible for the development of Ohio State safety Malik Hooker, who went from an unknown player to a potential first-round draft pick in Schiano’s first year as Buckeyes defensive coordinator. But while Schiano was in charge, Rutgers was often quite bad at passing defense: tied for 99th in yards-per-attempt in 2008 and tied for 96th in 2010. Plus, the Patriots have nearly all of the Rutgers defensive backs in the NFL. Other than their trio, there’s just Titans cornerback Jason McCourty, who’s Devin’s twin brother, and Marcus Cooper of the Cardinals.
Belichick likely hasn’t discovered a pipeline the rest of the NFL missed out on, and he’s probably not just intent on repaying a favor. Rather, I think Belichick and Schiano value similar traits in players. He’s never praised Schiano’s talent for developing smart schemes, but he has praised “the players [Schiano] recruits and the program [Schiano] runs.” One of Belichick’s prodigious talents is identifying players almost everybody else has forgotten and then turning them into stars. Clearly, he thinks Schiano is capable of doing the same. Harmon, McCourty, and Ryan weren’t diamonds in the rough — all three were picked in the top three rounds — but they had something Schiano, and in turn Belichick, wanted.
Rutgers doesn’t have four former players set to compete in the Super Bowl because Rutgers is good at football. The Scarlet Knights honestly weren’t even that good at football when the players Belichick drafted were at Rutgers, and now they’re even worse. The Patriots-Rutgers connection is an odd quirk, a testament to a time one semi-successful coach and the greatest coach in modern football saw eye-to-eye for reasons nobody else understands. Football coaches are picky in ways they can’t explain to the rest of us, and Belichick is perhaps the pickiest of them all.