It was October 2007. Head football coaches Jim Leavitt of USF and Greg Schiano of Rutgers were on the field making small talk prior to their game.
Oblivious to them was a reporter catching every word.
They were talking about how amazing it was that their two programs were playing in front of a capacity crowd at Rutgers Stadium before a national television audience on this Thursday night.
USF was undefeated and ranked second in the nation.
Rutgers was 5-1 and hoping to jump back into the national spotlight it enjoyed the previous year when it finished 11-2 and was 12th in the final polls.
This was high-stakes drama, but the demeanor of each man was strikingly different.
A decided underdog, Schiano had the appearance of a man who knew something no one else did. Leavitt wore his familiar worrisome look.
Using a bunch of trick plays, Schiano’s Scarlet Knights beat USF 30-27, handing the Bulls what many fans feel is the most devastating loss in program history.
Schiano went on to become Leavitt’s personal nightmare. He beat him four times in five games and more than any other coach figured out how to slow down quarterback Matt Grothe, USF’s career total offensive leader.
You could see that cockiness in Schiano. His success seemed to destroy a part of Leavitt, sending him into a surly funk.
Now Leavitt is an assistant coach with the San Francisco 49ers, and you can’t help but wonder whether he would’ve been the guy introduced as the Bucs’ new coach if he fared better against Schiano.
That’s not to say Schiano is a lock to succeed for the NFL’s worst-run franchise.
Instead of facing Leavitt twice a year, he will be going up against head coaches by the names of Sean Payton and Mike Smith and up-and-coming Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera.
Instead of figuring out how to stop Grothe twice a year, he will have to stop Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and world wonder Cam Newton.
Jim Harbaugh is the only recent head college coach who has succeeded in the NFL, and he had the advantage of being an NFL quarterback for 15 years.
Even Jimmy Johnson, who won two Super Bowls for the Dallas Cowboys, struggled, going 1-15 his first year and then 7-9. If it wasn’t for all the draft picks he got in that Herschel Walker trade, Johnson might have been another casualty.
Schiano seemed to woo everyone at his introductory press conference, which is what we should have expected. There are no losses to explain, and it was the easiest press conference he will have during his time at One Buc Place.
But the 45-year-old is in a tough situation. No matter what you think about the hire, you have to agree he is a big risk.
You can run the numbers on Schiano any way you want to justify or blast his hiring. A lot of people say he was a mediocre coach in a mediocre conference that was the worst of the BCS leagues.
In 2005, disgruntled folks at Rutgers wanted Schiano fired because he did not deliver on the expectations they had when he was hired in 2001.
But Ray Rice arrived on campus in 2005, and things changed dramatically. The current Baltimore Ravens standout running back was a major reason Rutgers grabbed the national spotlight during his years there (2005-2007).
Bucs GM Mark Dominik lauded Schiano’s achievements at Rutgers, praising his defense.
But Schiano’s defenses at Rutgers were up and down, and his critics charged that he was a poor game manager. He never won a Big East title, and his record the past five years is 16-19 in the Big East and 28-48 overall. In 2010, Rutgers’ defense was last in the Big East in points and yards allowed, and the team finished in the conference cellar at 1-6.
This past season, Schiano had the Big East’s top-ranked defense, but in its last regular season game, Rutgers gave up 40 points to a Connecticut team that had not scored more than 27 points against a BCS school all season.
You just don’t what you are going to get from Schiano. There is some good, some bad and a lot of mediocrity.
A lot has been made about how Schiano turned Rutgers around, but turnaround is a subjective word. The school made a commitment in 2001 to improve the program and through the years poured a lot of money into it, including $102 million several years ago to expand its football stadium.
Detractors say what Schiano did was take a bad Rutgers football program and turn it into a mediocre one, except for the 11-2 season he had in 2006.
Schiano was 1-23 against teams that finished in the Top 25 at the end of the season and 4-17 against teams that were ranked in the Top 25 at game time. Since 2005, he is 4-9 against teams ranked at the time of the game, and two of those wins came against USF.
But all of this is like spilled milk. He is here and deserves a chance.
Ultimately, the most important thing for Schiano will be the kind of staff he hires and how much the Glazers are committed to spending on the free agent market.
What they’re saying
A lot of comments have been made since it became apparent Schiano would be the Bucs’ head coach that might indicate where the Bucs are going. Here is a sampling.
Comments that raise the anxiety meter:
Schiano: “I learned how committed they (Glazer family) are to being the very best. I know they want to be the best and they’re going to do whatever it takes to be the best, but we’re going to do it responsibly.”
Caution: The track record here is bad and that phrase “doing it responsibly” is one way of saying we are going to spend as little as possible in free agency.
Question to Schiano: How aggressive will you be in free agency?
Answer: “ It would be foolish of me to even make a comment. I don’t know the team. Mark does know the team. ... In pro football it’s draft and develop. I believe that.”
Comments to feel good about:
Schiano: “Time is our enemy. That is the only thing that all of us have on this planet.
Dominik: “This is Schiano’s staff. He is going to have final say.”
The Glazers cited comments made by Bill Belichick praising Schiano and Tony Dungy regarding Oregon coach Chip Kelly, who the Bucs reportedly offered the job to earlier in the week.
Ironically, both Belichick and Dungy had sons who played for those coaches. Stephen Belichick came to play lacrosse at Rutgers and last season joined the football team as a walk-on long snapper after asking Schiano for the opportunity.
Alan Dell, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 941-745-2112.