Greg Schiano had come into his Northern New Jersey High School, selling a vision the way that a Rutgers coach had never done. Five years ago, Ryan Neill made the leap of faith that the good Jersey football players forever feared. It wouldn't be long until his classmates flashed him with quizzical glances in the hallways of Wayne Hills High School and his teachers would ask: "What are you doing, Ryan?"
A gentleman and a scholar, Neill was one of the first players to believe Schiano could transform the worst program in the East into something competent. He was certainly the best of that bunch. He turned down Iowa, Pittsburgh, Northwestern and Wake Forest, determined to take the hard road to glory with a punch line of a program.
Funny thing, but Penn State, which always left Rutgers its recruiting scraps within New Jersey, made a late push for Neill, expecting that the son of an ex-New York Giants nose guard would never honor his word to Rutgers with the Nittany Lions calling now.
"They still felt like they could come after me because I had committed to Rutgers," Neill said. "If I had committed to Iowa, they probably would've left me alone. They didn't have much respect for the program. Their attitude was, 'How can a kid we're recruiting go to Rutgers?'"
Five years later, Neil had survived four losing seasons and a blown-out knee to become a two-time Big East first-team defensive end. Now, he's the captain of the first Scarlet Knights team to make a bowl game in 27 years. Yes, Rutgers plays Arizona State Tuesday in the Insight Bowl, a reward for a 7-4 season and a long, hard climb to respectability.
Schaino, who came from the University of Miami, spent his first five years losing to I-AA teams, losing more top Jersey recruits out of state. However, he found a way to keep some good kids home, stole a few out of Florida and cobbled together seven victories to make the Insight Bowl this year. Well, yes, just one of those wins was against a winning team (Navy), but it was a start for the Scarlet Knights. They still aren't competing with the elite of the Big East Conference -- Louisville and West Virginia -- but they're no longer the punch line of the past.
For so long in Jersey, part of the problem was a media that made excuses for Rutgers, when it needed to be held accountable. Cheerleading foofs were glad to get their wife a press pass to the game, or a round of golf at a fancy country club with administrators. Bad hires beget bad hires, and the cycle never ended. Yet there was a rabid fan base dying for a winner, something that's manifested within days of the Insight Bowl. Seven thousand tickets were sold to Rutgers fans for the game, a Big East record at the Phoenix bowl.
Rutgers rewarded Schiano with a seven-year extension last week, an over-the-top commitment considering that five guaranteed years would've protected Rutgers against this winning season being simply an aberration. Still, Schiano has done a good job. He's been a terrific salesman for Rutgers, a good sports ambassador for a school that's never had one. More than that, he's a Northern Jersey kid who always dreamed of turning Rutgers into a winner, even back to his days as an assistant at Penn State and Miami.
This was where he wanted to return, where he thought the rich recruiting base would allow the embarrassments to end, and the winning begin.
This season, Rutgers should be 8-3, if not for a colossal collapse to Illinois in the opener. The season-ending win over Cincinnati was important -- before that win, they had allowed 101 points in consecutive blowout losses to Louisville and South Florida, two games which came immediately after the Scarlet Knights became bowl eligible with six wins.
At 7-4, they became bowl worthy. "It gives legitimacy to our program," Schiano said.
Last year, Neill was visiting family in Tampa, Fla., over New Year's when his now wife, Tiffany, surprised him with tickets for the Outback Bowl. She couldn't be sure that Ryan would ever get to play in one of these games and wanted him to see for himself.
After the game, Neill left a breathless message on Schiano's phone: "Coach, I just saw a bowl game and we're going to a bowl game."
After blowing out his right knee against Miami as a sophomore in 2002, Neill should've been done forever. He tore his medial collateral ligament and anterior and posterior cruciate ligaments. He missed the 2003 season, kept pushing, and returned in 2004 to lead the Scarlet Knights linemen in tackles (43), tackles for loss (13) and sacks (eight) to make first-team All-Big East. As a senior, he made All-Big East and Academic All-American.
To have picked Rutgers out of a championship high school program in Northern Jersey was tough enough, without the five years of heartache, pain and losing. "These are things that a lot of programs -- the programs I could've gone to -- where I wouldn't have had to suffer through all of this.
"But the biggest lesson that I've learned is that if you believe in something, you stay with it. You keep going. I think I'm going to be able to live the rest of my life that way."
Ryan Neill and Rutgers get a bowl game now, on the longest road from college football punch line to respectability.
Adrian Wojnarowski is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj10@aol.com. His best-selling book The Miracle Of St. Anthony: A Season with Coach Bob Hurley And Basketball's Most Improbable Dynasty can be purchased on Amazon.com.