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Bald jokes, acne taunts and F-bombs: The secret behind Rutgers' rise this college basketball season

Mar 6, 2019; Piscataway, NJ, USA; Rutgers Scarlet Knights and Penn State Nittany Lions during the first half at Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC). Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

PISCATAWAY, N.J. – The most inspired student section sign of this college basketball season appeared at Rutgers in early January. It read, “Rank Us Cowards,” a dare to the voters in the Associated Press poll to include the Scarlets Knights for the first time since 1979.

It has been a season of awakening at Rutgers, where the most improbable story in all of college basketball is unfolding with a quintessential Jersey flair. A program that for decades has been haunted by a toxic mix of scandal, losing and conference realignment punchlines has emerged as the sport’s unlikely darling.

The “cowards” did eventually rank Rutgers, and the defiance behind that sign has defined this most unusual run from afterthought to potential March upstart. The biggest catalyst of Rutgers hurtling toward its first NCAA tournament since 1991 isn’t coach Steve Pikiell, star guard Ron Harper Jr. or the glistening new $115 million practice facility that looks like a contemporary art museum. 

No, the unquestioned star of this Rutgers run has been the 43-year old Rutgers Athletic Center, a bandbox known only as the RAC around New Jersey and among coaches who’ve haunted the Big East and Atlantic 10. As the losing seasons spiraled into losing decades for the Scarlet Knights and incompetence became an expectation, the RAC somehow remained a place opposing players and coaches loathed. It’s fitting in this most bizarre college basketball season that a faded trapezoid building with an abandoned military storage facility vibe would emerge as one of the epicenters.

Since Rutgers’ last NCAA tournament appearance, it has gone through seven coaches, four leagues and no winning seasons since 2006. (Of course, Rutgers fired Gary Waters after going 19-14.)  

Yet the RAC never lost its bite and bile, the spirit of the arena annually outpacing the product. Through all the dismal seasons, the fans trudged to the RAC each winter with the same certainty they were going to the Shore in the summer.

“They’re there to influence the outcome,” said former Seton Hall coach Bill Raftery, who coached in the building’s first game in 1977 and called countless games there as a broadcaster. “If you have acne, they’re going to point it out. They won’t buy the Clearasil, but they’ll tell you you’ll need it.”

The power and warts of this Rutgers team have abided by a distinct geographic dichotomy. The RAC has earned the nickname the Trapezoid of Terror, as the Scarlet Knights are 17-1 at home with victories over NCAA-bound teams like Seton Hall, Wisconsin, Illinois and Penn State. On the road, they’ve been a sputtering mess, going 1-7 in true road games, 0-2 on neutral floors and their only league win coming at hapless Nebraska. While Rutgers (18-10) is virtually assured an NCAA bid at this point – it projects as a No. 9 seed – you don’t have to be a Vegas sharp to pick against the Scarlet Knights in the first round.

That lopsided home-court dominance has made the RAC, an 8,000-seat ode to intimacy, both the most powerful building in college basketball this season and a beacon of one of March’s most delicious storylines. With a steep pitch in the stands, hostile acoustics trapped by the unique design and a proud local swagger, the RAC has delivered a full-throated embrace of a team that finally matches the environment.

“It’s Jersey, and Jersey people are proud about Jersey,” said Mike Conover, a senior from Beachwood who is vice president of the student-run Riot Squad. “We’re loud. We’ll honk at each another and flip each other off on the road. It’s a rude place. That’s how we roll.”

How far can they roll? In Pikiell’s fourth season, he’s built a starless team that runs nine deep and wins through blunt force. Harper is the leading scorer at 12.2 ppg, but he’s far from a household name.  The team’s identity revolves around the country’s No. 12 defense and converting more than 60 percent of their two-point shots.

Essentially, Pikiell has built a gritty team to match the home environment.

An excerpt from the Home News Tribune in 1977 when the Rutgers Athletic Center was near completion. (Courtesy Rutgers Athletics)

Legend of the RAC

Former Notre Dame star Troy Murphy is one of many former New Jersey high school stars that fled the Garden State for greener pastures. And over the decades, the out-of-state options were typically greener.

But returning always meant a stream of vitriol at the RAC, which Murphy can still concisely remember two decades later. Murphy recalls greeting one of his elementary school teachers pregame, only to see her later screaming at him with two fists clenched when he picked up his second foul. “She was a lovely teacher, I couldn’t believe it,” said Murphy, who is the founder of Sweven Wealth, a financial advisory firm. “There was a switch, and once the game started you were the sworn enemy.”

Opposing coaches have loathed playing at the RAC for decades. Jim Calhoun, who Pikiell played and coached for at UConn, admitted that the RAC was “one of the tougher” road environments he’d experienced when encouraging Pikiell to take the job.

Opposing coaches around the Big East, Big Ten and beyond would readily agree. Articulating why revolves around that unique claustrophobia, as the locker rooms are cramped, the coach is on the court as soon as he stands up from his chair and the gym is the antithesis of the antiseptic Big Ten arenas with double the capacity.

Most striking for visitors is that student section is an actual full section — a swath of bleachers located strategically adjacent to the opposing bench. “It’s like the bleachers at Yankee Stadium,” Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said. “They have no problem throwing around the F-word.”

Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard has received constant reminders of his follicular challenges for nearly a decade at the RAC, as he debuted there as a head coach in 2011. He knows he’ll be greeted by the same fan who sits about four rows behind the Seton Hall bench.

“He comes up with Rogaine, he comes up with Propecia,” Willard said with a chuckle of admiration. “This year, he said, ‘Your blond hair is looking great this year Willard, keep it up.’ He’s non-stop, and he’s really good.”

The arena’s caustic soul is aided by its odd shape. The combination of the hard angles of both building design and bleacher steepness keeps the noise echoing. The RAC’s throwback charm means that the fan in Section 310 can be heard as if he’s behind the bench.

“I’m sure I’ve been jeered and heckled in more places,” said Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann. “I’ve just never heard it so clearly. Last year, I felt like a guy was two inches from my ear.”

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey took a pounding in the RAC as a player at George Washington in the early 1980s, recalling a beating so bad that his coaches demanded a bus trip home with no stops for food. He recalls the parents of Notre Dame players getting confronted by Rutgers fans. The visiting coaches’ locker room doubled as the baseball coaches’ locker room, which left Brey swinging a metal bat – a fitting metaphor – before most games. “You always had to escape, not matter what their record was,” Brey said. “I was scarred.” 

Now that leagues have shifted and Rutgers has risen, Brey is among the chorus of coaches praising what Pikiell has accomplished, turning around the program after going 15-18, 15-19 and 14-17 the first three seasons. The team plays with a blue-collar identity that locals – and coaches who no longer have to play there – can happily embrace.

“Jersey people love their hoops and follow their hoops,” Brey said. “I am thrilled. They made such a great hire with Steve. He’s really good. It’s neat to see, quite frankly.”

Head coach Steve Pikiell has engineered a turnaround at Rutgers and the RAC. (Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports)

From rundown to running with it

The request to Rutgers athletic director Pat Hobbs for an interview was answered with a tour. Hobbs met a reporter at the RAC recently, where the entrance to the stairwell that leads to the administrative offices is wedged between an Auntie Anne’s pretzel stand and a Knights Bar that sells Goose Island beer.

Hobbs took over at Rutgers five years ago and recalled duct tape on the carpet in certain offices and no air conditioning anywhere in the arena. “I used to say to everyone, if OSHA came in here, they’d shut the place down,” Hobbs said.

The twin transformative tenets of this current Rutgers team came under Hobbs’ watch. In 2016, Hobbs hired Pikiell from Stony Brook. He arrived as the consummate proven program-builder with a no-frills ethos to tackle the task of resuscitating a laughingstock. Hobbs then shepherded the $115 million dollar RWJ Barnabas Health Athletic Performance Center to completion, replete with floor-to-ceiling windows and enough natural light to counter all those swampy Jersey stereotypes. The facility also houses women’s basketball, gymnastics and wrestling. 

As Hobbs ushers a reporter between the RAC and the new dazzling palace, he covers four decades of Rutgers athletics apathy. “This is the first entirely new building built for athletics in 40 years,” he said.

Former Rutgers basketball assistant Jimmy Carr recalls RU basketball practices playing out to the din of aluminum bats from nearby batting practice in the RAC. It wasn’t uncommon for a stray baseball to roll onto the hardwood. Gymnasts changed into their leotards in a public restroom, while the softball locker room crammed 35 players into a 10’ by 10’ space the size of an economy hotel room.

When Pikiell took over in 2016, he’d often face the sadistic choice of practicing his team at 8 a.m. after arriving home from a Big Ten road trip four hours earlier or letting them sleep in. The RAC was so crowded with teams and events that practice times, even for men’s basketball, were limited.

“Now, whatever time we get back, I say, ‘I’ll see you at 4 p.m.’” Pikiell said recently in his office, which includes an outdoor porch. “I don’t have to check with cheerleading, I don’t have to check with wrestling. For practical reasons, it has helped us tremendously.”

Pikiell built Stony Brook into a power in the America East, going 192-156 over 11 seasons. He won four regular season titles in his final seven years thanks to all the hallmarks Rutgers traditionally lacked – player identification, development and a general strategy for program-building. Pikiell found under-recruited Geo Baker (10.7 ppg) in New Hampshire, lured guard Harper Jr. to stay home and got his old recruit from Stony Brook, Akwasi Yeboah, to join him again in Piscataway to reinforce the program’s culture. Pikiell also showed the fortitude to stick through three losing seasons and the transfer of last year’s leading scorer, junior Eugene Omoruyi (13.8 ppg), to Oregon.

It has been a slow burn to this point. Pikiell and the team engaged in the community to help lure back fans, including stacking fries on the famous Fat Sandwiches at the legendary campus food trucks known as the grease trucks. They helped students move into the dorms to build interest in the program. And after hauling boxes, Pikiell would make a pitch to attend a game. He recalled with a laugh: “One girl had so much stuff, ‘You probably have to come to two games.’”

Harper recalls games being loud at the RAC last season, even when half-full. He delights in recalling the crescendos this year. When Baker hit the game-winning shot against Nebraska in January, Harper didn’t realize the Cornhuskers had called timeout until he saw teammates retreating to the bench. “The whole timeout, you couldn’t hear anything,” he said.

Against Northwestern on a Sunday night in early February, Rutgers trailed by 18 before launching a furious late comeback to win, 77-73. That night spoke to the core tenet of the RAC diehards who endured the lean years and leaner decades, as noise never waned even while Northwestern’s lead grew. “That shows the people really believe in us and they really want us to win,” Harper said.

And there are still new facility projects on the horizon for Hobbs and the Scarlet Knights. Rutgers is woefully behind in football, where part of the contract impasse around hiring Greg Schiano centered on raising money for a new facility to help close the glaring gap between Rutgers and other Big Ten schools. Hobbs is also examining ways to modernize the RAC, including putting in a bar for high-end donors.

But he’s careful not to change the magic of the place. He’s even begun exploring ways to move the students closer to the floor.

“What’s happened this year is the crowd has become part of the experience, and they know walking in the door that they’re part of the experience,” Hobbs said. “The noise level is, frankly, at a different level than I’ve ever heard before.”

Which has helped Rutgers reach a level unseen for decades, as the program’s best season in a generation is rooted in a place that’s clung to hope when outsiders snickered. So as Hobbs glanced around the RAC’s foyer recently, he speaks of both an endearing old gym and Rutgers’ new place in the college basketball hierarchy. “If we can stay here,” Hobbs said, “we’re going to stay here.”

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