Chris Ash left Ohio State for Rutgers with his eyes wide open.
He knew about Rutgers’ mostly undistinguished history.
He knew that its athletic administration was a mess.
He knew he’d be at a financial disadvantage with almost all of his conference rivals.
When the former Ohio State co-defensive coordinator takes on the Buckeyes at High Point Solutions Stadium, he’ll do so as a 29-point underdog. In three previous meetings with Ohio State, Rutgers has been outscored 163-24.
But Ash is undaunted. He’s in his second year, and he understands the climb from a have-not to success is steep. There aren’t shortcuts.
“All the things you just mentioned are accurate,” Ash said of the obstacles he faces. “But I knew that coming here. I didn’t shy away from that. I wasn’t nervous about it, scared about it. We came here with a mission and a plan to make this place as good as it could possibly be.”
Rutgers’ issues are no secret. It fired men’s basketball coach Mike Rice following the release of a video showing player abuse. Athletic director Julie Hermann also was shown the door two years ago following a series of embarrassing gaffes.
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The football program doesn’t have the financial resources that its Big Ten brethren do. The Scarlet Knights won’t get a full share of Big Ten Network disbursements to member schools until 2020-21. This year, Rutgers, along with fellow newcomer Maryland, will receive $11.6 million from the network. The other 12 Big Ten schools are expected to get $51.1 million.
“We have limited resources right now financially, but we’re not making any excuses and (we’re) not worried or focusing our energy on it,” Ash said.
He praised new athletic director Pat Hobbs and his fundraising efforts.
“Is it a challenge? Absolutely,” Ash said. “Is it one we embrace and are excited about and wanted to come here and take it on? Without a doubt.”
It’s not as if the situation is hopeless. New Jersey is fertile ground for recruiting. Ohio State safety Jordan Fuller, a New Jersey native, considered attending his home-state school. Asked what the Scarlet Knights could be if they could keep local talent, Fuller replied, “It’d be scary.”
It has been done before. For proof, just look on the Ohio State sideline. Greg Schiano — Ash’s replacement — built Rutgers into a top-10 program in 2006 before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hired him. He believes it can be done again.
“It takes the same thing it takes everywhere else,” Schiano said. “You need to hire great coaches, recruit great players, coach the heck out of them and care for them and build a culture. It’s no different than anywhere else. You just have to do it.”
Schiano and Ohio State coach Urban Meyer believe Ash is the right coach for Rutgers. Meyer hired Ash after the 2013 season to fix Ohio State’s defense. The next season, the Buckeyes won the College Football Playoff championship.
“He was an impact coach for us,” Meyer said. “And you could tell right away. I think Chris is a great coach.”
Despite its 1-3 record, Rutgers appears to be making progress this season. It hung with Washington in its opener for most of the game and led Nebraska in the second half last week. But there also was a loss to Eastern Michigan.
“They’re much better,” Meyer said. “Most improved defense I've seen in the country from last year to this year. They changed some things, how they do business.”
But Rutgers faces a hard road to become a legitimate contender in a Big Ten East that includes Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State.
Ash, who signed a five-year contract with Rutgers, said he isn’t concerned right now about how he stacks up with the top teams in the division. If he obsessed about that, he would be doing a disservice to his coaches, players and fans. He just wants Rutgers to improve each day.
“I’m really happy with the progress our team has made,” Ash said. “We’re a much better football team today and we’re going to continue to be a much better team. When do we get to where we want to be? I have no idea how long that will take, nor am I worried about it as long as we’re headed in the right direction.”
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