The definitive history...
The history of Rutgers football is a tale of ups and downs, highs and lows. At times a powerhouse, occasionally an afterthought, the fact remains that the school can claim the honor of having hosted America’s first intercollegiate football game, a 6–4 victory over Princeton on November 6, 1869 in New Brunswick. The school had been known as Queen’s College until 1825, and its players still referred to themselves as the Queensmen. The main school color then, as now, was scarlet, and the players wrapped scarlet kerchiefs around their heads for the game.
In the ensuing years, Rutgers was not part of college football’s “big three” (Harvard, Yale and Princeton), however, the sport was played with great skill and enthusiasm against local schools and clubs, and rivalries began to form with Lehigh and Lafayette in Pennsylvania. The school’s first full-time coach was William Van Dyck, a former player whose father was the dean of Rutgers College. He coached the varsity in 1898 and 1899. His star player was Oliver Mann, who later coached the Queensmen.
Rutgers’ first coach of any real note was George Sanford, who was on campus for 11 season beginning in 1913. His best player was Paul Robeson, an All-American end in 1917 and 1918. Branded a Communist in the 1940s, his achievements were stricken from the school’s records for many decades. In the 1920s, Rutgers had one of the country’s best teams. Its star was Homer Hazel, a remarkable all-around athlete who once recovered his own kickoff in the enemy end zone. He was an All-American in 1923 as an end and 1924 as a fullback. In 1924, halfback Heinie Benkert led the nation with 16 touchdowns and 100 points.
In 1929, Rutgers joined its first “league”—the Middle Three Conference, along with Lehigh and Lafayette. During the 1930s and 1940s, Rutgers fielded a highly competitive team, winning about half the Middle Conference crowns and holding their own against other big-time schools. Their most notable coach during this period was Harvey Harman, who led the team through a name change (from Queensmen to Scarlet Knights). Another big name in Rutgers football during the pre- and post-war eras was Harry Rockafeller. He had been the team’s top player prior to Robeson’s arrival, and coached the varsity in the late '20s and again during World War II, when Harman went into the Navy. Rockafeller was named Athletic Director in the 1950s and held that post until 1961.
The best player during the 1950s was Billy Austin, an elusive running back and solid pass defender. The Scarlet Knights won every game he played in 1958, finishing 8–1. Had he not been injured, Rutgers might have gone undefeated, and Austin could have edged Army’s Pete Dawkins for the Heisman Trophy. The Scarlet Knights did go undefeated in 1961, thanks largely to All-American Alex Kroll, who anchored the offensive line at center and called the defensive formations as linebacker. In his two varsity seasons, Rutgers went 17–1.
The 1970s started with the arrival of J.J. Jennings, who led the nation in scoring with 128 points in 1973. He went on to play for the Memphis Southmen of the short-lived World Football League. Jennings actually won WFL Rookie of the Year honors and was named co-MVP. In 1976, under coach Frank Burns, the Rutgers defense ledthe team to an undefeated season. The Scarlet Knights became just the sixth team in NCAA history to lead the nation in rushing defense, total defense (rushing + passing) and points allowed. Defensive linemen Nate Toran, John Alexander and Dan Gray created an impenetrable front line, while quarterback Bert Kosup and wideout Mark Twitty paced the offense. In 1978, Rutgers played in its first-ever bowl game, the inaugural Garden State Bowl (a 34–18 loss to Arizona State).
By comparison, the 1980s were something of a letdown for Rutgers football. The team had some excellent players—including Deron Cherry and future baseball All-Star Eric Young—but under Burns and Dick Anderson could manage just three winning seasons. A move to the Big East in 1991 helped the recruiting picture, and led to the legendary Thunder & Lightning backfield of Terrell Willis and Bruce Presley. They combined for nearly 6,000 rushing yards. Meanwhile, Marco Battaglia rewrote the record books for tight ends with 69 catches in 1995. He earned All-America honors for this performance and was drafted in the second round by the NFL Bengals.
Beginning in 1996, the program bottomed out. Over seven seasons, the Scarlet Knights won an average of two games a year. However, toward the ends of this streak, the school hired defensive specialist Greg Schiano as head coach. He turned the program around after four so-so seasons and in 2005, Rutgers went 7–5 and earned its second-ever bowl bid. In 2006, the Scarlet Knights went 11–2 and actually were in the running for national championship consideration after starting the year 9–0. The offense was led by future NFL stars Ray Rice, Brian Leonard and Kenny Britt. The defense, led by Eric Foster, Devin McCourty and Ramel Meekins, allowed an average of just 14.3 points per game, which ranked 8th in the nation. After defeating Kansas State in the Texas Bowl, Rutgers finished the season with a #12 national ranking.
The Scarlet Knights cracked the Top 25 three more times between 2007 and 2012, and had just one losing season during that time. In 2013, they retired the first number in school history, #52, which belonged to defensive tackle Eric LeGrand. LeGrand was paralyzed after making a violent tackle on a kickoff against Army in 2010. In the years that followed, he made remarkable progress in a recovery that doctors gave less than a 5% chance of success.
In 2014, the Rutgers football renaissance reached a new level when the school joined the Big Ten Conference.