Late on Saturday night, in the moments after another disastrous 24 hours, Rutgers interim football coach Norries Wilson settled into a small chair inside a room at Penn State’s Beaver Stadium.
Rutgers had just suffered a demoralizing 28-3 loss to Penn State, falling to 1-2 on the season. Its head coach had been suspended after a university-led investigation. A roster was feeling the aftershocks of a rash of dismissals and off-field turmoil.
Wilson, a former coach at Columbia, was in his first days as interim coach, tasked with babysitting a program in disarray. And for Rutgers, the moment would only grow stranger. As Wilson sat in front of a row of reporters, he began pointing at them one by one, asking if they had a question.
“What’s your name?” Wilson began.
The bizarre scene Saturday night was the latest wrinkle in an ongoing Rutgers saga that has morphed into college football’s closest thing to a running soap opera. It’s a saga that threatens to soak up most of the headlines as Kansas, 0-2, journeys to Rutgers, 1-3, on Saturday for its road debut. Consider this: When the programs take the field at 11 a.m. inside High Point Solutions Stadium in Piscataway, N.J., KU could well be the most stable football operation in the building. That’s saying quite a bit for a team that’s lost 30 straight true road games.
How bad is it at Rutgers? In the season’s opening month, Rutgers coach Kyle Flood was suspended three games after he was found to have broken university policy by contacting a faculty member about a player’s grade. Flood, according to a university-led investigation, was also found to have tried to conceal his communication with the adjunct professor.
The player in question, Nadir Barnwell, has since become one of six players dismissed from the program following arrests, including home invasion and assault, according to NJ.com. A seventh player, captain Leonte Caroo, has been indefinitely suspended after reportedly being involved in an altercation outside the team’s home stadium after a Sept. 13 loss to Washington State.
On the heels of the suspension, Flood has remained a constant presence at practice, but he will miss his second straight game on Saturday.
“It’s practice as usual for us,” Wilson told reporters on Monday in Piscataway. “(Flood is) out there and he’s doing the things he does. He makes corrections and he congratulates when it’s done right. And he gives his suggestions and he asks questions.”
For all the dismissals and distractions surrounding Rutgers, the Scarlet Knights remain a consensus double-digit home favorite over Kansas, according to oddsmakers, which perhaps says quite a bit as well. The Jayhawks are trying to bounce back after consecutive home losses to South Dakota State and Memphis. Kansas had a week to clear the debris after absorbing a 55-23 loss to Memphis on Sept. 14. But in the days after working through his program’s only bye week this season, Kansas coach David Beaty was clear: He doesn’t think Rutgers’ off-field issues will be a factor on Saturday.
“Zero,” Beaty said on Tuesday. “I mean, they've got a great staff over there. (Flood) does a really good job. He's been very productive there. They've won a bunch of games. They put a ton of guys in the NFL. They have got really good talent over there.”
Beaty, of course, is not an expert on the dealings of Rutgers football. But he does have experience working through a season with a coach on thin ice. Six years ago, Beaty was an assistant at Kansas when the Jayhawks limped to a 5-7 finish after the athletic department launched an internal investigation into the behavior of Mark Mangino. That Kansas team didn’t win another game after the investigation began, in the ensuing years, players spoke of the toll that season took. But six years later, Beaty says he doesn’t believe the inner turmoil played a role.
“Kids are resilient,” Beaty said. “They work their tails off every day. Our kids worked their tails off every day.”
So perhaps Kansas is catching Rutgers at the perfect time. And then again, maybe the particulars of an off-field investigation will have little bearing on Saturday’s result. One thing is clear, though: We have Charlie Weis to thank for Saturday’s impending tussle.
A brief history lesson: In 2012, as Weis pieced together a blueprint for his new program, he settled on a simple and familiar scheduling strategy. Weis said he wanted to schedule non-conference games in areas where the Jayhawks would focus recruiting efforts, which is how Kansas came to schedule this home-and-home series with Rutgers. Forget for a moment the geographical difficulties of Kansas football recruiting the state of New Jersey. Weis believed the state — his home state — was an untapped talent ground.
Three years later, Weis is now gone, but the Kansas-Rutgers series lives on, a testament to the power of ill-conceived decisions, a game that could live up to is architect and planner. On Saturday afternoon, a rebuilding team will face a discordant one. And one program — and one coach — will leave with a much-needed dose of good news.