Rutgers Roots: Steven Van Zandt’s Commencement Message Resonates for Scarlet Knights Football


Few things are as synonymous with the state of New Jersey as Bruce Springsteen. Thus, it stands to reason E. Street Band member Steven Van Zandt would implore graduates of the Garden State’s largest university to “stay true” to their Jersey roots.

Van Zandt’s Rutgers commencement speech delivers a message that resonates for the direction Scarlet Knights football must embrace.

I have written in the past on this site of the importance for Rutgers to plant its flag in the budding New Jersey/east Pennsylvania recruiting scene. Having first dibs on talent from the burgeoning hotbed is the program’s best hope to compete in a strong Big Ten East.

But how does a program notorious for losing conference games by scores of 58-0 to national-title contender Ohio State; 78-0 to Jim Harbaugh’s rising Michigan program; 49-0 to recent two-time Big Ten champion Michigan State; and 39-0 to reigning Big Ten champion Penn State; and still somehow compete with those same opponents for local talent? That’s the riddle Chris Ash must solve, or he won’t be long for the job.

Steven Van Zandt just might have the answer: Stay true to your Jersey roots.

For some perspective on that approach, let’s rewind to 2007.

Akon was music’s hottest act, ESPN aired the worst segment in network history, and The Sopranos concluded its critically acclaimed run 10 years ago next month. Aside from Seinfeld in 1998, and Friends in 2004, the conclusion of The Sopranos remains the most discussed series finale of my lifetime.

That’s a remarkable accomplishment, given the other two shows were on network television in prime-time. These are television equivalents to the entrenched blue-blood programs of college football, like Rutgers’ Big Ten counterparts Ohio State and Michigan. The Sopranos broke into the mainstream despite the obvious limitations of premium cable by being completely different from the norm.

And while The Sopranos was TV’s most talked-about show, Rutgers alum James Gandolfini was front-and-center for the meteoric rise of Scarlet Knights football. RU was unapologetic in its Jersey-ness, and made it look pretty damn cool.

The Scarlet Knights played a physical, defensive style, yet still managed nearly 33 points per game. In 2007, that was good for No. 34 in the nation.

Rutgers football enjoyed a two-year run of national relevance, first storming onto the scene in 2006 with a Thursday night upset of then-Big East Conference rival Louisville. The win over a Top 5-ranked opponent catapulted the long-struggling Scarlet Knights onto college football’s primary stage.

Rutgers teams since enjoyed varying degrees of success, including the 2012 version. Hosting Louisville on a Thursday night once more, those Scarlet Knights played for the final Big East championship and a spot in that season’s Sugar Bowl. Neither were to be, the result of the offensive anemia that prevented that Rutgers team from exuding the same level of excitement as the 2006 and 2007 squads.

Back to 2007, your boy was then a fresh-faced, recent journalism school graduate. The sports blogosphere was in its infancy, with myriad Blogspot sites surfacing and disappearing every week. I swam in the sea of bloggers, hoping to gain readership. It wasn’t unlike the crowded college football landscape in that sense. We were all recruiters pitching prospects with various gimmicks — most of which ended up being poor copies of the success formulas Kissing Suzy Kolber and Everyday Should Be Saturday.

In the same sense, college football programs chasing the sport’s pace-setter rely on repeating.

My Blogspot site from 2007 is long gone, but my memory of a particularly heinous remains: A poorly Photoshopped version of The Toxic Avenger poster, with Toxie donning a Rutgers football jersey. What better representation of this unlikely college football power than the First Superhero from New Jersey, a former 90-pound weakling underdog who transformed into an ass-kicking behemoth?

I’m not suggesting Rutgers football partner with Lloyd Kaufman and the twisted minds at Troma Studios — though selfishly, I’d love to see it. With or without Toxie, though, the general idea stands: Rutgers needs to embrace its New Jersey roots.

Since accepting a surprise invitation to the Big Ten in 2012, the campaign push emanating from both the conference and Rutgers presents RU as the unofficial university of New York City. That’s great for the conference to tout, as it attempts to make BTN inroads into America’s largest market. But it’s a pitch Rutgers should spurn, as it invokes an identity that the Scarlet Knights are not.

New York elicits thoughts of Wall Street; Broadway; Fifth Avenue. Its superhero is Spider-Man, not Toxie.

New Jersey’s greatest cultural icon, as mentioned, is Bruce Springsteen. His songs tell stories of blue-collar everymen. At the same time, there’s a catchiness to the E. Street Band’s tunes that make them universally accessible. Likewise, The Sopranos combined cerebral story-telling with a sleek veneer that made it a game-changer in television.

Innovative offense and hard-nosed defense. A commitment to the local recruiting scene. An unabashed embrace of its Jersey roots. That’s the formula for Rutgers football to stand out in the Big Ten.