When Chris Ash first walked into High Point Solutions Stadium in December, 2015, he inherited a messy program, an irritated fan base, and disastrous results.
The results have not been much better in the last two seasons; most fans begrudgingly remember the ten-loss season in Ash’s head coach debut and the slightly less disastrous four-win season a year ago.
Ash never promised results right away, stating in numerous interviews that he had a three-year plan to bring success back to Piscataway. As he enters year three as a Scarlet Knight, all eyes are on Ash to bring Rutgers to a bowl game, and do better than a .250 Big Ten record.
Beyond the number in the win column, it’s not hard to see this program has changed over the last two years.
The first step to getting better results is to change the culture of the team. From day one, Ash established that he would not be like his predecessor, Kyle Flood, who was dismissed after “unprofessional communication” with professors. Ash set a precedent that he would run a tighter ship than what the Scarlet Knights were used to, suspending five players in the last fifteen months alone.
Changing the culture of a team is a long process that takes time and trust. It takes even longer when the results aren’t there in competition. Getting his team to buy into his system was made harder when it felt like the changes were starting to pay off – and then didn’t. Ash can quiet those doubts and naysayers by sending Rutgers to their first bowl since 2014.
Ash has also set up his team for the future, pulling in critical recruits and flipping valuable commitments; none quite as critical as Artur Sitkowski. Sitkowski, a 6-foot-5, 215-pound quarterback, was originally committed to the University of Miami before deciding to stay home in New Jersey. Sitkowski is expected to be the starting quarterback at some point as a true freshman, if not to start that 2018 campaign for the Knights.
As dedicated as he is to redirecting the team’s culture and pulling in clutch recruits, he has worked to build a strong core of coaches around him, starting with the cursed job that is the Scarlet Knights’ offensive coordinator.
In only his third off season on staff, Ash had to hire his third offensive coordinator, bringing back a familiar face in John McNulty early this year. Beyond McNulty, Ash has assembled a strong group of coaches, such as former Ohio State assistant Vince Okruch and former Indiana defensive recruiting coordinator Noah Joseph, who hope that the results will finally show on the field.
At the surface level, it seems like Ash has been unable to turn this team around two years into his tenure. Sure, there have been bright spots, including in-conference wins against Maryland, Purdue and Illinois last season, but during that same season the Scarlet Knights dropped a game to Eastern Michigan.
When you dig a little deeper, it’s not hard to see how far this team has come two seasons deep into the Ash Era. The team culture is changing – slowly, yes, but the change is happening. Players have more accountability than they have had in years past and are being held to a higher standard.
When all these pieces click together, the wins will come. Ash and company hope they come this year.