It’s spring football season, and that means a lot of silly things are happening. Coaches are repeating the same lines they said last year and pretending they’re different, strange scoring systems are being used, and games are being played on fields with active construction sites.
However, these silly things pale in comparison to the silliest spring football thing ever to happen. In 1996, Rutgers’ varsity football team played a makeshift team of former Rutgers players, many of whom were long retired. Rutgers lost, 10-6. I found out about this game from Andrew Sidebottom on Twitter, and set out to learn everything about it. Here is what I found.
So, in 1996, Terry Shea took over as head coach of Rutgers. It was a bit of a weird hire! The year before, Shea had been a QB coach for the British Columbia Lions of the CFL. He’d coached at Stanford, San Jose State, Utah State … and nowhere east of there, and now he was 3,000 miles away in New Jersey. He took over a Rutgers team that had gone 4-7 and lost the majority of its best players.
He had the idea to play a game against the alumni, presumably to reinvigorate alum support and give his young team an easy win. (Other schools have also done this.)
The alumni were surprised and excited. The Newark Star-Ledger wrote a story about the hastily assembled alumni squad entitled “Rutgers to football alumni: Want to play, old-timer?”
Dr. Craig Schaefer is a well-respected general surgeon in Salisbury, Md., and a member in good standing of the Rutgers University Letterwinners’ Club.
But when the former linebacker (class of 1969) received a letter from the club early last month inviting him to play in the first Varsity-Alumni football game at Rutgers Stadium on April 13, his reaction was predictable.
“I honestly thought somebody made an error,” said Schaefer.
28 members of the 50-man team had graduated before 1990.
“I anticipated every player in this game being from 1993 and later but I think this is great,” Pernetti said. “You’re not just bringing together players, but you’re bringing together generations of football here. There’s always going to be that common bond among us. We all shared similar experiences, for better or worse.
(Yes, the Pernetti is Tim Pernetti, a former tight end who went on to be Rutgers’ AD and is currently president of IMG College.)
The Record of Piscataway reported that the alumni only had one hour of practice together.
“We might be just slow enough to throw the real talented undergraduates off a little bit, make them overrun some plays,” said alumni coach Lee Schneider, Cook College dean of students, co-captain of Rutgers 1969 team, and a member of the Rutgers football hall of fame.
“We have requested extra ice, more trainers, and another ambulance squad.”
But the young team was in more trouble than they realized. Shea, who had worked under Bill Walsh, planned to introduce the West Coast offense, a system that relies on a strong passing game. But Rutgers had no good quarterbacks or wide receivers. The year before, they had an NFL QB in Ray Lucas, and still went 4-7. But Lucas graduated, and so did his backup, Robert Higgins. Furthermore, Shea’s top QB recruit, Perris Verdasco, got arrested in California before he made it to campus. And according to an Asbury Park Press story from the day before the game, three of the team’s best wide receivers were injured, with a fourth taking classes at a local junior college.
Unsurprisingly, Rutgers was bad. It’s kinda hard to find the specific details of what happened that day, but everybody agrees on the final score: Alumni 10, actual varsity football players 6.
Although it would seem humbling to be beaten by players who had barely practiced together and often were in questionable shape, no one with Rutgers admitted embarrassment. The first-year coach, Terry Shea, said it was a reflection of the attitude Rutgers has developed.
“They know we are not going to be the darlings of the Big East in the preseason,” he said. “We are not going to get the pats on the back about how great we’re going to be.”
Even worse, senior defensive end Rusty Swartz suffered a career-ending injury in the game.
Rutgers went on to go 2-9. After a 33-0 loss to Miami, Shea remembered the alumni result:
“When one part of your team turns it over (four) times, we could have been playing the alumni and had the same result on the scoreboard,” said Rutgers first-year head coach Terry Shea, whose team lost to the alumni in the spring game.
Rutgers would never try the Varsity-Alumni game again. Officially, Shea would go 11-44 in five years at Rutgers including an 0-11 season and a 1-10 season. But really, he went 11-45.