Greg Schiano almost single-handedly lifted Rutgers from the bottom of the college football world to a respected program in his 11 years as head coach at the school.
His departure to become head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Thursday - less than a week from National Signing Day - could have a devastating impact on the program he built.
Rutgers has 17 verbal commitments, many from top recruits, and was in contention for more. The possibility existed for the program to grab its first-ever five-star player, defensive end Darius Hamilton of nearby power Ramsey (N.J.) Don Bosco Prep, and Rivals100 athlete Devin Fuller of Old Tappan (N.J.) High.
"This couldn't have happened at a worse time for Rutgers," Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said. "Never in the history of Rutgers football have things been going so well on and off the field. The team was coming off a nine-win season when they were expected to finish near the bottom of the Big East, recruiting was going better than it ever has been with multiple four-star commitments already in the fold and the state of New Jersey's top two players set to commit by signing day. And then this."
National Signing Day is Feb. 1. What potentially was going to be a Top 25 national class - Rutgers' first since Rivals began ranking them in 2002 - may now be in disarray.
"Big-name guys like J.J. Denman, Chris Muller, Leonte Carroo and Quanzell Lambert are all four-star guys who could pick up the phone and find a home pretty easily," Farrell said. "And now you have to wonder what happens with Devin Fuller, who was reportedly set to announce for Rutgers on Sunday night, and Darius Hamilton, who was expected to pick Rutgers on Tuesday night. It's very late in the process, but it could send some of these guys packing."
Denman and Muller are offensive linemen from Pennsylvania. Denman switched from Wisconsin just last week. Denman has not commented but his father reportedly has told people, "This changes everything."
Muller, the No. 100 overall recruit, played in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl along with Carroo, Hamilton and Fuller.
"I don't know what I'm going to do," Muller said. "I've already received calls from Michigan, South Carolina and Virginia and I plan on getting together with a bunch of Rutgers commitments to figure this out.
"I'm meeting with JJ Denman, Blake Rankin, Mike Giacone, Brandon Arcidiacono and Desmon Peoples later tonight. Part of us wants to just stick together and say we're a family and forget about everything else.
"We've been put in a bad situation."
Denman and Muller, joined by three-star lineman Ryan Brodie of Long Branch (N.J.) High, were supposed to be the foundation of the Rutgers offensive front for years to come - and open holes for last season's top recruit, four-star running back Savon Huggins, the No. 58 recruit in the Class of 2011.
Carroo, from Don Bosco, is a four-star receiver and No. 166 on the Rivals 250. He committed to Rutgers last August. His high school coach, Greg Toal, told The Star-Ledger that Carroo is now undecided.
Lambert is a four-star linebacker from Sicklerville (N.J.) Timber Creek.
Farrell, who has been covering recruiting for more than a decade, can only think of one other time a coach left a school so close to National Signing Day - when Butch Davis left Miami to become head coach of the Cleveland Browns in 2001.
"Miami was Miami then," Farrell said. "They just found a new coach and re-loaded. Rutgers will struggle doing that."
"The only good news for Rutgers is that it is so late in the process that many of the commitments could simply sign with Rutgers because other options dried up or they just don't want to re-start the recruiting process so late," he said.
Rutgers named offensive line coach Kyle Flood as its interim head coach Thursday afternoon. Whether he gets the job full-time remains to be seen.
Budgetary concerns could play a role in the hire.
According to USA Today, Rutgers has spent more than $115 million since 2006 from university and student fees to cover athletic spending. That was the most university subsidies used on athletics, according to the study by USA Today.
Schiano's salary of $2.3 million as well as the $102 million stadium expansion project were subject to criticism from campus academic groups.
Athletic director Tim Pernetti, hired in 2009, will face one of his toughest challenges in balancing the financial situation with Rutgers' football aspirations.
Pernetti figures to have a number of options at head coach if he does not go with Flood.
Florida International coach Mario Cristobal would be a logical target. He was Schiano's offensive line coach from 2001-03 and played a major role in reviving Rutgers by recruiting South Florida. Another former assistant, Darren Rizzi, who left Rutgers to become head coach at Rhode Island and served as an assistant with the Miami Dolphins last season, also could be of interest.
On the current staff, offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti and wide receiver coach P.J. Fleck have been mentioned as potential candidates for lower-tier FBS jobs over the years.
Longtime Penn State assistant Tom Bradley, who served as the school's head coach following the ouster of Joe Paterno, could be a candidate. Delaware coach K.C. Keeler and Temple coach Steve Addazzio also could be potential candidates.
Whoever is hired will have a huge task at hand.
"I don't think things will go back to the way they were at Rutgers before Schiano, but will they be able to keep moving forward with a new coach?" Farrell said. "Especially in a year when Schiano was doing as well as he ever had in-state recruiting."
Schiano arrived in December of 2000, promising big things at a school that had only been to one bowl game in its history.
The key, he said, was to keep New Jersey's numerous in-state recruits, at home.
Schiano struggled in his early years but quickly turned the corner. In 2006, Rutgers was ranked in the Top 10 for the first time and nearly made a BCS bowl game behind then-unheralded running back Ray Rice. Schiano earned numerous national Coach of the Year awards.
The success helped Rutgers land in-state tackle Anthony Davis in 2007 - then one of the school's biggest recruits.
It also helped Schiano draw interest from other major colleges. He was pursued by Miami, where he coached before coming to Rutgers, in 2006. And then Michigan in 2007. On both occasions he repeated his desire to build Rutgers into a national power such as those schools, getting big raises on both occasions.
Rutgers has never reached the heights of the 2006 team again, and Schiano's failure to win a Big East title has been a source of frustration to fans. But the school has been a regular bowl team, reaching the postseason in six of the past seven seasons, including a win in the Pinstripe Bowl this winter.
Schiano leaves with a 68-67 overall record, including 5-1 in bowl games. While it might not seem impressive, it's quite a turnaround after going 3-20 in his first two seasons before he could fully rebuild the program.
"This is devastating to the program," Farrell said. "Schiano has become the face of Rutgers football, he brought Rutgers from life support to a program that has gone to and won bowl games, and he has made Rutgers more than respectable in the college football world."
Rivals.com writers David Fox and Dallas Jackson contributed to this report.