Okay Rutgers, I'll admit it. I don't think you and I got off to the best of starts.
Like many Ohio State fans, I've been critical of your inclusion to the grown ups table for a while. I wasn't crazy about your reputation for poor administrative management. I've pointed out, repeatedly, about how you haven't been very good at,well, sports. Your undeniable contribution, TV sets, has been even mocked a bit in a roundabout way. The hits go on, etc.
While I don't think what I had previously written is untrue, I'm willing to concede that maybe some of it came from a place of unfamiliarity. You're willing to more easily look past the flaws and blemishes for your friends that you know well, after all, and Rutgers was the new kid. I had never been there. Hell, I'd barely ever been to New Jersey. It would be unfair for me to continue to throw barbs at New York's Big Ten team if I never showed up and gave the good people of New Jersey a chance to tell me I'm full of crap to my face.
So I went to the Ohio State-Rutgers game. And deep in the recess of my heart, I think I've detected it thawing just a bit.
Or maybe not, since that heart is now throughly insulated by a layer of cholesterol that it might give out when I drive back on the Turnpike. The culinary pride of Rutgers seems to be the fat sandwich, propagated from places known as grease trucks, so you know they're good. These are stuffed with basically everything that can possibly fit in a sandwich, from mozzarella sticks, to french fries, to chicken fingers. I ate one with roast beef, bacon, home fries, gravy, and cheddar, and it was the first sandwich that I couldn't finish in years. It was pretty good, but also a painful reminder that even though I go to college campuses all the time, I cannot eat like I could when I was in college.
Fortunately, i had plenty of time to walk off that caloric explosion, and also plenty of opportunity. Ohio State's campus is pretty vast, but in terms of sheer sprawl, Rutgers might have it beat. High Point Solutions Stadium isn't exactly tucked into campus like a few other Big Ten schools, either. It's across the river (technically in an entirely different town), leaving a long walk through some parks to get back and forth. I may or may not have gotten lost more than once, and I'm sure I didn't even get to see half of the campus.
The stadium might be a little isolated, and High Point Solutions stadium is certainly small for Big Ten standards, but I will say this: it wasn't without atmosphere. Tailgating lots were full hours before kickoff, and not just from Ohio State fans. Some of the tailgating setups and signs were, well, a little silly. But almost everybody else I talked to was friendly, enthusiastic, and generous. I think I was offered more alcohol by Rutgers fans than at any other tailgate I've ever reported on. I couldn't accept anything obviously, but I did manage to find a little room in my stomach for some excellent chicken soup, pasta, and pulled pork.
And here's the thing, even though this stadium seats less than 54,000 people. At kickoff, it was full, and it was loud. Not loud, in some sort of "hey, you tried good for you" sort of way, but loud-loud. Urban Meyer even noted as much in his postgame press conference, mentioning the atmosphere twice (and how proud he was that Ohio State didn't have a single penalty in that environment). Granted, that crowd justifiably thinned out in the second half as Ohio State turned the game into a blowout. But some remained, including a small cadre of students who bust out the "I believe that we will win" chant late in the game, as Rutgers scored their only points of the game to pull within, uh, 42. This was a good crowd.
And here's the thing, for all the apathy jokes we've hurled at Rutgers, this was a better environment, and a better place to watch a football game, than Purdue. It was certainly a better environment than the Maryland game last year, when the Terps hosted Ohio State for their first Big Ten home game ever. While everything pales in comparison to the more established programs in the Big Ten, you can see a little bit of potential in this place.
Potential, of course, is what Rutgers fans are trying to sell, given their proximity to recruits, a massive population center and the nation's biggest media market. They were also rational about how that's going to be an uphill climb. Like D.C., this is a pro sports area, and if you don't win, without the shine and pomp of hosting the defending champs (and, let's be honest, without 10,000 of their fans showing up too), it could be hard to sustain that energy and enthusiasm.
Rutgers fans are quick to remind you about their tradition. After all, they claim their program to be the birthplace of the entire sport. But in terms of meaningful success, Rutgers football is more like a tradition since 2006 than 1869. But this isn't a commuter campus completely devoid of attention, spirit, or potential. I may not have wanted to make the move to add them, but after going to a game, I can understand the potential a little bit more.
And I will say this. Even if this place doesn't win any campus beauty contests, If given a chance to see a Big Ten game at Rutgers, or Purdue, I'll hit up the ATM to get extra toll booth money, and make the drive up 95 without a second thought -- and that isn't just because their press box had the best damn brownie I've ever had in my life.
Although before the game, next time, maybe I'll order a salad.