Greg Schiano came to Rutgers when the football program was in a state of disarray — then left it in a bind.
Less than a week before Rutgers was expected to lock up a highly touted recruiting class, Schiano accepted an offer to become coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday.
There is, however, no doubt Schiano leaves Rutgers football in better shape than he found it when he was hired to coach the Scarlet Knights in 2000. The New Jersey native had six winning seasons in the last seven years and guided the Knights to a 5-1 record in bowl games. Rutgers had been to one bowl in its history before Schiano arrived.
The Scarlet Knights are coming off a 9-4 season and have most of their key players back next year to make a run at a Big East title.
"This program is not a rebuild," Athletic Director Tim Pernetti said at a news conference on campus in Piscataway, N.J. "This program is priced to move in every way."
Pernetti, a former Rutgers football player who was coached by Schiano in high school, said he was not blindsided by his friend's decision. He'd known of Tampa Bay's interest in Schiano for about a week, but it picked up earlier this week. Pernetti said he was in constant communication with Schiano throughout the process.
Schiano met Thursday with the team, including paralyzed former player Eric LeGrand, and said goodbye.
"He's got to do what's best for his family," said LeGrand, who injured his spinal cord while making a tackle during a game in 2010. "Who could argue with him?"
Still, it's an awkward time to be looking for a coach.
Wednesday is national signing day, the first day high school recruits can sign a national letter of intent with a school. Rutgers was in position to sign a recruiting class rated by analysts as its best under Schiano.
Pernetti said he will reach out to recruits to assure them Rutgers is still the place to be.
"The message is this is the same program it was two days ago," he said.
He added that he could not guarantee hiring a permanent coach by signing day, but did say it is "doable."
"Any AD worth what they're paying him has a list (of coaching candidates) in his pocket," he said.
Assistant head coach and offensive line coach Kyle Flood was promoted to interim coach, though offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti would seem to be the most likely candidate if Pernetti hires from within.
Speculation about possible candidates from outside almost immediately started with Florida International coach Mario Cristobal, who is a former University of Miami assistant like Schiano.
For now it's up to Pernetti, Flood and the assistants left behind to hold together the recruiting class.
"It's just a bad situation because of the timing," Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said.
According to Rivals.com, Rutgers had 17 non-binding verbal commitments before Schiano's departure and at least two more blue chip prospects from New Jersey — defensive lineman Darius Hamilton from Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey, N.J. and receiver Devin Fuller of Old Tappan (N.J.) High School — were strongly considering going to Rutgers.
Farrell said most of Rutgers' top committed players had told him that they were contacted by other programs not long after news broke about Schiano. Many of the recruits were lining up last-minute official visits to other schools, he said.
The fact that a coach could jump from Rutgers to the NFL is a testament to the turnaround Schiano orchestrated. Pernetti even said that Schiano took over the "worst program" in the country.
The three previous coaches went 67-114-5 from 1984-2000, graduation rates were low and the facilities were hardly Division I-A grade.
Rutgers won three games in Schiano's first two seasons and 12 in his first four. The Scarlet Knights went 7-5 in 2005, setting the stage for a startling breakthrough. Rutgers finished 11-2 in 2006, ranked 12th in the nation.
Miami in 2006 and Michigan in 2007 tried to hire Schiano away, but he turned down those offers and moved into a newly built house — that the university paid for — about a mile from the football stadium.
"I've had several opportunities over the years and none of them felt right," Schiano told The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., as he left Rutgers' football facility Thursday night. "This time, this one felt right."
The Scarlet Knights haven't gotten back to that '06 level, but they also haven't returned to the dark days. Rutgers slipped to 4-8 in 2010, then bounced back to go 9-4 this past season with a victory against Iowa State in the Pinstripe Bowl.
The remarkable rebuild did come with a price, though — and not just the $2.35 million annual salary Schiano's latest deal was to pay him through 2016.
Rutgers expanded and renovated its stadium at a cost of $102 million. The school had hoped to raise the money through private donors, but fell short. Rutgers scaled back plans for the expansion and issued bonds and borrowed money to complete the project.
That combined with the fact that the school had to cut six varsity sports in 2006 — including men's tennis and crew — led many in the state to question whether the school had overcommitted to football.
But there were also plenty of fans thrilled with the results on the field, and it looked as if Schiano was setting up the Scarlet Knights to contend for Big East's titles for the next several seasons.
"This thing that has been built is bigger than any one individual," Pernetti said.
Associated Press Writer Dave Porter in Piscataway, N.J., contributed to this report.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP