Greg Schiano told a story. It was the year 1999 and Schiano was on Butch Davis's staff at Miami. The Hurricanes had dropped three early season games, and the staff thought they were going to be fired. A sports psychologist came to speak to the staff, and he told them an illustration of a man alone in a dark wood. That man faced two choices: he could curl into a ball and die, or he could grab an axe and start chopping.
The first chop wouldn't change his circumstances, nor the 50th, nor the 250th. By the 500th chop, the tree would fall. Then, the psychologist said, it would be time to take a breath and start swinging at the next tree. Eventually, though, with enough chops the forest would start to clear and the light would find him.
If you're familiar at all with Rutgers football under Schiano's leadership, Wednesday's re-introductory press conference likely wasn't the first time you heard that story. In fact, #CHOP became more or less the official hashtag of Scarlet Knights football during Schiano's first tenure, back when hashtags first became a thing.
It didn't take long for #CHOP to make a comeback on Wednesday.
But that story was about the only time Old Schiano made an appearance on Wednesday. New Schiano introduced himself, more seasoned, wiser and, well, older -- though it's hard to tell from looking at him.
Schiano left New Brunswick in 2012 a football coach -- a hard-driving football guy who would instruct his Tampa Bay Buccaneer players to charge at the line of scrimmage when the other team took a knee, because the risk of injury and generally looking like a try-hard jerk were small prices to pay in the endless pursuit of victory.
The Schiano that presented himself Wednesday was more than a coach. He was a statesman. This was a guy with enough gravitas to compel New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy to sit in the audience and listen to him speak, and who could respond to a question about former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's criticism with a shrug and a smile. Chris is a friend. We're good.
That word statesman is fitting, because Schiano positioned Rutgers football -- and, by extension, himself -- as the only thing that can unite a state of New Jersey defined by its proximity to Philadelphia to the south and New York City to the north.
"It's really important now that we all come together. When we really had it cranking here, there was no division. I get it, we have two major cities that border our state. We have one thing that's just us, and that's Rutgers," he said. "It's going to take everybody. If you've got a lot of money, yeah, we need your money. But if you don't have a lot of money, we need you at the stadium. At the water cooler, we need you promoting Rutgers football. Those Block R magnets, we need them on your car."
But more than anything, Schiano returns to Rutgers a man humbled by his experiences elsewhere, with a clear vision of what his role as the head coach will be -- and it's not Xs and Os. In fact, questions about scheme were actively deflected.
Can you ever imagine the Greg Schiano Rutgers hired in 2000 saying "it doesn't matter" what defense his team runs in the context of the program's total identity?
"To say we're pro-style, or we're a spread team, or we're an RPO team, a 4-3 team or a 3-4 team, it doesn't matter. The thing that matters: we'll do whatever it takes to win," he said. "What matters is that our players love each other, that they're willing to put it on the line for each other, that they play incredibly hard. Football is not a natural game. You go to a family picnic, they play pick-up hoops, they play wiffleball. No one goes and puts a hard shell helmet on and then runs into somebody. That's just not natural. So when you get players that do that, they've got to have something inside of them and something that they're doing it for. And the most important thing that our players and our coaches do it for each other. When they do that, we can make Rutgers proud and we can make New Jersey proud."
Another answer in that same vein: "Players is the most important thing, whereas the first time around it was plays, it was scheme," he said. "I've got tell parents, 'I've got your son.' My focus is going to be even more on that this second go around."
In fact, the closest Schiano came to nailing himself down to a schematic identity was this, and even then he signaled a clear intention to delegate to his coordinators: "I think you have to make teams defend you sideline to sideline. As a defensive coach, I hate when they do that to you. We're going to hire a staff that's experts at doing those things. I need to let them do their job, and I need to do my job."
Still, the old Schiano bravado was readily apparent on Wednesday. He referenced his old promise to win a national championship at Rutgers -- "We got to No. 7," he said -- and reiterated that Rutgers doesn't just plan to compete with the giants of the Big Ten, but to pass them.
"We've got to pass a moving target, and those are big targets," he said. "...We ain't chasing, we're passing."
And, yes, even for the people bitten by the scarlet fever in the Rutgers team room on Wednesday, reality was still there, staring them in the face. This is still Rutgers, and Michigan is still Michigan. Penn State is still Penn State. Ohio State is still Ohio State. We're talking about a program that is 4-40 -- Four and FORTY -- in Big Ten play since 2015. The 2019 team lost to Michigan 52-0. The 2018 lost to Ohio State 52-3. The 2016 team lost back-to-back games to Michigan and Ohio State by a combined 136-0.
Now, if I may, I'd like to present the argument that Rutgers is not as hopeless as the last few years' results indicate. In 2014, the Scarlet Knights joined the Big Ten and immediately went 8-5. They beat Michigan and lost to Penn State by three. They flew clear across the country and beat Washington State in Seattle. They whipped North Carolina in the Quick Lane Bowl. All of that actually happened, and it happened with a team led by Schaino's recruits.
That's why Rutgers Nation -- it exists -- was so determined to bring Schiano back, and so despondent when it appeared like it wouldn't happen. That's why Rutgers went back to the negotiating table, at proverbial gun point from its fan base and the state's high school coaches. Hiring Schiano allows Rutgers to essentially skip a step in its rebuild, saving years in the process. Whereas a Jeff Hafley, a Steve Addazio, or just about anyone else save Bill Belichick would have to win eight games for two, three, four years -- and the odds of that ever happening weren't great -- to command the attention of the state's high school coaches and players, Schiano can do that today. Like, he might very well be meeting with a recruit right now that never would have given Rutgers the time of day otherwise.
"He will build this program back up to the standard of excellence he set when he was here," AD Pat Hobbs said. "He will exceed those past success and we will all celebrate."
They're partying like it's 2006 in New Jersey, celebrating the good times come back again. Only this time, the Greg Schiano leading Rutgers back to the promised land will be different than the coach they had before. A coach that leads its program at a core spiritual and emotional level and doesn't sweat the small stuff like... what plays they're running.
"We are going to develop you at Rutgers. We're going to develop you as man, we're going to develop you as football players. We are going to build a total program that's built on love," Schiano said. It's going to be built on love. Love is sacrifice. Love isn't a feeling, love is an action. We can say we're going to build the program on being great teammates, we're going to build it on coaches who love players, we're going to build it on players who love coaches. The hill is steep, but that's what we need to do. That's what we will do."