This was back in 2017, days before the Patriots would mount their historic Super Bowl comeback victory over the Falcons, when players were scattered throughout a Houston conference room answering questions about the upcoming game. Chris Long, the veteran defensive lineman who had come to New England in search of a championship, recalled the day he first walked into the Patriots locker room.
“There’s a lot of Rutgers guys in here,” Long wryly observed. “Geez, that’s a story that’s never been written.”
Well, prepare yourself for another one, Chris, because the Rutgers hits just keep on coming. When Bill Belichick traded Monday for Atlanta receiver Mohamed Sanu, the coach authored another chapter in this ongoing tale of affinity for Rutgers players of the Greg Schiano era.
Sanu, the onetime Falcon who was on the wrong end of that Super Bowl LI score, became a Patriot in exchange for a second-round draft pick, joining 2017 holdovers Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon as well as Jason McCourty, who arrived last season.
The jokes are almost too easy, delivered at the expense of one of the worst FCS programs in the country. But Rutgers wasn’t always a punch line. Schiano, the head coach from 2001-11, built something good. He regularly took the team to bowl games and delivered players to the NFL.
Belichick was his most frequent customer, and he is still dipping into that pool long after Schiano moved on. Though Logan Ryan departed two years ago via free agency, Belichick added Devin’s twin brother Jason last year, the two of them winning a championship together. And now, here comes Sanu.
Obviously, it’s no coincidence. But why does Belichick keep going back to this group of Rutgers players? What is the common tie?
“I would say it’s two things — smart and tough,” Harmon said over the phone Monday night, delighted to welcome Sanu to the Rutgers/Patriots fraternity. The two were in the same recruiting class and remain close friends.
“We’re all smart football players who understand what we’re trying to do,” said Harmon. “Coach Schiano did a good job of preparing us, not just playing football, but being smart as a whole. And also being tough. Devin and Jason hardly miss any games. We’re dependable. In the big-time moments, making big plays in big games. Mo [Sanu] has done that.
“I think Coach Schiano drove mental toughness into us at Rutgers, dependable not just in the fourth quarter, but in the two-minute drive to win the game. From that standpoint, coming from Rutgers made the transition easier. That pipeline was built.”
Other have passed through, too — Kenny Britt, Jonathan Freeny, Tiquan Underwood — maybe not with the same success, but given the chance in part because of their Rutgers affiliation.
In many ways, they are reflective of New Jersey itself, molded by a type of fight that Schiano would call “the chop.” His teams literally carried an ax onto the field. In a state overshadowed at both ends — to the north by New York, to the south by Philadelphia — and always fighting for an identity and recognition, that appealed to players who were not so highly touted, who were not five-star recruits.
“Greg’s greatest attribute when he was here was he found his niche, he found special kids that were not highly recruited, guys who would grind, work hard,” said Rick Mantz, Rutgers’s director of high school relations.
Mantz coached Sanu in high school, and even though his South Brunswick (N.J.) program was not among the state’s powers, Schiano found Sanu anyway, a kid who was willing to do anything for his team. He was an option quarterback who could throw a ball 80 yards standing still, played both ways as receiver and safety, and was a track star in the spring.
“He could identify talent, and secondly he knew how to push and develop,” Mantz said. “Bill knows that. Bill was around the program and spent time with Greg to know that kids coming out of our program at that time were NFL-ready.”
Belichick was a regular visitor to campus because his son Steve was on the lacrosse team. Belichick would often visit with Schiano. Eventually Steve would walk on to the football team as a backup long snapper. Now, he’s the Patriots secondary and safeties coach.
The ties remained strong, enough that Belichick hired and then accepted the quick resignation of Schiano as his defensive coordinator last offseason, so that Schiano could spend more time with his family.
In November 2017, when Schiano was rumored to become the head coach at Tennessee, Belichick was asked about him, and more than simply calling him “one of the very best coaches I think in our profession,” he marveled at the connection he maintains to the players he once coached.
“The most impressive thing for me is the way that our players, which we’ve had a lot of Rutgers players come through here, the loyalty and the, I would say, love of the program for years and years after they had left,” Belichick said.
“Not taking anything away from any other school, but I would just say that it’s extremely strong. I think the relationship that he has with his kids, with his players, and how well-prepared his players are to come into this league is exceptional.”
Earlier this season, after the Patriots had beaten Buffalo on the road, word filtered into the locker room that Rutgers had fired its coach, Chris Ash. Schiano is a leading candidate to replace him, to return to the program he made Big Ten-ready, and complete his own coaching circle. It is a move that makes sense for Rutgers, where he succeeded and no one else has.
“I’ll never sugarcoat it — he was tough as hell to play for in your time there,” Jason McCourty reflected in that Buffalo locker room. “But a lot of us laugh and joke now that a lot of his sayings he would say to us when we were there we use all the time.
“There’s one I use with my wife: There’s two ways to lie, commission or omission, that a failure to say something is a lie. I’d be put on the hot seat for that. Those come from Coach Schiano. Or how you have to be comfortable being uncomfortable. That applies in football and in life.
“He’s a guy that’s tough as nails. The thing with Coach Schiano is you’re going to respect the heck out of him because of his work ethic, just a guy that demands the most out of you. You’re not going to be there and not work hard.”
Nor are you going to be here and not work hard. That’s the common thread, and it’s one Belichick proves time and again he is not shy to pull.