For his band name, prefers “Second Chances” to “Unfinished Business.”
Schiano traveled through a wormhole in December and turned back time eight years to the end of his beginnings as a head coach. He brought home with him a band of more than a dozen coaches, trainers and administrators who once made Rutgers football prideful to New Jersey, relevant in New York City and pesky to national powers — but never fulfilled its championship goals.
“I left,” Schiano told The Post, “and I shouldn’t have left.”
Schiano, 53, is sitting in a black leather chair in the same (mostly empty) Hale Center corner office once filled with his memories. He is repurchasing a house he built in 2007. He is just back from a familiar coffee run to the QuickChek on River Road in Piscataway.
CEOs like Schiano — hands in marketing, budgeting, maintenance and all aspects of athletics, not just football — don’t deal in the wasted energy of hypotheticals.
But Schiano can’t resist here: If Rutgers was invited to leave the crumbling Big East for the Big Ten in January 2012 — instead of 10 months later — would he have turned down a five-year, $15 million contract from the NFL’s Buccaneers, as he did offers from college football titans Miami and Michigan?
“Yes,” Schiano said.
This answer is emphatic. Others, over the course of an hour-long conversation, are deliberate, marked by long pauses and thoughtful creases on his face.
“I ran from something, not to something,” he continued. “That wasn’t my dream to be the coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I didn’t like the way the horizon looked for us here.”
The Schiano era (2001-11) produced bowl berths in five of the final six years and an NFL pipeline anchored by Ray Rice and the McCourty twins, but he left behind what might have been his best team and best recruiting class.
In the time since, Schiano was fired after going 11-21 with the Buccaneers; spent two seasons as Ohio State’s defensive coordinator; landed a head-coaching job and lost it in one day to a Tennessee fan mob ill-informed about unsubstantiated hearsay he knew of Jerry Sandusky’s child sexual abuse at Penn State; resigned for family reasons as the New England Patriots defensive coordinator after two months; and sat out three football seasons.
In the time since, Rutgers is 35-56 and bowl-less since 2014. So, it’s not all picking up where he left off.
What Schiano built to last instead crumbled for many reasons, starting with the university’s refusal to give another coach the same power he wielded. Spring practice opens in two weeks and the depth chart has no cemented starters.
“The last eight years has been, ‘Get your dukes up,’ ” Schiano said. “Nothing surprises me anymore. Maybe that’s a bad place to be, but life teaches you. I feel like this isn’t a coincidence. But, man, did a lot of crazy stuff have to happen to get me back here.”
The Empire State Building was lit red Nov. 9, 2006, when Rutgers beat Louisville in a battle of unbeatens and climbed to No. 6 in the BCS rankings.
Thursday night games at Rutgers brought New York’s pro athletes across the bridges. A streak of 18 straight sellouts ended in 2009, after the stadium’s capacity was expanded from 41,500 to 52,454.
Rutgers’ average attendance in 2018 was 20,071, and eyeballed crowds looked smaller last season.
“Ultimately, you have to win,” Schiano said. “This is an event-driven area. When your games become events, it was a Who’s Who? on the sideline. It might take a while, but we will do that again.”
In Schiano’s first day back, Rutgers sold more new season tickets (excluding renewals) than it did the rest of 2019 combined, according to the athletic department. The number tripled over the next three months.
Six months before kickoff, there are midnight office huddles and Saturday morning staff meetings.
“I feel like I never left,” said recently returned Kevin MacConnell, who worked at Rutgers from 1986 until leaving for the Buccaneers with Schiano. “It’s 11 p.m. and he’s holding conversations with five of us, jumping back and forth, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my god, this is the way it was. This is when we get our best stuff done.” ‘
Except it almost never happened.
Rutgers fired Chris Ash in September, slow-walked its replacement search and tried to spin the narrative when scared off just before Thanksgiving by Schiano’s honest assessment of needs.
Then a crazy thing happened: Tortured fans united and bombarded the email accounts of university president Robert Barchi, athletics director Pat Hobbs, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and other VIPs, threatening to cut off allegiance and revenue — some six-figure donors — if Schiano wasn’t rehired.
“I am not sure that I will be able to maintain my enthusiasm,” wrote a 36-year season-ticket holder with a prominent position at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.
The Post obtained signed emails through an Open Public Records Act request:
“We are sick and tired of being the laughingstock of not only the Big Ten, but of all of college athletics.”
“We have been all-in for a long time, but today our confidence is shaken.”
“Fire Pat Hobbs. Hire Greg Schiano. Save Rutgers Football.”
Schiano signed a record eight-year, $32 million contract with pledges to upgrade facilities and $7.7 million (a 155 percent increase over 2019) to spend on assistant coaches. The Wyckoff, N.J., native vows this “incredible staff” will help Version 2.0 be more efficient, understanding and content.
“Part of my insecurity as a coach was I felt like I had to do everything,” Schiano said. “Some of the things I felt I had to do, quite frankly, I had to — or they wouldn’t have gotten done at the level we wanted. Maybe that’s because we had a 25-year-old doing a 35-year-old man’s job, but that’s what we could afford.
“I feel like we’re close to getting things into systems that will allow us to be not such a Greg-centric program.”
MacConnell, now Schiano’s chief of staff, helped prepare Rutgers’ first pitch for expansion to the Big Ten and ACC in the 1990s. It fell on deaf ears.
Schiano privately laid out his vision to join the Big Ten as early as 2002 and chirped in the ear of commissioner Jim Delaney when possible.
“Eight years, a lot has changed,” MacConnell said. “But I walked in the building today and video of the  Louisville game was on. That is still my greatest night ever. If you had said this [reunion] to me a year ago, I would’ve said, ‘How is that remotely possible?’ It’s because we all trust him.”
Hobbs is fundraising at unprecedented levels to benefit other sports, but Schiano says a football-only field house with an indoor practice facility rolling onto its state-of-the-art grass outdoor complex is needed to recruit in the Big Ten. Estimated price tag: $150 million, at least half of which has to be privately fundraised, per his contract.
“It’s not a little thing we’re fixing to do,” Schiano said. “I only would have come back if I believed the same thing I believed when I took it the first time: We can be the very best. I know people think I’m cuckoo.”
It’s enough if the local high school players and coaches think he is sane. He already changed his pro-style offensive philosophy to incorporate elements of the spread and entice top quarterbacks.
“If we could recruit a top class at Rutgers back then, why can’t we do it now?” Schiano said. “I hope I don’t have to prove that we did then was real. We should be in that ballpark, and then go flying past it.”
New Jersey is the recruiting lifeline, but Rutgers has more scholarship players from New York — “the high school football in New York City has gotten so much better,” he says — than any other Power Five conference team.
“In that way, we already are New York’s team,” Schiano said. “I’m sure the people up north [Syracuse] won’t like that, but I don’t particularly care.”
College football’s 150th anniversary just passed with Rutgers — hosts of the first game — mired in irrelevancy.
“My goal hasn’t changed one bit. My purpose has changed a little bit with age,” Schiano said. “I want to get there, but I want to get there while we are building into people. I was so driven that it probably had an adverse effect on reaching that goal.”
But the climb is more challenging now with annual games against Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State, right?
“I hear all the arguments,” Schiano said. “If you are from here, like I am, then it appeals to you. If you are not, it may not appeal to you.”
Those same fans who rallied for his hire carry accelerated expectations. Scrap the usual grace period — incremental improvements — given to a new coach.
This is Schiano’s 12th season at Rutgers. Or is it his first?
“We decided we were going to spend the rest of our careers here. Then things changed,” Schiano said. “That’s why I call it a ‘second chance’ to do my dream job. Usually, you don’t get that.”