By Matt Sugam
PISCATAWAY – When a team faces the type of adversity Rutgers did last week with their head coach being suspended for three games, one of two things typically happen. The team unravels and falls apart or they band together.
Given the situation with the Scarlet Knights – where Mike Rice was suspended for throwing balls at players’ heads in his first or second season – it would seem the former would happen. But after a win against UAB in which Rutgers (7-2) played their best first half of the season, it appears they can do the latter as they get set to take on Howard at the RAC on Friday night.
Precisely what the players expected moments after they were informed of the suspension.
“We were settled in right when it was announced,” senior wing Dane Miller said. “We already knew what we had to do that practice. We were locked in that practice. We were locked in the practice before. We were just locked in period.”
Which came as no surprise to interim head coach David Cox.
“I’ve been around these guys for two some of them three years now, so I know what they’re made of and I know that better than anyone outside of this building. Our staff knows that,” Cox said. “So we know what they’re made of. We know that they have that type of resolve in them as far as their character.”
So everyone inside the program expected the response from the players that they got.
And even with Rice gone, not much has changed. No, Cox isn’t nearly as fiery as Rice, but aside from that he’s kept everything else the same for the team.
In turn, Rutgers has felt a sense of normalcy through the turmoil. Aside from their head coach not actually being present, the team hasn’t sensed a difference.
“It doesn’t even seem like he’s gone aside from him not actually physically being here,” Miller said. “As far as practice has been and drills we’re doing, it seems like he’s still here.”
So as a team leader, Miller – who’s been through a head coach firing with Fred Hill – didn’t have to vocally send a message to anybody. The younger players didn’t fret.
“To be honest, I didn’t really tell anybody anything, because nobody had any questions or guys weren’t unfocused,” Miller said. “Everybody was focused. Everybody was ready to go. Nobody fell off the boat or didn’t know what was going on. Everybody was locked in so I didn’t have to tell anybody anything.”
And Cox doesn’t feel like he has to do anything but keep Rutgers afloat until Rice’s return after the Rider game, right before conference play begins at Syracuse.
“I’m just trying to pick up the pieces and keep this thing moving,” Cox said. “Again, it’s just an interim position and I’m just trying to hold it down until the boss comes back.”
So what could have been the beginning of a complete implosion is viewed by the team as a minor blip.
“He’s only gone three games, so it’s not like he’s gone the whole Big East conference play, so we’re fine, it’s nothing too crazy about the situation,” Miller said. “He’ll be gone for a few games, but everybody’s locked in and ready to go and we’re just waiting for him to come back after the Rider game, so it’s nothing too crazy. It’s not like he got fired or something. He got suspended. It happens. I know he’s ready to come back and we’re ready to have him come back.”