Shawnee High coach Tim Gushue returned a phone message, understanding the subject was Greg Schiano returning to Rutgers. He didn’t wait for a question to state his opinion about the move.

"I really believe he may be the only man in the country that can do this,'' Gushue said right off the bat. “I’m serious. I know there are great people out there.”

But Rutgers is its own thing, Gushue made clear. Even with Schiano, he said, this is a long-term project. He goes back to the first time Rutgers had hired Schiano after the 2000 season, after the ill-fated Terry Shea era. Bob Mulcahy, then Rutgers’ athletic director, had brought in about 15 top high school coaches from around the state, went around the table asking for opinions.

"Whoever you hire, you need to give him five to six years,'' Gushue remembers telling Mulcahy. “That’s how broken I felt the program was back then.”

Now? Similar deal, the coach made clear. An eight-year contract for Schiano? That’s realism, he said, not pie-in-the-sky bonus years — “I don’t think money is an issue in the Schiano family." It’s just that the talent bar is so high now.

“It’s greater than it was the last tour of duty,’’ Gushue said, pointing out that as he watched Ohio State take out Michigan last weekend — “Look at the disparity in talent between Ohio State and Michigan.”

These are very deep waters, with Michigan and Penn State in the division, Michigan State presumably not willing to stay down forever. Don’t even sleep on Maryland, Gushue said. Since he retired from his teaching job, Gushue has been able to travel in the offseason, see the facilities in place all around the country. Maryland turned historic Cole Field House into a football facility. That’s the program Rutgers needs to jump over just to get to sixth place in the Big Ten East. So the facilities upgrade that Schiano insisted on as part of his deal, that’s just a bottom line, Gushue said.

Shawnee coach Tim Gushue (sunglasses) has led the Renegades to back-to-back South Jersey Group 4 titles and four sectional crowns since 2013.
Akira Suwa
Shawnee coach Tim Gushue (sunglasses) has led the Renegades to back-to-back South Jersey Group 4 titles and four sectional crowns since 2013.

“Purdue just built a new football-only facility,’’ Gushue said. “Northwestern has one that looks out on Lake Michigan. You cannot get elite players if they don’t walk and their eyes get big. There’s nothing at Rutgers that gives you that wow feeling. … I know P.J. Fleck [at Minnesota] is a human dynamo, but it’s not just P.J. that gets these players.”

Gushue said he had texted Schiano about three weeks ago, saying, “I hope the rumors are true. I don’t know if my voice carries much weight. Would love to see you come back.”

So when the deal soured, Gushue shook his head. He said getting top-flight coordinators is half the battle — “you’ve got to pay them.” A top strength and conditioning coach, “might be his most important hire.”

Let’s stop and understand this is a high school coach, a football lifer, who isn’t talking with even a tinge of resentment about how much money is being thrown around in college football.

But why Schiano? A lot of people understand the need for upgrades. Basically, Gushue suggested, it comes down to Schiano’s attention to detail, and his charisma. He made it clear high school coaches were welcome inside, at meetings and practice. He mentioned the powerhouse programs in North Jersey — “if you’re not basically pitching a tent outside them — c’mon, those programs have eight to ten Division I players ever year.” Then Gushue mentioned South Jersey, and the stronger programs on the other side of the Delaware around Philly. “You’ve got to get back in Florida, and he had success [recruiting] in Florida.”

He’s not saying the recent staff wasn’t working hard. The opposite, Gushue said. He just remembers how when he had a top lineman in Jake Pisarcik, after Kyle Flood took over for Schiano when Schiano went to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — “Kyle Flood was a good football coach, but Rutgers never even set foot in our building that year.” Pisarcik went to Oregon. Maybe he would have gone to Oregon anyway. But nobody even paid the toll down the turnpike to find out.

After coaching Rutgers from 2001-11, Greg Schiano moved to the NFL to be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' coach for two years.
Bob Leverone / AP
After coaching Rutgers from 2001-11, Greg Schiano moved to the NFL to be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' coach for two years.

The Schiano era was different in attention, even to the point that Schiano believed offering preferred walk-on spots was an important piece. Gushue said his nephew got such an offer, and in his memory, there was no difference in how his nephew was treated as a recruit. He ended up going to Delaware, played there. But the whole experience impressed Gushue, who has a Shawnee guy at Rutgers now in receiver Daevon Robinson, except Robinson entered the transfer portal before Schiano was hired, and even if Robinson wants to stay put, Schiano has to agree to it, Gushue said. That’s a risk of entering the portal.

But his conversation wasn’t really about Shawnee players past or present. It was about a school that Gushue believes should be far better than it has been, given the recruiting landscape. He’s talked to all sorts of coaches all around the country: “They all ask the same thing, what’s going on at Rutgers?”

It may take a couple of years now to even notice a difference on the field, Gushue believes. Unless you’re at practice.

“If I can give any of those players there any advice — it might be a warning,’’ Gushue said. “You better put your helmet on, and buckle it up tight. It will be a wow.”