Rutgers basketball used to have more cachet than Rutgers football. That is no longer the case. Which is completely understandable: Rutgers has had some decent football teams the last few years (this season and last to the contrary), while its basketball team hasn't reached the postseason at all in 10 years, and hasn't qualified for the NCAA Tournament in a quarter of a century.
Before You Go. The RAC -- from here until the end of this post, I'll call it that, other than to explain its full name in "Going In" -- is 40 miles from Midtown Manhattan, so the weather will be just about the same. Which will matter as the New York and New Jersey weather gets colder and snow and ice become a factor. This early in the season, it shouldn't.
Tickets. Originally, the RAC had a listed seating capacity of 9,000. However, the uppermost seats are horrible, so they aren't sold. Officially, capacity is now 8,000, making it the smallest arena in the Big 10. And yet, tickets are fairly easy to get, because the team is historically bad.
The seats behind the baskets are reserved for students of the competing schools, and are not available to the general public. Courtside seats are $65, which is ridiculous, considering the product. The next section back is $25. The uppermost seats (the ones for sale, anyway) are just $2.50. That's right: Two dollars and fifty cents. In this case, though, you get what you pay for.
Getting There. As I said, the RAC is almost exactly 40 miles from Times Square. However, do not take that for granted, especially on a weeknight, when traffic getting out of New York City may not be favorable to you. Your best bet is probably to forget the car and take public transportation. New Jersey Transit runs rail service from Penn Station in Midtown Manhattan to New Brunswick. Round-trip fare is $28.
New Brunswick Station, with The Vue behind it
An NJT train pulls into New Brunswick from Trenton
From the New Brunswick train station, there will be special Campus Buses to shuttle you to the arena. These will be free. Although it's only 3 miles, depending on the traffic, this could take anywhere from 5 to 45 minutes. You have been warned. At least, if you're wearing opposing-team colors, the RU fans will not harass you.
If you're driving from New York City, get onto the New Jersey Turnpike. Whether that means the Lincoln Tunnel, the Holland Tunnel, or the Belt Parkway followed by the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge followed by the Staten Island Expressway followed by the Goethals Bridge, all roads to Rutgers lead to the Turnpike.
Take the Turnpike to Exit 9, and take Route 18 North toward New Brunswick. The signs will lead you over the John Lynch Memorial Bridge. (John Lynch Jr., a corrupt former Mayor of New Brunswick, had it built and named after his father who had also been Mayor.) Once you're over the bridge, take the exit for Metlars Lane, turn right on Avenue E, and turn left on Rockafeller Road. The arena will be on your left. If you do it right, it should take about 45 minutes.
Once In the City. New Brunswick is named for an English town, whose name was taken from the German city of Braunschweig in Lower Saxony, taken from "Bruno's wik." A wik was a marketplace and a rest stop for travelers in medieval Germany. Bruno, Brun, or Braun -- the English name Brown and the German name von Braun come from him -- was Duke of Saxony, and is a Catholic saint. He is said to have founded Braunschweig in AD 861.
The New Jersey city is considerably newer, although old by American standards: Formerly Prigmore's Swamp and Inian's Ferry, the first European settlement there was in 1681. The name was changed a little over 300 years ago, in 1714, in honor of the German-born new King of England, George I, who was also Elector of Hanover and Duke of Brunswick-Luneburg. His brother, Prince Ernest Augustus, was the Duke of York and Albany, and the main intersection of the city is George & Albany Streets, named for the King and his brother; they have nothing to do with George Washington or Albany, the capital of the State of New York.
The corner of George & Albany Streets is not, however, a "centerpoint": For east-west streets, addresses start at the Raritan River and increase westward; for north-south streets, they start on the south side of town and increase northward, so that the main intersection includes not 1 North George Street and 1 West Albany Street, but 410 George Street and 120 Albany Street.
A "King's Highway" was built in colonial times, and this is the forerunner of today's New Jersey Route 27, including part of Somerset Street, all of French Street, all of Albany Street, and the Albany Street Bridge over the river into neighboring Highland Park. The city was occupied by the British during the War of the American Revolution. While there is no Washington Street in town, and George Street is named for an earlier King (not George III), there is a Hamilton Street, named for Alexander Hamilton. The University's administration building, a.k.a. Old Queens, was built on a hill on that street, overlooking the river, where Hamilton observed British troop movements.
The seat of Middlesex County, New Brunswick is home to about 57,000 people, not counting Rutgers students. Long a haven for immigrants from Ireland and Eastern Europe (especially Hungary), the growth of the American middle class made possible the development of nearby towns like Franklin (named for Ben, not his colonial governor son William who accepted the charter for what became Rutgers), Piscataway, Edison, North Brunswick (which is actually south of New Brunswick), East Brunswick (ditto) and South Brunswick (and again, ditto, although in that case it made sense).
But that white flight from New Brunswick left poor blacks moving in, and the Hub City (so named because it was a major transportation center) became stricken with ghettos. Many children of those black citizens overcame this, and moved into the neighboring towns. Their places were taken by Mexican immigrants, their community settled, ironically, on French Street. (The street was almost certainly named for steamboat pioneer Daniel French, rather than the nationality of the original settlers on it.)
Today, New Brunswick's 4 main communities -- academic, legal (as I said, it's a County Seat), health care (2 major hospitals and being world headquarters for Johnson & Johnson make it "The Healthcare City") and immigrant -- combine to make it a very vibrant city. There's always construction going on, including downtown. The Barnes & Noble that forms the new campus bookstore is on the ground floor of the 2012-constructed tallest building in Central Jersey, the 24-story, 299-foot The Vue. It is connected by a walkway to the outbound platform (for trains running from New York and Newark toward Trenton and Philadelphia) of the train station.
ZIP Codes in North Jersey tend to begin with the digits 07, including 071 for Newark and environs, 072 for Elizabeth, 073 for Jersey City, and 075 for Paterson. Central and South Jersey got ZIP Codes starting with the digits 08, including 084 for Atlantic City, 086 and 086 for Trenton, and 089 for New Brunswick and environs.
New Jersey's original Area Code was 201. 609 was split off in 1958, 908 in 1991, 732 in 1997, and 856 in 1999. Now, they serve as follows: 201, with 551 overlaid in 2001, serves only Bergen and Hudson Counties (including the Meadowlands, and thus MetLife Stadium, and Harrison, and thus Red Bull Arena); 609 serves Mercer County (including the capital of Trenton and Princeton University) and the Southern Shore region (including Atlantic City); 732, with 848 overlaid, much of Central Jersey (including Rutgers University) and the Northern Shore region; 856, the Delaware River region that serves as suburbs of Philadelphia; 908, the Counties of Union, northern Somerset, Morris and Warren; and 973, with 862 overlaid, the Counties of Essex (including Newark, and thus the Prudential Center) and Passaic.
Once On Campus. The school was originally named Queens College, and George III gave its royal charter in 1766, the 8th of 9 American colleges founded before independence. The others are New College, now Harvard, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1636; William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, 1693; Collegiate School, now Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut, 1701; the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University (the current TCNJ used to be Trenton State), 1746; King's College, now Columbia University, in New York City, 1754; the College of Philadelphia, now the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, 1755; the College of Rhode Island, now Brown University, in Providence, 1764; and Dartmouth College, in Hanover, New Hampshire, 1769.
Queens College was chartered by the Dutch Reformed Church. For this reason, the college green has a statue of William I, Prince of Orange (1533-1584), a.k.a. William the Silent, ancestor of the current Dutch royal family and the hero of Dutch independence (which Spain, through an assassination, did not allow him to see). Supposedly, if a senior still a virgin walks past his statue, "Willie the Silent" will be silent no more, and will whistle. No one has ever reported having heard this whistle.
In 1825, the year Old Queens was completed, the school had run out of money and had to close -- at the time, they thought it might be permanent. Enter Colonel Henry Rutgers, a high-ranking member of the Dutch Reformed Church in Manhattan. A graduate of Kings College/Columbia University, Rutgers was a lifelong bachelor with no children, legitimate or otherwise (it has been retroactively suggested by activist groups that he was gay), and, having no family to whom he could leave his money, made considerable donations in his time.
Knowing of New Brunswick's role in slowing the British down, making the Continental Army's retreat, regrouping in Pennsylvania, and subsequent victories at Trenton and Princeton possible, he donated $5,000 (about $116,000 in today's money), and a bell for the cupola at Old Queens. In gratitude, and in hopes that the Colonel would leave them something more in his will, the regents renamed the school Rutgers College. The Colonel left them nothing more, but the name stuck, and the school's marching band still plays a song titled "The Colonel Rutgers March."
In New Brunswick, when people say, "The Colonel,"
they don't mean Harland Sanders or Sherman T. Potter.
They mean Henry Rutgers.
Rutgers became New Jersey's only land-grant college under the Morrill Act of 1862 (which created land-grant colleges), and, following the consolidation with Cook and Douglass, the State University in 1956. The University of Newark was incorporated into the RU system in 1945 (Rutgers-Newark), and the College of South Jersey was in 1950 (Rutgers-Camden). Douglass College, originally the New Jersey College for Women, was added in 1955. Cook College has always been a part of the Queens/Rutgers system. The main part of the campus, along College Avenue in New Brunswick, is still officially "Rutgers College." The Livingston Campus (including the arena) and the Busch Campuses (built around the Stadium) were added across the Raritan River in Piscataway in 1969.
While the Queens name has never been restored, the administration building is still known as Old Queens, and some university flags still bear the script form of the letter Q. Some bear a script R. Both are flanked by the numbers 17 and 66, for the school's founding year. No one has ever seriously suggested changing the name to "the University of New Jersey" or "New Jersey State University" or even "Jersey State." It might have been better if they had: What's a better chant? "UNJ! UNJ! UNJ!" or "R... U... R... U... "
Aside from being the host of "the first college football game," RU is known for its scientific and medical breakthroughs, including the 1943 isolation of Streptomycin by Selman Waksman in 1943.
Going In. As I said, free Campus Buses will take you from the train station to the arena, a 2-mile trip. The official address is 83 Rockafeller Road, named for old Rutgers football coach Harry Rockafeller. (Note the spelling: The Rockefeller family has nothing to do with the school.) If you're driving, parking information is available here at ScarletKnights.com.
Built in 1977, the Louis Brown Athletic Center is not a building befitting a great university. Originally known as the Rutgers Athletic Center (and still nicknamed The RAC, pronounced "the rack"), it was renamed in 1986 for, as was the University itself long before, a major donor.
What can I say, but, "It was the 1970s." Begging the question,
"What idiot suggested that drugs can expand your mind?"
It's a tacky chunk of concrete in the middle of nowhere. And that's on the outside. On the inside, it was designed to hold 9,000 people (hardly a big-time capacity), but the sight lines up top are so bad, they don't even sell those seats anymore. Hence, an official capacity of 8,000.
Ground level is between the seating levels. The only entrance is behind the East basket. The court is laid out east-to-west. The building is held up by big thick concrete columns at the corners, which obstruct a lot of views. And, unlike Seton Hall with their 3,200-seat Walsh Gym in South Orange, they don't have the option to play home games at the Prudential Center in Newark, with a basketball seating capacity of 18,711.
Like a lot of sports stadiums and arenas built in the 1960s and 1970s, it is functional – barely – and not worth its initial hype. Unlike many of those buildings, it still stands, not yet replaced by a far better one. Plans were once floated for a downtown New Brunswick arena seating 12,000, and now they're talking about expanding the RAC, perhaps to 12,500.
Food. There is 1 concession stand. That's right: One. I was once there to see my alma mater, East Brunswick High School, win the County Tournament. Attendance was listed at 4,500, about half of capacity, and 1 stand was still not enough.
Don't expect anything fancy. It's pretty much the standard stadium fare, although the hot dogs are good. (Not great, just good.)
Team History Displays. Banners are hung along the sidelines, honoring the regular-season titles in the leagues to which Rutgers has belonged: 1977, 1978, 1980, 1983 and 1991; the conference tournament titles: 1975, 1976, 1979 and 1989; and the NCAA Tournament appearances: The Round of 32 in 1975, the Final Four in 1976, the Sweet 16 in 1976, the Round of 32 in 1983, and the Round of 64 in 1989 and 1991.
There are currently 4 retired numbers, 2 men's and 2 women's: 14, Bob Lloyd, Class of '67; 12, Phil Sellers '76; 45, June Olkowski '82; and 23, Sue Wicks '88. The 25 of women's player Cappie Pondexter '06 will be retired on December 1, against Duke.
Stuff. There's no official Team Store, only a single small souvenir stand. You might be able to buy a book and/or a DVD about the undefeated regular season of 1976.
The campus bookstore, the aforementioned Barnes & Noble, is at 100 Somerset Street, at the foot of College Avenue next to the train station. It sells all kinds of RU gear, from T-shirts and sweatshirts to caps. (And, yes, textbooks. Very, very expensive textbooks.) Across the street, at 109 Somerset, Scarlet Fever sells RU gear as well.
During the Game. Safety will not be an issue. Regardless of what professional sports teams they root for -- and RU takes fans from New York-aligned North and Central Jersey and from Philly-oriented South Jersey -- the school is strict on making fans abide by a family-friendly code of behavior. Alcohol is not served in the arena, and that's a good thing, given how students (most of them under age 21) get at football games. However, if you are staying overnight (unlikely if you're coming from New York City), or even if you want to stay late before taking a bus or train back into Manhattan, I would exercise caution on Easton Avenue, New Brunswick's main bar drag.
Despite having a large and good (but not great) marching band, RU usually has a live singer perform the National Anthem. The Anthem is followed by the Rutgers Glee Club singing the Alma Mater:
On the banks of the old Raritan, my friends
where old Rutgers evermore shall stand
For has she not stood
since the time of the Flood
on the banks of the old Raritan.
The marching band doesn't play at basketball games, but a smaller pep band does, playing the fight song, which is followed by the official school cheer:
RU rah rah!
RU rah rah!
Boo rah! Boo rah!
Upstream, red team!
Red team, upstream!
Rah, rah, Rutgers, rah!
I didn't say the cheer was intellectually stimulating. Then again, Rutgers has pretensions to being a "public Ivy," and some of the actual Ivy League schools have even sillier cheers. (Seriously, Yale? "Boola boola"?)
Given the space involved, there is no cannon and no live knight in armor on horseback for basketball games. The only mascot is the guy in the traditional cloth suit with a big foam head, his face resembling Pittsburgh Steeler mascot Steely McBeam (himself an obvious parody of former Steeler coach Bill Cowher).
And you will have to leave the premises and their vicinity to get a postgame meal, or just a pint. Unless you want to go to the Livingston Student Center across Rockafeller Road, you're going to have a trek. Back across the Lynch Bridge, Easton Avenue, extending northward from Albany Street and the train station, is the place to be.
From Brother Jimmy's BBQ right next to the station, to such New Brunswick institutions as the Corner Tavern (not to be confused with the Court Tavern), the Golden Rail, and the Olde Queens Tavern, this is where the Rutgers community (assuming they're at least 21 years old -- or think they can fool someone with a fake ID) goes to drink.
A particular favorite of mine is Stuff Yer Face, at 49 Easton at Condict Street, purveyors of strombolis. (Or is the plural form "stromboli," like the plural of that Italian pastry has no S, "cannoli"?) Their slogan is, "Enjoy a boli and a beer!" And boy, do they have a variety of beers. Indeed, they call it "the Beer Library."
Stuff Yer Face and the Stuff Staff, 2013
It's one of those places that likes to brag, "We were here before you were born." It opened on October 22, 1977, shortly after the Yankees won the World Series with Reggie Jackson hitting those home runs, so it's not true for me, but it is true for any Rutgers student who graduated after the 20th Century. Celebrity chef Mario Batali worked there while attending Rutgers.
Just 3 doors up, at 55 Easton, is Thomas Sweet, creator of "blended ice cream" and an equal New Brunswick institution. They also have an outlet in Princeton, catering to that other Central Jersey academic center. They've even opened one in Washington, D.C. -- catering to Jersey Boys and Jersey Girls working for the federal government, or studying there, maybe?
28 miles to the Prudential Center, home of the New Jersey Devils
31 miles to Red Bull Arena, home of the New York Red Bulls
35 miles to MetLife Stadium, home of the New York Giants and Jets
37 miles to the Barclays Center, home of the Brooklyn Nets and New York Islanders
38 miles to Madison Square Garden, home of the New York Knicks, Rangers and Liberty
46 miles to Yankee Stadium, home of the New York Yankees and New York City FC
50 miles to Citi Field, home of the New York Mets
68 miles to the Philadelphia Sports Complex
84 miles to Talen Energy Stadium, home of the Philadelphia Union
Reaching New York City is easy: Just take the New Jersey Transit Northeast Corridor to Penn Station. (Newark's station is also called Penn Station.) Reaching Philadelphia is a little harder: Take NJT to the Trention Transit Center, and then transfer to the SEPTA (SouthEastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) Trenton Line train to Center City's 30th Street, Suburban or Jefferson Station.
There are some nearby places, some sports-related, that might interest you.
* College Avenue Gym and site of First College Football Game. Next-door to the Rutgers Student Center, and across from Brower Commons, is the classic home of Rutgers Athletics. Built in 1931 after the previous gym burned down, "The Barn" seats only 3,200 people, and proved to be totally inadequate during the greatest season in the history of Rutgers basketball: 1975-76, when the Scarlet Knights won their 1st 31 games en route to the NCAA Final Four, finally losing to Indiana and then the 3rd place game to UCLA at the Spectrum in Philadelphia.
Cramped quarters inside the Barn
Behind it is Parking Lot 30, which was built on the site of one of the most important locations in the history of North American sports. For it was here, at what was then called College Field, that what is generally recognized as the first American football game was played, between Rutgers College and the College of New Jersey (which became Princeton University), on November 6, 1869. Attendance is believed to have been about 100.
This was, essentially, a soccer game played by teams of 25 men each. The Rutgers men, determined to distinguish themselves from their opponents, and thus make it easier for them to play, grabbed scarlet cloth -- a cheap color to obtain at the time -- and wrapped it around their heads like turbans, thus inventing school colors and, sort of, the football helmet.
Under the scoring system of the time, Rutgers won, 6-4. That's 6 goals to 4, with RU scoring both the 1st 2 goals of the game, and the last 2. Under today's scoring system, it would be roughly 42-28. A rematch was played a week later at Princeton, and the men of Old Nassau got their revenge on the men of Old Queens, 8-0. (56-0.)
Arnold Friberg's 1968 black-and-white oil painting,
The First Game. It remains the best-known depiction.
Apparently, no one thought to take a photograph,
which was possible at the time.
Oddly enough, Rutgers continued to play Princeton, the schools just 18 miles apart, but never beat them again until the dedication game for the 1st Rutgers Stadium in 1938. There was one surviving Rutgers player left, 69 years later, and the last surviving Princeton player died that very morning.
Rutgers continued to play at College Field until 1891, before moving across the street. 130 College Avenue at Senior Street.
* Alexander Library and site of Neilson Field. The main campus library is typical of the banal American architecture of the 1950s. Not so typical is a brick wall behind it on George Street, where a plaque can still be made out, saying, "NEILSON FIELD." The library was built on the site of the facility Rutgers used for their home football games from 1892 to 1938, moving into the stadium across the river in midseason.
Neilson Field continued to be used as a practice facility until the new library was built, opening in 1953. It also hosted high school games, especially the Thanksgiving game between New Brunswick and South River, which was moved to the stadium and played there until it was moved off Thanksgiving in the late 1970s (but is still a big rivalry). 169 College Avenue at Richardson Street.
* Rutgers Stadium, a.k.a. High Point Solutions Stadium. The original Rutgers Stadium opened in 1938, built by President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Works Project Administrtion, at a low cost since it was built into a natural bowl, thus not requiring as much digging as one built on level ground would have. It had a West Stand, an East Stand, and a North Stand, all single-decked, all concrete with wooden benches, no actual seats. Seating capacity was 23,000.
On each side of the North Stand, between the other stands, were grass areas -- I don't want to use the term "grassy knoll," but they did get called that. When these areas got filled in, capacity rose to over 30,000. In 1969, a Centennial Game was played against Princeton, and ABC offered to televise it. So, for the first TV game in Rutgers football history, a few spare bleacher seats were added, and 31,219 was the paid attendance, the highest in the stadium's history. (Here's a shot of the old stadium, late in its history, after the Hale Center was built on the East Stand.)
So negotiations were undertaken with the State government, and in 1992, after a Halloween thriller with Virginia Tech, when a touchdown on the final play gave Rutgers a 51-49 win, and a 13-9 win over West Virginia, the old stadium was closed and demolished.
Playing their home games at Giants Stadium in 1993, Rutgers opened the new Rutgers Stadium on September 3, 1994, beating Kent State, 28-6. It had a horseshoe shape, open at the south end, maintaining a nice view of the riverfront and New Brunswick. The lower deck was rounded at the corners, but otherwise perfectly straight, and an upper deck was added along the sidelines. Also, for the first time, Rutgers Stadium had permanent lights.
Capacity was now 41,500 -- still the smallest in the recently-formed Big East Football Conference. The Hale Center, with team offices, training facilities, a huge new locker room, and press facilities (the old press box was a dinky little thing on the West Stand, not much bigger than a high school stadium's press box), opened on the East Stand. (Here's a shot of that configuration, complete with the trees at the South end.)
* Yurcak Field. A 5-minute walk from the stadium, this 5,000-seat aluminum-bench facility, resembling a high school football stadium, is home to the RU soccer and lacrosse programs, and to Sky Blue FC of Women's Professional Soccer (WPS). Ronald N. Yurcak, an All-American lacrosse player in 1965, donated the money for it. 83 Fitch Road at Scarlet Knight Way.
* Memorial Stadium. Built in 1950 as the home of New Brunswick High School athletics, this facility was also used by the now-defunct St. Peter's High School. The building across the street was NBHS from 1967 until 2013, and is now New Brunswick Middle School. In 1978, the New Jersey Americans used Memorial Stadium as a home field, and, at the time, they had one of the greatest soccer players who ever lived, by then playing out the string, the Portuguese legend Eusébio.
The complex also includes a field for boys' baseball, another for girls' softball, and tennis courts, and each has been a former host for their respective Middlesex County, later Greater Middlesex Conference, championship tournament finals. The stadium has also hosted the County soccer finals. Joyce Kilmer Avenue between 9th and 12th Streets. (Formerly Codwise Avenue, the poet Joyce Kilmer was born on that street, and was killed in World War I.)
New Brunswick isn't a big museum city -- then again, it isn't a big city. Easily the most notable is the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, at 71 Hamilton Street, across from Old Queens. Adjacent, Scott Hall, at 77 College Avenue, hosts notable lectures and film festivals.
Speaking of films, there haven't been many movies filmed in or around New Brunswick. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension was supposedly set there, but was filmed in Southern California. The 1984-90 CBS sitcom Charles In Charge was set in New Brunswick, with the Rutgers name dropped in favor of the fictional Copeland College, but was taped entirely in Hollywood.
Going to a Rutgers basketball game isn't quite as big-time as seeing St. John's at Madison Square Garden. Rutgers haven't won much -- indeed, the Scarlet Knights make the Nets look as successful as the Lakers by comparison. But that's made what they have won all the sweeter.