Rutgers University football has been whipsawed in recent years, as its goal to become a national power is countered by increasing pressure on state funding. But a group of statewide business leaders — including the university's former athletic director — are advancing a plan to provide supplemental funding to support the football program.
Former athletic director Robert Mulcahy and real estate executive Finn Wentworth have up-close knowledge of the state's difficult fiscal situation — they served together on Gov. Chris Christie's transition committee examining gaming, sports and entertainment. At that point, they began weighing alternate sources for funding Scarlet Knights football.
"It became very obvious to us that there was going to be a tremendous pullback in public financing in areas around the state," including state universities, said Wentworth, founding managing principal of Normandy Real Estate Partners and former president of YankeesNets.
But it wasn't until the devastating spinal injury to defensive tackle Eric LeGrand — and the support head coach Greg Schiano showed to his injured player — that Mulcahy and Wentworth became inspired to move forward with a private funding plan.
In June, the two launched Knights of the Roundtable, a group currently consisting of 10 New Jersey business leaders who each provide $10,000 annually to support to the program, plus Brian Leonard, an NFL running back who played at Rutgers. Contributions are made to Rutgers' foundation, with Schiano deciding how to spend the funds.
Schiano "gave dignity to what was a horrific event and could have been a real tragic era," rallying support for LeGrand after the injury, Wentworth said. "We really needed to do something in the community to support a coach who's obviously gone way beyond what most coaches do."
Mulcahy points to Schiano's focus on academics as a reason for offering additional support. The Knights of the Roundtable largely consists of figures who aren't Rutgers alumni, including Wentworth and Mulcahy, as well as Jon F. Hanson, principal of real estate firm The Hampshire Cos. and a top sports adviser to Christie, and power broker George Norcoss, chairman of Conner Strong Cos. Inc.
Mulcahy said the team's academic record under Schiano as one of the top four universities in Annual Progress Report rankings — along with Stanford, Duke and the Naval Academy — appealed to the Knights.
"There's a mentoring of these student athletes, and their success in the classroom is terribly important" to Schiano, he said.
The Knights of the Roundtable raised $100,000 this year. Its goal is to raise $250,000 through 25 members next year, and $500,000, with 50 members, in 2013. For their donation, members of the group will meet Schiano twice each year, once briefly on a game day and again at a dinner in the offseason.
Another roundtable member is William Gormley, managing partner of law firm DLA Piper's Atlantic City office and a former state senator. Gormley said he's been involved with Rutgers athletics since sponsoring the 1991 bill that expanded the football stadium and led to the construction of the Atlantic City Convention Center.
"It's an example of north and south working together to get things done that are very important for both regions," Gormley said, linking the earlier effort to the football support.
Current Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti, who replaced Mulcahy, said the group is generating excitement.
"This is a tremendous example of New Jersey people investing in a New Jersey program at Rutgers that focuses on the balance between academics and athletics, with the mission of earning degrees, becoming leaders and winning championships the right way," Pernetti said.
Hanson said it was a clear choice to join the effort: "More than half of fundraising is the person doing the (asking), so when Bob Mulcahy and Finn asked, that was important."
As a former chairman of the National Football Foundation and the New Jersey Sports & Exposition Authority, Hanson is dedicated to football. But he also sees Schiano as a leader in focusing on players being student-athletes.
"I am a big supporter of the private sector taking the lead in matters of this nature," Hanson said. "The public sector has finite dollars. It can help. The private sector can take the lead."
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