As the Buccaneers prepare for their first regular-season road test under Greg Schiano, Tampa Bay's new head coach faces the emotional challenge of coming home.
Schiano won't have much time for his Jersey Boys this weekend, but knows Mike Miello and Bob Mulcahy will be cheering him on in the Meadowlands today, when the Bucs face the defending Super Bowl champion Giants.
Schiano's parents, Barry and Renee, will make the 15-mile drive from Wyckoff, N.J., to MetLife Stadium to root for the 46-year-old son they raised to respect authority and cherish family values.
"I'm a Jersey guy, Greg's a Jersey guy, and that means something,'' said Bucknell football coach Joe Susan, who recruited Schiano as a hard-hitting linebacker out of Ramapo High.
Susan was a Bucknell assistant in 1984 when he helped the Bisons land Schiano. They were reunited 17 years later when Susan joined Schiano's original staff at Rutgers, where they turned around a dismal program.
"We knew what we were up against,'' Susan said, "but we also knew we would get the job done.''
Because of Susan's current football duties, he won't be able to attend today's matchup against the Giants.
But he'll be watching.
Miello, who coached Schiano in high school and also served on his Rutgers staff, said this is a special day for a special Buccaneer man.
"The proper professional thing to do is downplay it, but there will be emotions for Greg Schiano on Sunday,'' said Miello. "Coming back home with so many friends and family makes it different.''
Miello is still very close to Schiano's parents.
"The apple fell as close to the tree as it possibly could,'' he said. "Greg's dad was a seven-day-a-week workaholic in the textile business who was as strong a male role model as any kid could ask for. His mom kept things humble and taught Greg humility.''
Once Mulcahy hired Schiano to coach at Rutgers in 2001, the former athletic director marveled at the way a Bruce Springsteen fanatic transformed the culture in the badlands of Piscataway, N.J.
"When there was a problem, he'd take care of it right away,'' said Mulcahy. "Before you knew it, our academics got to No. 1 in the country because Greg Schiano said if you don't go to class, you don't dress.''
Bucs center Jeremy Zuttah, who played for Schiano at Rutgers, doesn't expect to see his head coach change expression on game day.
"It'll be cool for him going back to New Jersey because he spent so much time there and it's where he grew up,'' Zuttah said. "But once the game starts, none of that will mean anything because he'll be focused on the job. There will be a lot of people there that appreciate what he did at Rutgers, but a lot of them are Giants fans.''
The Giants are 7-1/2 point favorites today to hand Schiano his first loss as an NFL head coach.
Tom Coughlin's club is coming off a 24-17 home setback against Dallas in the league's season opener and a sellout crowd is hoping the Giants can get their ground game going against a defense that tied a franchise record by allowing only 10 rushing yards in an opening win against Carolina.
Before Schiano's game face takes shape this afternoon, his gaze will be fixed on an opening coin toss ceremony that promises to be memorable. Former Rutgers player Eric LeGrand, who was paralyzed in a 2010 game against Army on this same field, will participate in the coin toss.
"I know the Giants have provided a place for he and his family to watch the game, which I think is awesome of them,'' said Schiano. "It's just a good New Jersey thing and a good thing overall for football.''
The Bucs have made LeGrand an honorary member of the organization and was in Tampa for last week's opener.
"The last time Greg Schiano was in that stadium, one of his players got hurt,'' said Susan. "That will weigh on him heavily on Sunday.''
Schiano, 46, may have been born just before the Summer of Love, but this was no flower child growing up in the affluent suburb of Wyckoff, the former home of Yankees Bucky Dent and Don Zimmer.
Young Greg Schiano hit the books hard – and opposing running backs even harder.
"I was very involved in football feeder programs in New Jersey,'' Miello said, "and I can remember seeing this little kid running around the recreation fields playing with an intensity well past his age. When he got to Ramapo High, he became the first freshman to play varsity for my team.
"Greg played linebacker and guard and by the fourth game, we got hit with a rash of injuries up front. When Greg went through the 1-on-1 pride drills, he was kicking the heck out of everybody, so I put Greg in at right guard and he got the job done.''
Shortly after Schiano arrived at Bucknell, Susan witnessed a coach in the making.
"He wasn't the most talented player we had, but he was a student of the game,'' Susan said. "Even back then, I thought it was just a matter of time before he got into coaching.''
At Ramapo High, where former Bucs quarterback Chris Simms graduated with the Class of 1999, Schiano learned the life lessons he applies to this day.
"Greg Schiano's a really hard worker with an amazing attention to detail,'' former Rutgers coach Doug Graber said. "When he was a grad assistant for me, you could tell right away how sharp and attentive he was.''
Now it's Schiano's turn to set the tone as an NFL head coach.
His new adventure began with a 16-10 victory against the Panthers last week, a win that prompted a message from an old buddy.
"I sent him a text on Tuesday,'' said Susan. "I asked him, 'Did you enjoy the win? Knowing you, Greg, you're probably already getting ready for the next game, just like me.' "
Susan didn't wait around for a response.
"I know Greg Schiano very well,'' Susan said. "I knew the answer.''
Jersey Boys stick together.
"Everybody gets labeled where you come from,'' said Miello. "Look at some of the top people that came out of New Jersey, from Frank Sinatra to Springsteen. Then you've got a show like 'Jersey Shore,' which gives you a different impression. To me, New Jersey is a state of mind and Greg Schiano embodies its best qualities."