Dressed in the business casual standard blue button down shirt and khaki pants, and with his black backpack hanging on one shoulder, Patrick Hobbs arrived at the Rutgers Athletics Center in the mid-afternoon.
The university’s athletic director had been running from meeting to meeting on this late August day. Now, he walked into an undecorated office that awaited a delivery of new furniture. The lone personal touch was the scaled-down version of the dream. It sat on the front corner of his desk, a three-dimensional rendering in wood offering a vision of a new athletic facility.
“It is probably the single most important facility to Rutgers athletics future because it will be a demonstration that we intend to compete at the highest level,” Hobbs said, looking out a window, pointing to the land where it would be built.
Since taking over as athletic director 11 months ago, Hobbs has been on a remarkable run at a place that, before his arrival, had committed a series of embarrassing missteps that overshadowed the Scarlet Knights’ entry into the Big Ten Conference.
While the football and men’s basketball programs have struggled to find conference victories, Hobbs has posted surprising wins, already raising $66.7 million dollars. Earlier this week, that rendering took a step toward reality. Hobbs emceed the ceremonial groundbreaking of RWJBarnabas Health Athletic Performance Center, a larger facility than the one imagined on his desk.
Construction on the building, which is estimated at $75 million, will start in the spring. It is scheduled for completion in July 2019. The 295,000-square-foot, four-story facility, which will include a parking deck, will house a new sports medicine program and provide practice facilities for four of Rutgers’ teams.
“We are writing one of the great stories in college athletics history,” Hobbs said that day in August.
The lead author is a 56-year-old New Jersey native with an overachiever’s résumé. By trade, he’s an attorney. At his core, he’s never too far from being the son of Irish immigrants and the circumstances that helped shape him in his youth.
In a state fraught with political divisiveness, Hobbs is a Democrat who has been appointed to leadership posts by a Republican governor. At one of Bruce Springsteen’s marathon concerts at MetLife Stadium in August, Hobbs made the rounds during the show, connecting with Governor Chris Christie, state Sen. Ray Lesniak, a Democrat, and the state attorney general.
Hobbs comes to Rutgers having already achieved surprising success in higher education. He spent 16 years as the dean of Seton Hall University’s law school. In October 2007, Hobbs launched Seton Hall Law Rising, a fundraising campaign with the goal of collecting $25 million.
“Right smack-dab in the middle of the recession, I thought, ‘What the hell are we doing with this?’ But I also knew he surrounded himself with good people, and if anybody was going to make this happen, it was going to be him,” said Jim Johnston, who was president of the Seton Hall Law School alumni council during the campaign.
Hobbs exceeded his goal. When the campaign ended in 2011, $28 million had been raised. The school’s fast rise garnered attention from U.S. News and World Report.
Hobbs’ career arc has led to his name being thrown into the mix for positions such as a university president, state attorney general and a state Supreme Court justice. He helped bring the Prudential Center to Newark, N.J., leading a commission that cleared the way for a sports arena in the downtrodden city.
While at Seton Hall, he also served as the interim athletic director. He shifted the direction of the sports programs, ending the troubled tenure of head basketball coach Bobby Gonzalez and hiring Kevin Willard, who, last March, won the school its first Big East Championship since 1993.
Hobbs’ professional success is, in part, driven by life lessons thrust upon him as a child.
“Maybe part of it is that immigrant mentality that you come here and there’s an opportunity and you’ve got to work hard and nothing is going to be handed to you,” he said.
His own athletic career consists of one year of high school wrestling at Seton Hall Prep, a season in which he didn’t even earn a varsity letter. “I never got out of the wrestle off,” he said. “I got my face drubbed into the mat.”
He would’ve kept wrestling, but the diagnosis for his father changed everything. Hobbs’ father smoked since age 12, starting with unfiltered cigarettes back in Ireland. When Hobbs was about 16 years old, doctors discovered his father had bladder cancer.
Hobbs and his three siblings went to work helping to pay bills and school tuition. Hobbs corralled shopping carts in the parking lot of the Pathmark on Valley Street in South Orange, N.J. “It was brutal being out there,” Hobbs said of his first winter on the job in January ’77 when the average temperature rested at 12 degrees below freezing.
Soon, Hobbs moved up the ladder with the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1262. He went from cart duty to unloading trucks on the overnight shift. Working next to ex-convicts fresh out of prison and college kids hustling to get ahead in life, the high schooler had the type of job that spotlighted how the future can turn out on both ends of the spectrum.
His father passed away in February 1990. It was the emphysema that eventually killed him at age 60. Hobbs was 29 years old. Twenty-six years later, his father’s life still sticks with the athletic director.
“He was a guy without a college education. He got sick. Lost his job because he got sick. He had no protections. It was financially a pretty difficult, and frankly, a pretty scary time. That makes you hungry and that makes you driven, and you stay pretty focused when there’s no safety net below you.”
These days, the typically svelte Hobbs hasn’t had time to exercise. The rowing machine at his home collects dust. He works every day and four-to-five nights each week. Lack of time is his greatest frustration about the job, he said. He rattled off the total number of Rutgers alums – 470,000 – and talked about how he’d like to spend one day with each of them.
His full throttle approach has produced a stream of image-shifting results for Rutgers. Similar to what he did as a law school dean, in January, Hobbs started R Big Ten Build with a fundraising goal of $100 million for new facilities. With more than 1,600 donors and 10 checks for more than $1 million each, Hobbs has netted more than $41 million. Plus, an additional $25 million in tax credits from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority has been added to the kitty. Hobbs also worked out a deal to have Rutgers partner with the one of America’s most iconic sports franchises, the New York Yankees. A year from now, the Big Ten Battle in the Bronx, a twin bill of Rutgers-Maryland wrestling and football, will happen at Yankee Stadium.
The day before this week’s groundbreaking ceremony, while driving to campus at 8:15 a.m., Hobbs took calls from two different cellphones (while wearing a headset). He answered questions about the impact of the big football losses to Ohio State, 58-0, and Michigan, 78-0. He admitted it’s frustrating, but he reinforced his belief in the players and coaches and said those defeats haven’t slowed donors’ willingness to contribute.
When asked if he could sustain the transformative run he’s been on, Hobbs pointed back to a message he delivered his first day at Rutgers.
“I told everybody on day one that we’re running a marathon, but we’re going to sprint the first five miles. What I told them in terms of time is that we have to run really hard for two years.”
He expects to make more announcements in the next two months, news that will send the message that even more resources will back Rutgers athletics.
“We will keeping working to get things done,” he said.
Jerry Barca is the author of Big Blue Wrecking Crew: Smashmouth Football, A Little Bit of Crazy and the ’86 Super Bowl Champion New York Giants.
[PHOTO: AP Photo/Mel Evans]