Somehow Rutgers president might dodge the ax

Posted: April 08, 2013

LET'S START by saying this: Had deposed Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice fired basketballs at the heads of his superiors rather than his players, he wouldn't have hit anyone.

They are all just too good at ducking.

By the end of Friday's string of resignations, news conferences and accusations, it was hard to keep track of who was blaming whom.

If I got this right, the resigned athletic director, Tim Pernetti, said he wanted to fire Rice way back in November but was told he couldn't by the school's legal counsel. The school president, Dr. Robert Barchi - who incredibly chose not to view the incendiary tape of Rice pushing, cursing and using homophobic slurs until late Tuesday night - said he would have fired Rice months ago if he had seen it then. And the lawyer for Eric Murdock, the assistant coach who made the tape before being fired last summer, accused the school of ignoring his client's warnings as far back as June, when the school was engaged in sensitive and potentially lucrative negotiations to join the Big Ten.

But the big loser Friday was the only man left with something to lose. Hired 6 months ago to steer Rutgers into a growth phase that includes a billion-dollar merger with the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, Barchi came across as self-congratulatory and condescending at a time when he could ill afford to - when he wasn't attempting awkward jokes to a room full of crowded and increasingly frustrated media.

The frustration boiled down to one thing: His explanations for his actions or inactions, which ranged from incomplete to downright bizarre.

For example, he boasted about his involvement with the gay community while provost at Penn (1999-2004) and his "personal" sensitivity when it came to homophobic slurs. Yet Barchi said he knew of Rice's homophobic slurs back in November.

Why didn't he act then? "I can't answer exactly why I didn't," he said. "I can only say in retrospect that I sure wish I had."

Fair enough. If he had stopped there. "I can only say it was portrayed to me, or I understood it to be anyway, that we were looking at a very small number of episodes over 3 years and I didn't understand the context at the time."

Context? What kind of context do you need for homophobic slurs in 2012? At a school that, just 2 years earlier, hit the national grid after a bullied gay student committed suicide?

Not to mention coming on the heels of the Jerry Sandusky trial?

Geez.

Barchi, whose background is neuroscience and who was Thomas Jefferson University's president from 2004 until starting the Rutgers job last September, even mentioned Penn State. "There was a no question in my mind that big-time athletics at the D-1 level had its risks," he said. "Was I expecting to see them so quickly? Um, no, quite frankly."

Asked if he understood why some people believe he too should be fired, Barchi said, "I can understand why people would have that reaction in this situation. I think you need to look at my role and my contributions in their entirety here and step back and take a breath and ask the question again in a couple of days."

Translation? I sure hope I can ride this thing out.

Because, well, there are no more bodies between him and this incident. He fired the coach. He fired the lawyers who advised the AD to not fire the coach. And he more or less fired the AD who said he did not fire the coach months ago because the lawyers told him he wasn't allowed to, and who apparently could not get his president to break from his busy schedule long enough to view the 30-minute video that is now a YouTube superhit.

At one point, Barchi even blamed Steve Jobs - at least indirectly. "My Apple couldn't play the disc," he said in explaining why he didn't view the DVD while filling a 6-hour schedule on Tuesday.

This is what I think. Barchi was hired to smooth the merger of the two schools, a pet project of Gov. Christie that at one point included Rutgers-Camden merging with Rowan. Athletics was not his bag, and he leaned heavily on Pernetti, who until this episode was a minor celebrity for negotiating Rutgers into the more-lucrative Big Ten. That Barchi didn't see the need to see the video until late Tuesday - after ESPN had turned it into a national discourse - at the very least implies that.

And may just mean that someone else will be spearheading that merger soon.

Early in Friday's news conference, Ralph Izzo, the chairman of the board of governors, seemed to support Barchi remaining, saying he "is the right person to run this school for the many years to come."

Near the end of the hour, though, their administrative dodgeball game nearly complete, Izzo too sounded like someone taking aim at someone else's head. Asked about the board's culpability, he said, "That is the role of the day-to-day management. And it is a role that we have to take into consideration as many questions have implied whether we have the right leadership team in place to do that."

A few minutes later, both men left the room. At least one person booed. And no one said, "Heads up!"


Email: donnels@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @samdonnellon

Columns: philly.com/

SamDonnellon

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|