Rutgers' latest embarrassment had many enablers

University President Robert L. Barchi apologized broadly "to the entire Rutgers community." (David Swanson / Staff Photographer)
University President Robert L. Barchi apologized broadly "to the entire Rutgers community." (David Swanson / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 08, 2013

It is no small feat for the Rutgers basketball program to experience the most embarrassing and depressing week in its history. Pick any random week since 1991, the last time the Scarlet Knights were invited to the NCAA tournament, and chances are it was embarrassing and depressing.

The roundballers at the State University of New Jersey put the bar up pretty high this time, though, witnessing a week during which the head coach, an assistant coach, and the athletic director all lost their jobs as the result of an abuse scandal that had been hidden and tolerated for probably a couple of years.

Head coach Mike Rice, through the magic of digital recording, was discovered to be an educator whose methods of imparting knowledge include charging his students to deliver two-handed shoves from behind that snap their necks backward. He is also fond of throwing basketballs at their feet, genitals, and heads, and particularly enjoys using homosexual slurs and referring to them as various parts of the female anatomy. Yeah, he's a real prize.

As is usually the case in this sort of situation, Rice didn't lose his job because of his actions, but because they became public. Athletic director Tim Pernetti, who resigned prior to his own termination, knew the coach he hired had a temper issue and knew, as advised for some time by Eric Murdock, former director of player development, that players were being badly mistreated.

Despite a few press conferences and public confessionals, including a hilarious one held by university president Robert Barchi, it is still difficult to tell what went wrong at Rutgers with what should have been an obvious decision. Pernetti said he wanted to fire Rice as soon as he saw the video of practices, which is convenient to say now. He said he was stopped by a school lawyer - who was also canned - and the whole thing devolved into ass-covering by committee.

Eventually, Rutgers brought in outside lawyers to look at the thing, an independent investigator, human resources employees of the university, and a psychologist. There might have been a tarot-card reader, too; I'm not sure.

Rutgers needed all those people and all that deep thought to decide if the basketball coach should be throwing balls at the heads of his players and questioning their manhood.

"It was a failure of process," said Barchi, who admitted only to being superficially briefed about the issue. It was as if he had been told that, every six months or so, Rice would say something like, "Damn it all, fellas. We have to box out." One does not become a university president without cultivating a close relationship with deniability.

Barchi was wrong, of course. This wasn't a failure of process. This was a function of process. There shouldn't have been a process at all. There should have been an athletic director sending out a release to announce the coach's dismissal about 30 minutes after he saw the practice video. That's the process.

Instead, because lawyers keep their jobs (although not in this case) by managing risk, particularly the risk of litigation liability, it is easy to believe the school was advised that getting rid of Rice could be more dangerous than keeping him. According to Pernetti, the opinion was that "university policy would not justify dismissal" because of the coach's actions.

It leaves one to wonder what would justify dismissal according to university policy. Would Rice have needed to make them strip off their clothing, piece by piece, as they missed free throws in practice and then run naked wind sprints? That helped get Kevin Bannon fired as Rutgers head coach in 2001, at the end of another embarrassing and depressing week.

Maybe that would have done it, but merely physically and verbally abusing students apparently isn't enough to get you fired at Rutgers. Good to know.

Admittedly, Pernetti was in a tough spot and, also admittedly, whistle-blower Murdock only went public because his contract was terminated and as he prepared to file a wrongful-dismissal suit against the school seeking $950,000. Until Murdock and Rice had a falling out, allegedly concerning a summer-camp appearance, Murdock was content to voice his observations about the coach's peculiar style of teaching only to the athletic director.

Pernetti isn't all villain and Murdock isn't all hero in this mess. Rice should have been stopped long before he was, however, and both Pernetti and Murdock knew exactly what was going on. Neither did so. As for Barchi, he was smart enough to keep a distance from something that could only hurt him. He gets to keep his job and continue mumbling about process.

So ended another embarrassing and depressing week in Rutgers basketball history. This one was a doozy. It ended without a head coach or an athletic director. It ended with all the players able to transfer freely if they so desire. It ended with the entire program in chaos and disarray.

At least that part felt familiar.


Contact Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com. Follow @bobfordsports on Twitter. Read his blog, "Post Patterns," at www.philly.com/postpatterns.

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