Karen Heller: Rutgers coach's ouster: Big stakes in the Big Ten

Posted: April 11, 2013

Chris Christie called Mike Rice, so gifted at hurling basketballs and homophobic epithets at his players, an "animal." No, Rice is merely a former Division I coach, a product of the system.

Division I sports is about winning and money, while tolerating behavior that would be unacceptable anywhere else on campus. Had Rice been an economics professor and engaged in similar actions, he would have been gone within the week.

Rice's actions weren't initially extreme to Rutgers officials, who initially chose to suspend and fine him. The only reason Rice is now the former coach is because he was caught on a videotape that went viral, produced by an angry staffer whose contract was not renewed in a possible extortion being investigated by the FBI.

So, really, there is something for everyone.

Last fall, Rutgers announced plans to join the Big Ten, a misnomer in that it is comprised of a dozen teams and will expand next year to 14. The former Midwest conference now stretches from the Nebraska plains to Exit 9 of the New Jersey Turnpike. Some day, the Big 10 may be the Big 43. Meanwhile, the inclusion of Maryland and Rutgers is no accident. Those schools help the conference pick up the lucrative New York and Washington, media markets.

The Scarlet Knights' decision to join the Big Ten is about increasing national reputation, alumni support, fan base, and money.

But mostly, you know, money.

"There's no better place for Rutgers to land than in the Big Ten Conference," athletic director Tim Pernetti said at the time. "The biggest concern fans and constituents have is stability. This secures our stability in athletics forever."

How's that stability working?

Pernetti said this less than a week before former player development director Eric Murdock presented his 30-minute video of Rice's greatest (literally) hits. Pernetti is now toast. He and Rice left the way these things tend to play out: disgraced yet enriched, each with more than a $1 million payout. (Pernetti also received a laptop, iPad, extended car allowance, and health insurance.) Rutgers must also foot their legal representation should any players sue. Stop me if you haven't heard this before. Where else is bad behavior so richly rewarded and contracts so foolishly negotiated?

The top university lawyer who advised that Rice be punished with a suspension is gone. So, too, is deputy coach Jimmy Martelli, son of St. Joe's Phil, demonstrating in the same video that he is every bit Rice's acolyte.

There are calls for Rutgers President Robert Barchi's resignation, as well as that of a board member who saw the video in December and did, well, nothing. There are plans for an independent probe, though it seems somewhat clear what happened.

Salaries for coaches and athletic directors have become so absurd - Rice made almost as much as Barchi - that no one balks at the cost. The golden-hoops payouts to Rice and Pernetti should be lesson enough that no university lawyer should ever again approve a contract where atrocious actions are rewarded by more money. Everyone needs to be asking harder questions, and demanding better outcomes, especially when you've blown that "stability in athletics forever" business.

In 1939, the University of Chicago, my alma mater, became the only institution to bolt the Big Ten, over Christmas break no less. President Robert Maynard Hutchins labeled football "an infernal nuisance," and lamented that, "In many colleges, it is possible for a boy to win 12 letters without learning how to write one." Writing in Sports Illustrated years later, Hutchins noted, "No other country looks to its universities as a prime source of athletic entertainment." By the time I arrived on campus, the former Monsters of the Midway were so execrable, the university lost the homecoming game to tiny Oberlin, 64-0.

Oberlin.

Rutgers bet big on enhancing its reputation, its alumni gifts, its revenue stream, by joining the Big Whatever. For now, the cash and glory seem to be flowing in the wrong direction, and the Scarlet Knights won a scarlet letter before ever joining the big league.


Contact Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews, or follow on Twitter at @kheller.

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