The easy part was getting rid of Mike Rice, something Rutgers had little choice in doing once the governor of New Jersey and the king of basketball weighed in on his videotaped transgressions.
Gov. Chris Christie wasn’t going to have Rice remain as basketball coach at the state’s flagship university, and quickly let it be known where he stood. So did LeBron James, in a tweet to his 7.8 million followers that was even more direct.
“If my son played for Rutgers or a coach like that he would have some real explaining to do and I’m still gone whoop on him afterwards!” James tweeted. “C’mon.”
C’mon, indeed. You don’t need to be a governor or a superstar to be outraged at the video of Rice kicking, shoving and shouting homophobic insults at players in practice. Anyone who watched the out-of-control coach abuse his young players likely came away with the same angry thought.
Anyone other than Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti, that is.
Oh, sure, Pernetti and university president Robert Barchi are on board now, expressing regret after firing Rice about how they handled the coach’s initial punishment in December. Pernetti flat out said he was wrong, while Barchi released a statement saying he, too, had an epiphany of sorts after actually watching the tape Tuesday.
Apparently Barchi’s change of heart came after he saw Rice throwing balls at players and calling them the kind of names that get people in fights at playgrounds around the country. For reasons known only to him, Barchi signed off on a punishment for Rice that included a three-game suspension and anger management courses without even bothering to watch the videotape back in December.
Had he done his job then, maybe Rutgers wouldn’t be where it is now.
Their decision at the time didn’t result in any great outcry because Pernetti and Barchi didn’t say what exactly Rice had done to earn his suspension — which conveniently ended just before the school’s Big East opener against Syracuse. Followers of the program were mostly perplexed about why their coach would have to sit out for what was vaguely referred to as inappropriate conduct and language.
I can’t imagine what they were thinking when they went down the list of possible punishments. The physical abuse alone was a fireable offense, but the anti-gay slurs took it to a whole new level.
Three games and anger management courses? At a university where just three years ago, a student killed himself after his roommate used a webcam to spy on him kissing another man in his dorm.
My only guess is they thought the Rice video wouldn’t surface. There can be no other explanation, because what is seen on the tape is so inflammatory that no reasonable person — much less leaders of our youth — could justify allowing Rice back on the court with the kids he was seen abusing.
And if they’re that clueless in today’s world of viral video then they need to go, too.
For botching the first punishment, yes. Maybe, too, for hiring Rice in the first place.
This was a coach so high-strung that he once knocked out his own father’s tooth in a pickup game, a guy who coached on the edge and thought nothing of going over it. Other schools were scared away by his intensity, but Pernetti was so impressed that he said he viewed him as a “life coach” as well as a basketball coach when he hired him.
Pernetti said at the time he loved Rice’s intensity, loved the way he interviewed. But maybe he should have paid more attention to what Rice said about himself in the Asbury Park Press after he was hired.
“When we go to practice, my formula is always to attack our best players,” Rice told the paper. “Because they’re the ones who need it the most, because they’re the ones that have to do it at a higher level every night. They’re the ones who are game-planned against. If you don’t accept my energy, my intensity, my urgency, you’re not going to do very well with me. Is my way of coaching right? No, but it works for me.”
Or this nugget from his father — a former coach himself — that appeared in the Courier News of Bridgewater, N.J., about the same time.
“Sometimes Mike gets a little too intense with his teaching,” Mike Rice Sr. said. “If you don’t work as hard as he thinks you should, he lets you know it. I tell him, “Good thing you’re not in the NBA; someone would throw you over the bleachers.’ He tells me, “You were always way too soft on players.’ “
The pressure to win in big-time college sports can be suffocating, so maybe Pernetti felt compelled to take a chance on a coach whose last team at Robert Morris had nine technical fouls in just one season. He went for the hard-charging coach, hoping an up-and-comer like Rice could light a fire under a program in desperate need of a turnaround.
It backfired horribly, and now there’s a price to pay.
What is especially troubling is that neither Pernetti nor Barchi seemed inclined as late as Tuesday to get rid of Rice even as the video aired on ESPN and the ensuing firestorm threatened to envelop the program.
Rutgers will be a better place with a new coach who respects players and doesn’t engage in homophobic name calling. Rice himself seemed to understand that when he spoke contritely outside his house Wednesday about the mistakes he made and the embarrassment he caused the university and his family.
No need to stop there, though. Not with the way this whole thing was botched.
It’s time to replace the people at the top, too.