Basketball Coach Fired After Abuse & Homophobic Language Exposed
Rutgers fired basketball coach Mike Rice on Wednesday after a videotape aired showing him shoving, grabbing and throwing balls at players in practice and using gay slurs during practice.
The videotape, broadcast Tuesday on ESPN, prompted sharp criticism from Gov. Chris Christie, and the head of the New Jersey Assembly called for Rice to be fired.
With mounting criticism on a state and national level, the school decided to take action, relieving Rice of his duties after three largely unsuccessful seasons at the Big East school. There will be a national search to replace him.
Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti was given a copy of the video in late November by a former employee. After hiring independent investigators to analyze the tape, he suspended Rice for three games, fined him $75,000 and ordered him to attend anger management classes. University president Robert Barchi saw the tape and signed off on the initial punishment.
But in a Wednesday email, Rutgers referred to new information and "a review of previously discovered issues" as the reasons for Rice's termination.
"I am responsible for the decision to attempt a rehabilitation of Coach Rice," Pernetti said. "Dismissal and corrective action were debated in December and I thought it was in the best interest of everyone to rehabilitate, but I was wrong. Moving forward, I will work to regain the trust of the Rutgers community."
Less than an hour after the dismissal, Barchi released a statement.
Viral Video Sparks Outrage
"Rutgers University has a long and proud history as one of the nation’s most diverse and welcoming academic institutions. Coach Rice’s abusive language and actions are deeply offensive and egregiously violate the university’s core values," the statement said.
"When video excerpts of basketball practices were reviewed last fall by athletic director Tim Pernetti, he immediately notified me and sought the advice of internal and outside counsel. The university hired an independent investigator to look into this matter thoroughly. Based on the external investigator’s findings and recommendations, Tim and I agreed that Coach Rice should be suspended, penalized $75,000 in fines and lost salary, ordered to undergo anger management counseling, and put on notice that his behavior would be closely monitored. Tim Pernetti also made it clear to Coach Rice that there would be zero tolerance for additional infractions. Tim kept me fully apprised and I supported his actions."
Rice, who helped Robert Morris to two NCAA tournament appearances, was one of the hot coaching candidates in the spring of 2010. He interviewed with Fordham, where he played as a guard, only to not get the chance to return to his alma mater. Eventually, there was a difference in opinion in the school’s search committee, and Rice’s fiery, in-game behavior was a sticking point.
But Rutgers, and Pernetti, took a chance on him not long after that. The Scarlet Knights had an opening because of the unexpected dismissal of Fred Hill, Jr., and Rice, who has strong New Jersey recruiting roots, seemed like a fit.
But he wasn’t able to push Rutgers into the upper echelon of the conference, and went just 44-51 at Rutgers. Rice posted just a 16-38 mark in the Big East, after going 73-31 in three seasons at Robert Morris. The Scarlet Knights went 15-16 this season and 5-13 in the league.
But his success - or lack thereof - on the court is all secondary now. The school is no longer dealing with an issue of wins and losses, but of right and wrong.
"Yesterday, I personally reviewed the video evidence, which shows a chronic and pervasive pattern of disturbing behavior. I have now reached the conclusion that Coach Rice cannot continue to serve effectively in a position that demands the highest levels of leadership, responsibility and public accountability," Barchi wrote. "He cannot continue to coach at Rutgers University."
Gov. Chris Christie Reacts
For the second time in as many days, Christie released a statement on Wednesday, as well.
"This was a regrettable episode for the University, but I completely support the decision to remove Coach Rice," the statement said. "It was the right and necessary action to take in light of the conduct displayed on the videotape.
"Parents entrust their sons to the Rutgers athletic department and the men’s basketball program at an incredibly formative period of their lives. The way these young men were treated by the head coach was completely unacceptable and violates the trust those parents put in Rutgers University. All of the student-athletes entrusted to our care deserve much better.
"As we move on from this incident, I am very optimistic that Rutgers will select a new head coach who not only puts a winning team on the court, but will make everyone proud of the example he sets every day for the young men in his charge."
In an interview with WFAN Radio in New York on Tuesday, Pernetti confirmed that Barchi viewed the tape last fall and agreed with the punishment. But ESPN’s broadcast prompted an outcry, led by the governor himself.
The video shows numerous clips of Rice at practice firing basketballs at players, hitting them in the back, legs, feet and shoulders. Rice was also shown pushing players in the chest and grabbing them by their jerseys and yanking them around the court. Rice could be heard yelling obscenities at players and using gay slurs.
Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex/Passaic) called Rice’s conduct "unacceptable not only at our state university, but in all circumstances. It is offensive and unbecoming of our state."
"Mike Rice should no longer be employed by Rutgers University," Oliver said. "He must go. Meanwhile, the decision not to dismiss him last year needs a complete and thorough review."
After landing the position in 2010, Rice moved his family from Pittsburgh to Little Silver, N.J. He quickly became part of the fabric of that community, often attending church functions and youth games that his children played in. But on the practice floor, some 30 miles away, obviously, a different person surfaced.
"You have to be always cautious about public reaction, because the reaction the public is having is the same I had when I saw it (the film)," Pernetti told the radio station. "I am factoring everything into what we do going forward."
Pernetti said he understands why many asked why Rice wasn’t fired after the initial investigation.
"I spent more time with that option on whether we should fire Mike or not than any other option," he said. "There is a lot of hindsight, 20-20. I made that decision. I am accountable for it. I have to live with it."
Long Line of Embarrassing Incidents
Rice was Pernetti’s first major hire after getting the AD’s job. And after the regular season, in fact, despite the suspension and the losing record, Pernetti announced at the Big East tournament that Rice would return to the Rutgers bench.
Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer/Hunterdon) called Rice’s conduct is indefensible, and said he should have been fired in December, after the tape was given to Pernetti. Gusciora also said Pernetti’s decision deserves a full review.
"If the university does not act, I will seek to add a provision to the state budget defunding Mr. Rice’s salary," Gusciora said. "Taxpayers should not be paying for this behavior."
Pernetti said his decision to only suspend Rice was made in part because the coach was remorseful and admitted he made mistakes. Pernetti said Rice also worked hard to improve himself with the counseling, the practice monitor while working on his own behavior.
Rice had a reputation as being "a fiery guy with an edge" before coming to Rutgers and Pernetti said the two talked about it for five hours before he was hired.
"He convinced me he understood his reputation, but he also understood where the line was," Pernetti said. "I made clear to him if he crossed the line he would be held accountable. In this case he did, and we held him accountable for it.
That might not be enough in the wake of the video made by Eric Murdock, the former NBA player who was hired by Rice to be director of player development.
The two had a falling out over Murdock’s appearances at a camp, and Pernetti said Murdock’s contract was not renewed. Murdock, who said he was fired, then compiled the video, splicing together the practice lowlights of Rice’s first three years as coach.
Pernetti said about 60 percent of the incidents happened in Rice’s first season. He also was upset with Rice using a certain gay slur at a university where student Tyler Clementi committed suicide after a roommate used a webcam to see him kissing a man.
"I would tell you that that word was at the core of the suspension," Pernetti said. "It absolutely concerns me. It’s not acceptable."
This is another in a long line of embarrassing incidents regarding this program. Rutgers had to fire Hill, Jr., just before hiring Rice because the former acted inappropriately at a Rutgers baseball game that his father, Fred, Sr., was coaching. And Hill replaced Gary Waters, who missed a home game because he was snowbound in Ohio after being honored the night before by Kent State.
Before all of that, Kevin Bannon was fired after questionable practice decisions regarding his players. Bannon ordered two Scarlet Knights and two student managers to run sprints naked during a foul-shooting contest. Both of them later transferred from the school.
The Scarlet Knights haven’t qualified for the NCAA tournament since 1991.