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 $50,000 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.”
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.
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.
Reaction to the video
“Governor Christie saw the video today for the first time and he is obviously deeply disturbed by the conduct displayed and strongly condemns this behavior,” spokesman Michael Drewniak said. “It’s not the type of leadership we should be showing our young people and clearly there are questions about this behavior that need to be answered by the leaders at Rutgers University.”
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. The most important thing I am factoring in is trying to make sure that we don’t do harm to Rutgers University, because we are small slice of the pie here at this great place. I don’t want to put any negatively on the university when we have a lot of real good things going on.”
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. “At the same the results of the investigation where we ended up, the determination was made to suspend him. My biggest concern as the AD is that I am always trying to protect the interests and reputation of the university and that’s what makes this one so difficult. There is a lot of hindsight, 20-20, …. that there will be no other option than to terminate Mike. I made that decision. I am accountable for it. I have to live with it.”
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.”
Not new to Rutgers
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.