NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. (AP) — Just a few months ago, things could not have been more promising for Rutgers as it looked to bolster its place in college sports.
The university said to be the birthplace of college football had just been accepted to the Big Ten Conference. And with that came guarantees of national exposure and big paydays. The conductor of this gravy train was a fresh-faced, popular athletic director.
The state university of New Jersey finally had its invitation to join the elite of college sports. That was in November.
Then April came.
In a span of four days, a men’s basketball scandal ripped through the campus. Suddenly, all the buoyant feelings were gone, replaced by crisis and controversy reaching the highest level of the university. Jobs were lost and reputations damaged, the debate rippling across the country.
“There is no question that big-time athletics have some risks. I didn’t expect to see them so quickly.”
Those were the words of Rutgers President Robert Barchi, in his first year with the school, at a Friday news conference that seemed to provide as many questions as answers.
On Wednesday, Rutgers fired coach Mike Rice after a video aired showing him shoving, grabbing and throwing balls at players in practice and using anti-gay slurs. The video, broadcast Tuesday on ESPN, prompted stinging criticism, including a statement from Gov. Chris Christie.
On Thursday, Jimmy Martelli, one of Rice’s assistants, resigned. And on Friday, the crisis came to a head, when Barchi announced the resignation of athletic director Tim Pernetti, as well as that of John Wolf, Rutgers’ interim general counsel.
“This,” Barchi said, “was a failure of process.”
And it may have been avoided if Rice was fired in November, when Pernetti was first given the video from former basketball staff member Eric Murdock. Instead, after an investigation from an outside firm, Pernetti, with the approval of Barchi, elected to give Rice a three-game suspension, a $75,000 fine, and ordered him to attend anger management classes.
Barchi, despite Pernetti’s claims to the contrary in a radio interview Tuesday, did not view the video until last week.
“I was deeply disturbed by the behavior that the video revealed, which was much more abusive and pervasive than I had understood it to be,” Barchi said. “As Tim acknowledged on Wednesday, his decision to rehabilitate, rather than fire, coach Rice was wrong.”
As a result, Rutgers is now under a harsh spotlight three years after freshman Tyler Clementi committed suicide after his roommate made a webcast of him kissing another man.
“As we move forward here,” Barchi said, “we are going to take a hit.”
And the hits keep on coming:
—Some students and faculty want Barchi to leave.
—Murdock filed a whistleblower suit.
—Two major supporters, including the company that purchased the naming rights to the football stadium, are considering cutting off money because of their loyalty to Pernetti.
“This entire incident was regrettable,” Christie said. “And while it has damaged the reputation of our state university, we need to move forward now on a number of fronts which provide great opportunities for Rutgers’ future.”
Pernetti maintains his November decision was made because the consensus among school officials and outside counsel was that Rice’s actions didn’t warrant dismissal. Pernetti, in fact, wrote in his resignation letter that his inclination was to fire Rice “immediately.”
Barchi, who began in September, compounded the situation by never asking to see the video, which he knew existed. It was a compilation of practice lowlights.
“We all bear the responsibility of our decisions, and the consequences have to be shared by all who make them,” ” Barchi said.
In hindsight, he said he made a mistake.
Barchi, who was hired to oversee the merger of the medical school with the university, said the leader of an institution has to trust his subordinates to provide him with recommendations, and he did in this case.
Pernetti was influenced by the report of independent counsel John Lacey, a lawyer hired by Rutgers last year to investigate Murdock’s complaints against Rice. He found that while Rice sometimes behaved inappropriately, many of the clips were taken out of out of context and did not create a hostile work environment or constitute harassment or bullying.
One of Rice’s players concurred.
“Mike was almost like a big brother. He would get on the floor with us and go through drills with us. He made it fun,” junior forward Wally Judge said. “When you have a big brother-type of figure, you know you can play around like that. I have grabbed Mike and put him in a headlock and we joke around and kid. That was the type of relationship he built with his players.”
The report was in line with Judge’s opinion. While it said that Rice yelled at players, shoved and grabbed them, it also said he did that to make them comfortable in the chaos of a basketball game. The report said players who were interviewed believed Rice cared about them. It also praised Rice for assigning players “life coaches” to help work on nonbasketball issues.
Rutgers, which hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1991, is used to tough times. Including Rice, the last four basketball coaches were fired for problems not related to their records.
Rutgers dismissed Fred Hill Jr. because he acted inappropriately toward an umpire at a Rutgers baseball game that his father 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 that, Kevin Bannon was fired after making players run sprints naked as part of a foul-shooting contest.
Pernetti is 42, a New Jersey native and a Rutgers graduate who played tight end for the Scarlet Knights from 1989-93. He was hired in 2009, and his first major job was to find Hill’s replacement. He chose the fiery Rice, who had been turned down by Fordham, an Atlantic 10 school without the athletic stature of Big East member Rutgers.
Rice played at Fordham and was coming off consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament with Robert Morris. Still, the Rams chose Tom Pecora of Hofstra.
Pernetti, after a five-hour conversation with Rice, was unfazed. Despite some issues to work out with regards to his sideline behavior, the new athletic director felt it was a union that would work. He was wrong.
“It’s a really sad day for a lot of people, including me and my family,” Pernetti said Friday. “I always have and I always will want what’s best for Rutgers, no matter what.”
Pernetti had one year left on his contract, and according to a report in the Star-Ledger of Newark, he will be paid more than $1.25 million in a buyout agreement. Rice will make more than $1 million, and also will receive a $100,000 bonus for finishing his third season.
The basketball program, meanwhile, is a mess. With one year left in the Big East, next season is all but lost — the Scarlet Knights will have new players, a new coach and new administration above all of them. Even without the scandal, Rutgers was coming off a third disappointing year under Rice, who never took the Scarlet Knights to postseason play.
Rice, 44, went just 44-51 in three years. He had a 16-38 record 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. In the three games that Rice had to sit out this season, Rutgers went 3-0.
In the hunt for a new athletic director, Rutgers almost assuredly will hire a search firm. There’s a good chance — given Pernetti’s ties to the university before getting the job — someone from the outside will be hired.
That might not be the case for Rice’s job. Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley, a New Jersey native who played at Seton Hall, grew up in Jersey City, N.J., and was an assistant coach at Rutgers, appears the leading candidate. In the interim, assistant coach David Cox will run the team.
The Big Ten, where Rutgers will land in 2014, called Rice’s actions “egregious and unacceptable.”
“While we remain interested in the outcome of Rutgers’ review, and will continue to monitor the situation as appropriate,” Commissioner James Delany said, “it will have no impact on Rutgers’ transition to, or membership in, the Big Ten Conference.”
Rutgers has invested significantly in football, a move that has increased visibility for the university. The university now spends about $8 million a year to subsidize athletic department operations, along with the $10 million a year it spends on scholarships. Barchi has said he wants to gradually reduce the subsidy.
New Jersey officials are worried about long-term damage to Rutgers’ reputation. Barbara Buono, a Rutgers graduate and state senator, held a news conference Friday in which she expressed concern about the school’s name being “dragged through the mud.”
But Bari Norman, who runs a college admission consulting business, said that scandals on campus do not usually change the way prospective students see schools. She said that last year no students she worked with decided against Penn State amid the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal.
Gina Mogar, an 18-year-old freshman at Rutgers, said she’s not sure this scandal will keep students away. Mogar said the bad publicity following the death of Clementi did not dissuade her from attending.
“This school has a lot of pride,” she said, referring what happened three years ago. “You could see how the school bonded together.”
It will have to do that again.
Associated Press reporters Geoff Mulvihill and Rema Rahman in New Brunswick, N.J., contributed to this report.