PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Rutgers’ coaching scandal spiraled deeper Friday, bringing down the popular athletic director and a school vice president while donors threatened to cut off their contributions to New Jersey’s largest public university.
The day of mounting troubles for the school began with Athletic Director Tim Pernetti resigning over his failure to immediately fire coach Mike Rice, who was caught on video hitting, kicking and taunting players with anti-gay slurs at practice.
The video was shown Tuesday on ESPN, prompting outrage nationwide and on campus, where the coach’s conduct was especially sensitive because of the 2010 suicide of a student who killed himself after his roommate used a webcam to record him kissing another man.
Rice was fired by Pernetti on Wednesday, but the athletic director immediately came under criticism for only suspending and fining the coach after the video was brought to his attention four months ago. Pernetti said Friday he wanted to fire Rice on the spot but did not because the consensus among school officials at the time was that it didn’t warrant dismissal.
Rutgers President Robert Barchi came under harsh questioning from reporters at a news conference Friday over what he knew about the video months ago, but he got a nod of support from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and the school’s board of governors.
Barchi, who took office in September 2012, said he first saw the video only this week, but was aware it existed in late November when Pernetti gave him a summary of what was on it at the time.
“This was a failure of process. I regret that I did not ask to see this video when Tim first told me of its existence,” Barchi said. “I want to apologize to the entire Rutgers community for the negative impact that this situation has had on Rutgers.
“I also apologize to the LGBT community and all of us who share their values for the homophobic slurs shown on that video. I personally know how hurtful that language can be.”
Based on the information he received from Pernetti, Barchi said he “agreed with and supported his recommendation to suspend, rather than fire, coach Rice at that time. It was not until Tuesday evening of this week, when I watched the video, that I had the opportunity to witness personally for the first time what Tim had seen last fall.
“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. As Tim acknowledged on Wednesday, his decision to rehabilitate, rather than fire, coach Rice was wrong.”
Barchi said the school hopes to appoint an interim athletic director in a few days but he admitted he had no idea whether that person would come from inside or outside the university.
The 42-year-old Pernetti is a Rutgers graduate who played tight end for the Scarlet Knights from 1989-93.
Pernetti said in his resignation letter to Barchi that “my first instincts when I saw the videotape of Coach Rice’s behavior was to fire him immediately. However, Rutgers decided to follow a process involving university lawyers, human resources professionals, and outside counsel.”
“Following review of the independent investigative report, the consensus was that university policy would not justify dismissal. I have admitted my role in, and regret for, that decision, and wish that I had the opportunity to go back and override it for the sake of everyone involved,” it said.
Pernetti enjoys some popularity among Rutgers alumni and donors, especially after he helped the school move to the Big Ten Conference, which means millions in additional revenue from TV contracts and more national exposure, especially in football. The move, which becomes official in 2014, should provide a big boost to the program in recruiting and season ticket sales. The Scarlet Knights will continue to play next season in the Big East.
Two of Rutgers’ leading donors have threatened to cut their contributions in the wake of Pernetti’s resignation.
Tom Mendiburu, whose High Point Solutions paid $6 million for the naming rights to the university’s football stadium, tweeted that he was concerned because he made the deal because of Pernetti.
“We’ve invested so much into (hash)RU and now I’m not even sure who we turn to. Very sad day and I’m sorry Pernetti had to go through this,” he tweeted.
Mendiburu said a lot of people are asking him what he is going to do and he wasn’t sure.
The Star-Ledger of Newark reported that Daniel Wheeler, a founding member of the Society of Queens College, where membership requires a minimum of $1 million donated over a lifetime, was upset Rutgers ignored prominent donors’ pleas to keep Pernetti.
“I won’t say numbers, but I’ve given over seven figures, and like a lot of people who have done the same, I support Tim Pernetti,” Wheeler told the newspaper.
Pernetti, who hired Rice in 2010, viewed him as the man who could turn the perennially underachieving program around. But Rice went 44-51 in three years and posted a 16-38 mark in the Big East. The Scarlet Knights went 15-16 this season, including 5-13 in the league. They have not been to the NCAA tournament since 1991.
Barchi said Rice was not fired for cause. Under his contract, that means he’s owed just over $1 million for the next two years at 75 percent of his contract amount, plus another $100,000 for completing the 2012-13 season as coach.
Also resigning was John B. Wolf, Rutgers’ interim senior vice president and general counsel, who is believed to have recommended against firing Rice in December over the video. On Thursday, the school said assistant coach Jimmy Martelli had resigned.
Pernetti was given the video by a former employee, Eric Murdock, and the decision was made in December to suspend Rice for three games, fine and dock him pay totaling $75,000 and order him to attend anger management classes.
Murdock filed a whistleblower lawsuit Friday, alleging Rutgers violated the state’s employee protection act and his contract. He said he wrote to the university in July about Rice’s “unlawful conduct,” and gave the university the video in November.
“Despite having been in possession of such video footage, the university and its representatives inexplicably chose to ignore Defendant Rice’s unlawful conduct,” the lawsuit said.
Rutgers officials, including Barchi, declined to comment about the lawsuit.
Murdock, who played in the NBA for nine seasons, was the director of player of development for the program. His contract wasn’t renewed in July.
He said he was let go after a dispute with Rice about skipping the coach’s youth basketball camp and, ultimately, because he complained to university officials about Rice’s mistreatment of players.
Murdock claims the school violated state anti-bullying law and a Rutgers policy put in place after the 2010 suicide of student Tyler Clementi after learning his roommate had used the webcam to watch him kiss another man.
“Despite their obligations under New Jersey law and the university’s own policy, neither the presidents of the university, the athletic director nor any other university representatives took any steps to assure that the rights of the student-athlete members of the men’s basketball program were protected from assault (both physical and verbal), battery, harassment, intimidation, bullying, defamation and other unlawful conduct,” the lawsuit states.
Despite the latest resignations and the growing troubles for Rutgers, Barchi got votes of confidence Friday.
In a statement, Christie commended Barchi “for his decisive leadership in coming to an agreement with Mr. Pernetti to have the athletic department of Rutgers University come under new leadership,” he said. “This entire incident was regrettable 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.”
Ralph Izzo, chairman of the school’s board of governors, called Barchi “the right person to run this place for many years to come.”
“Dr. Barchi was brought on here eight months ago with two primary objectives: No. 1 was to build a strategic plan for this university for 10 years, going forward, to lead us to academic success and academic greatness; and No. 2, an enormous challenge of integrating a medical school with this university. Being on the job two months, hearing from a general counsel and the athletic director that there was a serious problem, I think he did the right thing by acquiescing to that advice at the time.”