As March Madness spills into April, Rutgers University's basketball progam finds itself at the center of whole a different kind of madness off the court. The university fired head men's basketball coach Mike Rice Wednesday morning, after a videotape broadcast Tuesday on ESPN's "Outside the Lines" showed practice video of Rice berating, pushing and using slurs against players.
The broadcast prompted outrage, from social media all the way up to the governor's office. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said he was “deeply disturbed” by the conduct and condemned the behavior (Rutger's is a public state institution in New Jersey).
Much of the outrage concerns the action—or inaction—of Rutgers Athletic Director Tim Pernetti, who according to ESPN, viewed the video in November and decided to suspend Rice for three games, fine him $50,000 and order Rice to attend anger management classes. University President Robert Barchi saw the tape and signed off on the initial punishment. Clearly Pernetti and Barchi failed to anticipate the PR firestorm should the video ever be made public.
By Wednesday, as the world peered in on the university and criticism began to steamroll, the university's hand was forced. On Twitter, Rutgers announced the firing and 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 in a statement posted on the Rutgers website Wednesday. "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."
Barchi also released a statement calling the initial punishment of Rice a mistake, even though he had been informed of Rice’s behavior and was involved in the decision to suspend Rice and fine him, reports The New York Times.
All in all, it sounds like a tale of reactionary PR and a failed opportunity. It appears that Rutgers is sticking by Pernetti, for now, despite his thinking that a three-game suspension was sufficient punishment. That is, until public opinion hammered the school into firing Rice.
Follow Bill Miltenberg: @bmiltenberg