April 4, 2013
Mike Rice had to be fired. He repeatedly demeaned young men. He abused his position of authority. He not only violated the ideals of coaching, he ran roughshod through the boundaries of common human decency.
Yet here's the thing. If ESPN "Outside the Lines" on Tuesday hadn't aired the disgusting video of Rice throwing basketballs at his players, pushing, grabbing and shoving them around the court, hurling homophobic slurs at them, the man would still be the head coach at Rutgers today.
How incredible is that?
There's no need to ponder what Rice was thinking. He wasn't. He was out of his skull. This national embarrassment for the state university of New Jersey, one that within 24 hours spread like wildfire, now falls in the lap of athletic director Tim Pernetti and his superiors. Rice should have been fired months ago.
"I am responsible for the decision to attempt a rehabilitation of Coach Rice," Pernetti said in a statement 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."
With Rutgers maneuvering its way into the Big Ten, Pernetti has been heralded as the perfect AD for the 21st century. Savvy, sophisticated, a product of television management, he's the guy who isn't supposed to fall into the old-boy traps. Well, he did. And after Jeremy Schaap flattened Pernetti in an interview that smacked of a courtroom prosecution, it was clear that Pernetti's "first-offense" defense of Rice was hopelessly lame. It was much closer to a hundred first offense violations. After Gov. Chris Christie voiced his disgust, Pernetti was finally right about one thing when he fired Rice on Wednesday. He was wrong on Tuesday.
Pernetti, too, should pay with his job. If President Robert Barchi, who signed off on the initial suspension of three games and $50,000 fine, really didn't see the video until Tuesday, well, Barchi will escape the worst of it.
"If what I saw is accurate, and I would assume it is," UConn's hall of fame women's coach Geno Auriemma said on a national teleconference, "there is no line that could be drawn that would make that behavior acceptable."
"Despicable," former UConn star Ray Allen told reporters in Miami.
Yet exactly where is that line of acceptable coaching behavior in practice? It is not terribly difficult to throw up that Rice video and say, "Don't do that!" I won't let Rice do that stuff to my son. You wouldn't let Rice do that to yours. If some of the Neanderthals want to scream that the world has gone soft and mushy, consider this:
"A number of people have said to me, 'You played in the old school, those things must have happened.' No. No, it didn't happen," UConn assistant coach George Blaney said. "You can't be putting your hands on people. You can't be throwing balls at guys. It was a shocking video."
Blaney, 73, played for the Knicks. He played in the rough and tumble Eastern Professional Basketball League in the '60s. He coached at Dartmouth and Holy Cross. He coached at Seton Hall. He coached under Jim Calhoun. He has seen it all. Had he ever seen anything like what Rice did?
"Never," Blaney said.
The simplest, smartest and easiest solution, of course, is to insist under no circumstances should a coach ever curse or lay one finger on a player. I'd also be lying if I believed it was that easy. If a college player made the same mistake three times in practice and a coach walked over to him and said, "Jeff, I don't know what the bleep you're thinking," and then used his hands to guide the player into the correct position, I'd have zero complaints. I love passionate coaches who motivate and teach.
Central coach Howie Dickenman is one of those guys. After seeing Calhoun storming around UConn games for years there's a tendency to think he was like that in practice, too. Granted, I saw him after the media were allowed in, but Calhoun usually leaned against the basketball stanchion, arms folded, observing. If he raised his voice, it generally was from 20 feet. Dickenman, in fact, was more of the "yell guy" when he was at UConn.
"I don't put my hands on anybody and I don't throw the ball at anybody," Dickenman said. "I don't use any racial or sexual terms."
So what does he do?
"If I'm upset with a player for whatever reason, the penalty would probably be 25 rim touches. With some small guys it may be 25 backboard touches. And then I put them right back into play.
"Maybe once every three weeks, it'll be take-a-hike day. Rather than 25 rim touches, they'd have to run, say, 32 seconds and beat the clock, run around barrels on the corner of the gym."
There's a difference between yelling and demeaning, of course. And if a coach calls a player a homophobic slur, as Rice did, well, it's so horribly misguided on so many levels. Gays aren't tough enough? Really? That's all they've been in their lives.
"I took a page from my father [the legendary coach at Norwich Free Academy]," Dickenman said. "When somebody isn't paying attention or keeps on doing the wrong thing, I'm big on yelling — we even had it on the back of our T-shirts — 'Sleep in bed!' I'll use, 'Wake up!' But I love, 'Sleep in bed!'"
Quinnipiac coach Tom Moore talked to his assistants about the Rice affair Wednesday. Scott Burrell told him, "If you got to that point, we'd be all over you."
"I said I hope you would," Moore said.
"This is obviously disturbing. It's a sad day for the coaching profession. A video with this shock value sparks debate and invariably someone says this has got to go on at other places, cast aspersions that just aren't true."
When he coached at Robert Morris in the Northeast Conference, Rice, especially on defense, was intense and vocal. Getting technicals in games for losing your cool is one matter. Abusing young men under your care is quite another. If a professor at Rutgers tried this stuff, he'd be led out of the classroom in handcuffs or a straitjacket.
"Anytime you put your hands on anyone you've crossed the line," Hartford coach John Gallagher said. "Anytime you make racial or homophobic slurs, you've crossed the line.
"I've played for coaches, worked for seven different coaches and never have seen that. I know Mike. I feel bad for him. I don't like to pile on people. At the core, I know he's a good man, but nothing can justify that behavior."
You know what was galling? A team manager holding an extra ball behind him, so when Rice threw it at an unsuspecting player there'd be another ball at the ready. That's premeditated in my book.
"My son played college basketball," Auriemma said. "I would not want any of my kids or anybody to be put in that situation. Ever.
"I know each coach has their own line that they think is the acceptable line. And that maybe varies by how a coach perceives how they need to coach to get their team to be successful. I can't speak for others, for sure. And, believe me, I've acted like an idiot at practice more times than I can ever, ever recount. But some of the stuff that I saw …"
"Awful," Dickenman said, quietly.
"It made me want to fight this guy," Allen said in the Heat locker room. "That's going to affect those kids long-term."
Allen, who is on the board of directors at the UConn Foundation, told reporters if it had happened in Storrs, "I would do everything I can to make sure that coach got fired."
At a school where Tyler Clementi committed suicide after cyber-bullying, where former basketball coach Kevin Bannon came under fire for making players run wind-sprints naked, you would have thought Mike Rice and Tim Pernetti already would have known that.
Copyright © 2013, The Hartford Courant