NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — The burgeoning basketball scandal has cost Rutgers more than a popular, young athletic director, an interim general counsel, two coaches and a lot of embarrassment.
The state university of New Jersey is in danger of losing some of its biggest donors in tough economic times.
The school’s woes only mounted on a day that started with AD Tim Pernetti resigning over his failure to fire coach Mike Rice in December after reviewing video of the coach hitting, kicking and taunting players with anti-gay slurs at practice.
First-year Rutgers President Robert Barchi came under intense questioning 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.
Eric Murdock, the former NBA player and Rice’s director of basketball development, filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the university for unspecified damages for wrongful termination.
His video of Rice’s actions at practice 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.
The day ended with some of Rutgers’ biggest backers threatening to stop writing checks because they were upset Pernetti, a rising star who had guided the Scarlet Knights’ move to the Big Ten Conference, was forced out for not firing Rice when he first became aware of the video.
Tom Mendiburu, whose High Point Solutions paid $6 million for the naming rights to the university’s football stadium, tweeted that he was concerned, saying 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, was upset that Rutgers ignored prominent donors’ pleas to keep Pernetti. Membership in the society, which bears the name under which Rutgers was chartered in 1766, requires a minimum of $1 million donated to the school.
“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.
The Ledger also reported late Friday night that, according to a settlement agreement obtained by the newspaper, Pernetti will be paid more than $1.2 million in return for his resignation.
Pernetti, who admitted he made a mistake in not firing Rice immediately in December after getting a copy of the video, didn’t leave without a little finger-pointing.
In handing in his resignation, the former Rutgers tight end said that he wanted to fire Rice on the spot but did not because the consensus among school officials at the time was that his actions didn’t warrant dismissal.
Instead he suspended Rice for three games, fined him $75,000 and ordered him to take anger management classes.
Barchi approved the punishment without asking to see the video, which he knew existed. He relied on his athletic director’s recommendation. That was a mistake, he said.
“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.”
Barchi said he watched the video for the first time with Pernetti on Tuesday night and told him to fire the coach who was his first major hire.
Pernetti did the next day.
“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.”
Barchi said the school hopes to appoint an interim athletic director in a few days, while admitting he doesn’t know whether that person will come from inside or outside the university.
Pernetti said in his resignation letter that he hoped his tenure at Rutgers would not be judged by one incident.
“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,” he said.
Pernetti’s biggest coup was getting Rutgers into the Big Ten, 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.
Pernetti, who hired Rice in 2010, viewed him as an intense leader 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. On Thursday, the school said assistant coach Jimmy Martelli had resigned.
Murdock filed his 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 claims the school violated a state anti-bullying law and a Rutgers policy put in place in response to the 2010 suicide of student Tyler Clementi, who became distraught after learning his roommate had used a 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, Barchi got votes of confidence Friday.
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.
Ralph Izzo, chairman of the school’s board of governors, called Barchi “the right person to run this place for many years to come.”
He noted Barchi was brought in 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.”