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Attorneys: Rutgers had legal basis to fire coach but didn't

April 07, 2013|By Matt Pearce | This post has been updated, as indicated below.
  • Rutgers President Robert Barchi, center with his back to the camera, announces Friday in New Brunswick, N.J., that he has accepted the resignation of Athletic Director Tim Pernetti, who had decided to "rehabilitate" rather than fire men's head basketball Coach Mike Rice, whose abusive behavior was captured on a video.
Rutgers President Robert Barchi, center with his back to the camera, announces… (Mel Evans / Associated Press )

Rutgers University officials had known for months that their basketball coach had harassed players in practice so severely that he could have been fired, according to a university report.

Concerned by practice footage of Coach Mike Rice roughhousing Rutgers athletes and using gay slurs, outside attorneys hired by the university in November 2012 discreetly compiled a report that said Rice had broken university harassment and intimidation policies. Rice’s contract included a stipulation that he not do anything to embarrass the university, which his behavior had clearly violated, the attorneys said.

But Rutgers officials -- presented with legal justification for firing a coach who’d repeatedly thrown basketballs at his players’ bodies and shoved them violently from behind -- instead decided to keep Rice on the job with only minor punishment: a $75,000 fine, a three-game suspension and an order to attend anger management classes.

The scandal mushroomed last week when ESPN aired practice videos showing Rice’s behavior. Since then, Rice, assistant coach Jimmy Martelli and Athletic Director Tim Pernetti have lost their jobs. University President Robert Barchi, also under criticism for not viewing video evidence of the coach’s behavior sooner, has called the handling of Rice’s behavior “a failure of process.”

The case gained more texture with the release of the internal review into Rice’s actions. Rutgers officials provided the outside law firm's report to the Los Angeles Times.

The review by Roseland, N.J., law firm Connell Foley legally damned Rice’s behavior but painted a softer portrait of the allegations. The review, reportedly completed in January, found no merit in claims of whistle-blower retribution by a former basketball assistant who has become an increasingly complex figure in the controversy.

Eric Murdock, former director of player development, has filed a whistle-blower lawsuit against the university claiming that he was fired for bringing up Rice’s behavior. He is also the subject of a possible Federal Bureau of Investigation inquiry into extortion, according to the New York Times and the Associated Press.

A Rutgers spokesman declined a Los Angeles Times request for comment on the investigation. The FBI and attorneys for Murdock did not respond to requests for comment Sunday.

[Update, 5:20 p.m. April 7: FBI spokeswoman Barbara Woodruff declined to comment Sunday on the reports of an investigation, citing U.S. Department of Justice policy.]

In a Dec. 27 letter provided to the Los Angeles Times by a Rutgers spokesman, Murdock attorney Barry Kozyra tells university officials, “It is unfathomable to think that Mr. Rice’s employment with the university (at the cost of the taxpayers of this state) continues, while Mr. Murdock remains unemployed for simply having done the right thing.” Kozyra then states Murdock would settle his claims against the university for $950,000.

The university’s external report said lawyers could find no proof that Rice or  Pernetti had fired Murdock at the end of June 2012, as Murdock contends. Instead, the report said, Murdock had a disagreement with Rice about leaving a practice early and did not show up for a follow-up meeting with Pernetti and Murdock, so Pernetti let Murdock's contract lapse. 

Murdock’s attorney, Kozyra, then took his claims of whistle-blower retaliation to Pernetti and Rutgers interim President Richard L. Edwards, setting in motion the investigation into Rice’s conduct.

The university’s outside attorneys, hired Nov. 27, interviewed players and coaches about Rice’s behavior, which was portrayed as part of an effort by a new coach, hired two years earlier, to shake up the team’s lethargic performance on the court and in the classroom.

“Coach Rice communicated to the players and coaches that he wanted to make them ‘comfortable in chaos,’ a theme that was repeated to us by virtually every coach, every player and every basketball administrator that we interviewed,” the report stated. “All of the players and coaches with whom we spoke also conveyed to us that they fully understood that the ‘chaos’ created by Coach Rice in practice was not mean-spirited, but was designed to prepare the players to become more competitive and to remain calm when similar ‘chaos’ would occur in their games.”

The report noted that Rice was successful in increasing the team’s GPA and graduation rates while putting a competitive squad on the floor. Investigators also said Rice's conduct had been more intimidating in his first season (2010-2011), and players were warned that the experience would be uncomfortable.

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