In December of 2012, the Rutgers basketball team huddled together with then-Athletic Director Tim Pernetti, who broke some news to the Scarlet Knights: their basketball coach at the time, Mike Rice, was being suspended three games for “inappropriate behavior and language.”
According to Austin Johnson, a senior forward on the team, everyone was “a little bit shocked. We couldn’t have seen it coming. The consensus was shock. Then he served his suspension and I thought it was over with.”
The news barely registered nationally. Rutgers had a conference call with reporters, but the school wasn’t specific about the transgressions that led to Rice’s suspension. Rice issued a statement of his own, profusely apologizing for his actions without revealing them. Life went on in the Big East.
But as the country found out in April, the December suspension was just the beginning. ESPN’s Outside the Lines obtained videotape – from Eric Murdock, the former director of basketball player development at Rutgers – of Rice “hurling basketballs from close range at his players’ heads, legs and feet; shoving and grabbing his players; feigning punching them; kicking them; and screaming obscenities and homophobic slurs.”
The grainy video was powerful. The public pressure to fire Rice was overwhelming – a columnist even wrote about the impact twitter may have had on the situation, as anger mounted online – and in less than 24 hours, Rice was gone. A day later, Pernetti was fired, too.
But Johnson and former Rutgers basketball manager Seth Mucha, who spoke to Big Lead Sports last week at Hansel and Griddle in New Brunswick, paint a different picture of Rice than the damning clips obtained by ESPN.
“At this level, some of that is to be expected,” said Johnson, a hulking, 6-foot-8, soft-spoken 23-year-old who commands attention when he enters a room. “When we did go through it, we understood it, and we analyzed it. That’s part of being at this level.”
To them, Rice was just like any other college coach, trying to get the most out of his players.
Mucha, who was a student manager during Rice’s first two seasons before graduating in 2012, said the coach’s outbursts depicted in the wince-worthy video were extremely rare, and maybe happened “once every couple weeks or every month.” He added, “[Rice’s] intentions were to get the most out of his players. I was there for two years and I never thought he was trying to hurt anyone.”
Just how much video there is of Rice ranting/throwing basketballs/kicking players is unclear. On Outside the Lines, ESPN showed less than 70 seconds of Rice’s bizarre, unacceptable behavior. Rutgers viewed 30 minutes worth a practice tape in December and only suspended Rice for three games. Did Murdock (former Providence star and NBA player) sift through two years worth of practice video and cut it up for ESPN to show the lowlights?
“If they cut up some of the antics that some of the players had in the practices, I feel like it would be depicted in a similar manner,” Johnson said. While Johnson and Mucha will defend Rice as a coach, they don’t defend the slurs and kicking and hurling of basketballs at the heads of players.
“He was wrong for what he did and how he went about it,” Johnson said. “But I know his intentions were to try to change the culture and turn Rutgers into a winning program.”
The Rutgers athletic department did not return a call from Big Lead Sports seeking comment.
After multiple viewings of the video, this reporter didn’t see Rice throw a ball at, kick, or otherwise abuse Johnson, who is listed at 250 pounds.
But Johnson dismissed the notion that Rice didn’t come after him because of his size. “He didn’t ever grab me – I don’t remember him throwing anything at me. I don’t think it had to do with my size – I don’t think he picked and choose who to go after based on size.”
Mucha chimed in: “If you made a mistake, he was going to get on you – correcting it so you didn’t make the same mistake twice.”
To Johnson and Mucha, Rice’s goal in practice was to simulate game-type chaos and prepare the players for the rigors of the Big East. They talked about Rice being driven daily to change the dreary hoops culture at Rutgers, a program that hasn’t reached the NCAA tournament since 1991. Players and coaches joked during water breaks. When players stepped off the court following practice, there was a different “vibe.”
Last season, Mucha (who occasionally attended practice and games) and Johnson said Rice was much more aware of his temper, and his mood was different than the two prior years. Both said Rice, whose energy level was just short of manic, was seeing an anger management counselor and practices were being monitored by the school.
But it was too late. Murdock, perhaps unhappy with the school’s December decision, went to ESPN in March with the videotapes, and weeks later, Rice was gone.
Now the question becomes whether or not Rice will coach again. Bob Knight was verbally and physically abusive throughout his career in Bloomington, but had no trouble getting a job with Texas Tech, where he coached for seven years. Knight, though, won three titles at Indiana, and 11 Big Ten titles.
“I thought this country was built on second chances and forgiveness,” Johnson said. “You can forgive the President and other coaches … with time and space, people will forget and maybe he’ll be able to coach again.”