(Recasts, adds background on video, details, reaction)
By David Jones
NEWARK, N.J., April 3 (Reuters) - Rutgers University fired the head of its men’s basketball team on Wednesday after the release of video showing him shoving players, hurling balls at their heads and berating them with homophobic slurs.
The video, which went viral on the Internet, prompted outrage and calls from players, fans and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie for the ousting of the coach, Mike Rice.
The governor said the dismissal was “the right and necessary action to take in light of the conduct displayed” at New Jersey’s largest public university with 58,000 students.
Rice’s firing, amid the popular “March Madness” tournament that determines the top U.S. college basketball teams, throws the spotlight on the pressure-cooker world of U.S. college sports, where big money and university reputations are at stake.
Rutgers has been playing in the Big East Conference, one of the most competitive, that includes such basketball powerhouses as the University of Connecticut, Syracuse University and Georgetown University. The taxpayer-supported Rutgers University paid Rice $655,000 last year, the third year of a five-year contract, according to public records.
The video of Rice, released on Tuesday by the ESPN sports network, showed “a chronic and pervasive pattern of disturbing behavior,” said Rutgers President Robert Barchi in a statement announcing the dismissal.
“Coach Rice cannot continue to serve effectively in a position that demands the highest levels of leadership, responsibility and public accountability,” Barchi said.
The video shows Rice pushing players to the floor, throwing balls from close range to their heads and midsections, kicking them and shouting obscenities and homophobic slurs.
Rice had been suspended briefly in December by Rutgers Athletic Director Tim Pernetti after he was shown the video. The suspension cost Rice $75,000 in fines and lost salary.
The dismissal on Wednesday marked a reversal for Pernetti and Rutgers, which had retained Rice as coach when the suspension ended and had ordered him to undergo anger-management therapy.
Pernetti, in a statement, acknowledged that he should have gone further than the suspension.
“I thought it was in the best interest of everyone to rehabilitate, but I was wrong,” Pernetti said. “Moving forward, I will work to regain the trust of the Rutgers community.”
Rice, 44, apologized for his behavior in an interview with WABC-TV on Wednesday outside his New Jersey home.
“There’s no explanation for what’s on that film,” he said. “There’s no excuse for it. I was wrong. And I want to tell everybody who’s believed in me that I‘m deeply sorry for the pain and hardship that I’ve caused.”
The hiring of Rice in 2010 was seen as an effort to beef up the Rutgers men’s basketball team, which last played in a post-season tournament in 1991. But the team has had a losing season in each of the three years Rice was head coach.
Rice previously had been the head coach at Robert Morris University in Pennsylvania, leading the team to back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances. Dr. Craig Coleman, athletic director at Robert Morris, said in an email to Reuters that Rice’s behavior in the video was “quite unfortunate, but it is not indicative” of his behavior at the smaller school.
From 2001 to 2004, Rice was director of the Eastern Invitational Basketball Camp at the Hoop Group, a Neptune, New Jersey-based organization that trained student athletes.
“They were probably the most enjoyable four years I’ve had running our business,” Rob Kennedy, president of the Hoop Group, said of Rice’s tenure. “He was universally liked by everybody.”
Rutgers’ initial decision to suspend Rice, rather than dismiss him, has come under fire and reignited debate over how universities deal with big-time college sports and the money they generate.
Investigators found those pressures played a role in Penn State’s failure to take action against football coach Jerry Sandusky, who was convicted last year for sexually abusing young boys over the years.
The video showing Rice’s homophobic slurs was particularly sensitive for Rutgers after the 2010 suicide of student Tyler Clementi, 18, who jumped off a bridge after learning that a roommate spied on his homosexual tryst in their dorm room.
The episode drew national attention when the roommate, who used a computer-mounted webcam, was prosecuted under a hate crimes law. The case also highlighted issues of bullying through social media and teen suicide.
Rice’s antics were reminiscent of an incident in 1997 when Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight was caught on tape choking player Neil Reed in practice. Knight, known for his short temper and combative personality, was fired six months later.
The video that prompted Rice’s dismissal was compiled by former NBA player Eric Murdock, who served as director of player development under Rice.
Murdock’s lawyer, Raj Gadhok, told reporters that the university failed to renew his client’s contract after Murdock brought the video, and Rice’s errant behavior, to the attention of school officials.
In an interview with ESPN posted on its website on Tuesday, Pernetti denied Murdock’s claim that he was wrongfully terminated. He said his contract was not renewed after he attended a speaking engagement against the wishes of the Rutgers coach. (Writing by Tom Brown and Ellen Wulfhorst; Editing by Paul Thomasch, Mary Milliken and Grant McCool)