PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) — It seemed a perfect fit when Tim Pernetti was hired as athletic director at Rutgers in April 2009.
A New Jersey native who played tight end for the Scarlet Knights, the 42-year-old Pernetti had witnessed the athletic department’s push toward respectability with a close eye and was viewed as the right man to push it even further.
But he was short on experience. When he replaced Bob Mulcahy, Pernetti had only been a broadcaster for the Rutgers football team, a program director at ABC Sports and an executive vice president at CBS Sports.
“He’s highly familiar with the challenges Rutgers has faced. He’s deeply committed to accountability,” then-Rutgers president Richard McCormick said at the time. “Time will tell. He’s had the job for an hour. But I am confident that Tim Pernetti has the skill set and the experience.”
Four years later and Pernetti’s job is in danger as a men’s basketball scandal rips through campus.
Pernetti dismissed Mike Rice on Wednesday after a videotape aired showing the coach shoving, grabbing and throwing balls at players, and using gay slurs during practice. The tape was made available to Pernetti in November by a former university employee, but after an investigation, and with the approval of the new university president, Pernetti only chose to suspend Rice.
The coach was forced to miss three games, was fined $75,000 and ordered to attend anger management classes. The Scarlet Knights went 3-0 in his absence, and he returned in time for Big East play.
But the video — given to Pernetti by Eric Murdock, former director of player development for Rice — was broadcast Tuesday on ESPN and prompted scores of sharp criticism nationwide.
“You have to be cautious about public reaction, because the reaction the public is having is the same I had,” Pernetti told WFAN on Tuesday. “I am factoring everything into what we do going forward.”
Pernetti fired Rice a day later, and questions began about his own job status. Pernetti did not speak to the media Wednesday or Thursday, as calls for his dismissal surfaced around the Rutgers community. Also Thursday, assistant coach Jimmy Martelli resigned.
There have been growing calls for Pernetti to be fired, coming from Rutgers faculty and state legislators. But there’s also a push to keep him, playing out largely on social media.
By Friday morning, nearly 3,000 people had joined a Facebook site calling for the university to keep him, several accusing the media and politicians of a witch hunt. Former Rutgers football players including Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice and Eric LeGrand, who was paralyzed during a game in 2010, were also campaigning for Pernetti to remain in place, saying that Pernetti cares deeply about them as individuals.
The video shows numerous clips of Rice at practice firing basketballs at players, hitting them in the back, legs, feet and shoulders. Rice was also shown pushing players in the chest and grabbing them by their jerseys and yanking them around the court. Rice could be heard yelling obscenities and using gay slurs.
Pernetti came to the original conclusion that a termination wasn’t necessary, while there has been some doubt over exactly when school president Robert Barchi saw the video. Pernetti said in that radio interview Tuesday that Barchi saw the video in November, yet Barchi said in a statement Wednesday that he didn’t see it until this week.
“Yesterday, I personally reviewed the video evidence,” Barchi wrote Wednesday, “which shows a chronic and pervasive pattern of disturbing behavior.”
Pernetti’s finest hour was last year, when he helped orchestrate the school’s move to the Big Ten, which means additional revenue by way of television contracts and more national exposure, especially in football. The move — set for 2014 — should provide a big boost to recruiting, season ticket sales and media coverage. The Scarlet Knights will play next season in the Big East.
But Pernetti’s first major move came in May 2010 when he hired the volatile Rice away from Robert Morris. That coaching search was created by the unexpected dismissal of Fred Hill, Jr., and came at a time — two months removed from the regular season — in which many coaches were already in place and were not looking for a new job.
The 44-year-old Rice, who helped Robert Morris to two NCAA tournament appearances, was a marketable candidate. But he didn’t find a new home and returned to the Colonials with a new contract in hand. Rice interviewed with Fordham, and it first appeared the New York school was seriously interested in him.
There was a fit, of course, because Rice played point guard at Fordham and he had strong recruiting ties in the New York metropolitan area. Ultimately, though, Fordham went in a different direction and hired Tom Pecora away from Hofstra.
Something was off. Here was a young coach who was winning at a lower level and had experience as an assistant at higher levels, yet couldn’t get a better, bigger job. Of course, his fiery nature didn’t help. In fact, in the 2010 NCAA tournament, the Colonials took Villanova to overtime before losing 73-70. Under the glare of the national spotlight, Rice showed a bit of the behavior that would become his calling card: He erupted at the officials.
But when Rutgers had to relieve Hill after an incident at a Scarlet Knights baseball game, Pernetti looked up Rice.
Within days, Rice was hired — just like that. Turned down by an Atlantic 10 school in Fordham and content to stay at a Northeast Conference school in Robert Morris, suddenly he had a dream job in the Big East — a powerhouse compared to his previous conferences.
“He convinced me he understood his reputation, but he also understood where the line was,” Pernetti said. “I made clear to him if he crossed the line he would be held accountable.”
The move might have been too soon for Rice, and clearly Pernetti took a serious risk. After all, most Big East coaches do not land there immediately after stops in the NEC, but Rutgers and Pernetti looked at Rice as the man who could turn the program around.
It never happened. Rice went 44-51 in three years and posted a 16-38 mark in the Big East after going 73-31 in three seasons at Robert Morris. The Scarlet Knights went 15-16 this season, including 5-13 in the league, and questions about Rice’s status — based on wins and losses alone — began to surface.
But Pernetti again made a questionable decision. Given what he knew about the videotape, and taking Rice’s record into consideration, he still gave the coach a public endorsement at season’s end.
“Of course he’s coming back,” Pernetti said at the time. “It’s been an interesting year to say the least, and while I think in one case some of the progress — and there’s been a lot of progress — doesn’t show, and that’s in the win-loss column. I would like it to show there. I think everyone in the program would. But you can definitely see us getting better.”
But on-the-court success is now secondary. Amid the scandal, it is now a matter of right and wrong, and the school must push forward as it tries to repair its image.
Whether or not Pernetti is along for that ride remains to be seen.