A Scarlet Mess at Rutgers

rutgers

There was once a time well before Greg Schiano and C. Vivan Stringer when Rutgers athletics was nothing more than a laughing stock. The university had to bribe their students with free food in an attempt to fill the football stadium on Saturdays, because no one would dare waste their time in watching an opponent run up the score on their beloved Scarlet Knights. For a university that prided itself on playing the first ever college football game, there was no reason to pay attention to the school that created the tagline: the birthplace of college football.

In the last decade the dynamic changed. Greg Schiano made the football program the focus of the university’s athletics. There was general interest in the school from the casual viewer who just happens to catch a game on a Thursday night or a Saturday afternoon. Suddenly there was interest in going to school in central New Jersey because the school was starting to gain exposure.

Everyone involved with the university benefited from the sudden interest in the sports department.

The exposure gained from not only the football program, but also the women’s basketball team (yes the Don Imus scandal put the school into a negative story, but the university was viewed as the protagonist in the story). The national media had exposed Rutgers in a way that not even the best advertising can do. A three hour football game and hours of national coverage on ESPN and CNN is the best kind of advertising a university can have.

The domino effect from Rutgers triumph over Louisville in a nationally televised Thursday night game in 2006, was the turning point for Rutgers. The football team had finally become a relevant function at the university. It was cool to say you were at that game, hell some even envied the fact that you were there. The Busch campus at the New Brunswick campus became the place to be when there was a home game. There was finally an athletic culture at the university that somewhat resembled what a big time institution is supposed to look like.

As the football team continued to gain momentum, the men’s basketball program was attempting to run pick and rolls in front of empty seats.

From the ’00-’01 season to the ’09-’10 season, Rutgers had just three winning seasons and appeared in the NIT postseason tournament three times. In those nine years the program’s overall record was a mediocre 126-152, with an abysmal 41-109 record in Big East play. The Louis Brown Athletic Center (aka the RAC) looked like an abandoned, run down trapezoid structure of a building that no one wanted to go to.

During this time period the women’s basketball team made national headlines and of course it wasn’t about their shocking run to the national championship game in 2007. Instead the team became the focus of the infamous comments from radio host Don Imus. There’s no need to dive into an oral history of what happened, but let’s just remember the situation was significant enough to bring then U.S. senator Hilary Clinton to the New Brunswick campus.

After the Imus episode passed over, the focus of the university turned back to the success of the football team, but the level of play would plateau and the focus turned to Schiano’s ability to win the big game- in this case beat West Virginia-and move on to a BCS bowl game. The Papa John’s.com bowl and International bowl are nice for teams that haven’t had a taste of post season football in multiple decades, but after so many years of teasing the school with a potential birth in a major bowl game, it was fair to wonder if Schiano would ever get the team over the hump.

Playing in the Sugar or Orange bowl would have been the best infomercial Rutgers could have hoped for, but the football program had already paid dividends. After the team’s rise to national attention, the school’s enrollment overflowed the university with undergraduates. During my sophomore year students had to be housed at a local hotel because there wasn’t enough room for everyone on campus. In time, new dorms were built and there is now more than enough room to house the 42,000+ undergraduate students, but the school needed to continue the positive momentum from the athletic department if the school was going to continue to grow.

Enter Tim Pernetti.

Pernetti was hired on April fool’s day 2009 and was determined to elevate Rutgers athletics into a big time program. It’s easy to connect the dots here: the school is 40-45 minutes from New York City and is within the biggest media market of the entire country, the television revenue in college sports were/are at an all-time high, the football team finally had some sustained success on the field, and off of the field (the school was finally getting the top recruits within the state to sign a letter of intent), and multiple players who went to Rutgers were having success at the NFL level.

It was Pernetti’s job to take the clay that RU had devolved into and mold it into a top flight athletic program. He was the right man for the job.

Pernetti had a tremendous background in the world of television. He was heavily involved in the college football operations for ABC Sports before jumping ship to help create programming at CSTV (which would later become CBS Sports Network). After CBS bought CSTV in 2006, Pernetti was elevated to executive vice president. He was named one of Sports Business Journal’s 40 under 40 award for his work at CBS.

In 2008, RU athletic director Robert E. Mulachy III was fired after revelations of secret deals and unrecorded spending. Mulachy had been at the school for a decade and wanted desperately to bring big-time college football to the university. It’s hard to argue that Mulachy’s plan wasn’t a resounding success.

Football fever had taken over New Brunswick. There was so much fandom that bars were almost impossible to get into on Saturday afternoons (or Thursday nights). More importantly, Rutgers was starting to become a significant part of the metropolitan New Jersey culture, which is exactly what Mulachy wanted, but he didn’t have any idea how to elevate the program within the television realm.

Pernetti’s television background was no doubt the key that made the Rutgers board of trustees turn the key and start his career at RU. By having so many connections within the television world, Pernetti could take Rutgers to the next level.

The first step would be finding a new head coach of the men’s basketball team, aka the only college sport besides football that accumulates a hefty amount of television ad revenue. Pernetti passed over the legendary Bob Knight to hire the then unknown Mike Rice.

Rice had worked his way up the coaching ranks before taking over the Robert Morris program in 2007. In his second year, Rice led the small school in Pittsburgh to the NCAA tournament and then returned the program to the big dance the next season.

Rice spewed intensity and Pernetti thought he would be the perfect fit to change the perception of the men’s basketball program. It seems odd to us now, but Rice’s first big national moment was how he handled a controversial loss to St.John’s in the second round of the 2010 Big East tournament. If there was ever a time to yell or throw something, that moment would have been a perfect time to do so. (It’s okay, Mike Francesa had a legendary two hour rant about the incident, which at the time was necessary viewing. My friend Jeff and I immediately put going to class on the backburner.)

The men’s basketball program appeared to be headed in the right direction. The RAC was still an ugly trapezoid structure, but inside the building the embryonic stages of enthusiasm were forming. Storming the court after beating a top-ten team was no longer just a fun thought, it was a reality. At the helm was the coach that Pernetti had put his faith into. This was the guy that was going to lead the program out from the dark ages and into a renaissance.

Everything for the university was lined up in place by the new athletic director. When the beloved football coach decided to give the NFL a try, Pernetti found a replacement that not only kept a key recruiting class intact, but led the team to a 9-0 record and was one win away from accomplishing something that Schiano failed to do, win the Big East and the coveted BCS bowl berth.

Every early decision that Pernetti made turned immediately to gold. He was named as one of the top five most influential people in college athletics by the Sports Business Journal.

His signature moment would shockingly be the last positive influence he would have at the university.

Pernetti understood Rutgers couldn’t be left behind on the conference carousel, so he sold the board of directors of the Big Ten on the benefits of adding the state university of New Jersey into their conference. It was a key move for Rutgers. Either the school joined one of the four power house conferences, or they would be labeled as a mid-major school stuck in the quicksand of the AAC.

With the new playoff format in place for college football the potential for humongous (potentially never before seen in college athletics) ad revenue is just a couple of years away. Based off of his background in television it’s safe to say Pernetti could ballpark just how important joining a major conference- with their own television network, as well as a big deal with ESPN-was for his school. In December of last year, after months of discussions between Pernetti and Jim Delany, the Big Ten commissioner, Rutgers was announced as a member of the Big Ten, effective 2014.

This was the achievement of a vision Pernetti had. He had not only saved Rutgers, but placed RU in a situation to which they could thrive. Sure the football team was likely to be outmatched by Ohio State, Michigan and Iowa, but if they played in front of seven-to-ten million eyeballs on a Saturday afternoon who the hell cares what the end result is? High Point Solutions Stadium is (finally) going to be legitimately sold out when a Big Ten powerhouse travels to central New Jersey.

Then in 24 hours the dynamic of Rutgers athletics as a whole took a turn that even M.Night Shyamalan wouldn’t have been able to write.

If you didn’t go to Rutgers, or paid attention to college basketball news in December of last year, you likely missed the story of Mike Rice’s three game suspension and $50,000 fine for “throwing basketballs at players” and cursing at said players. The story quickly passed over and barely registered on anyone’s radar. You can bet Pernetti and the entire university of Rutgers wished the story would have just passed over the next time it was presented to the media.

The sports media landscape had been very quiet, almost too quiet. The Chicago Bulls ended the Miami Heat’s quest to set the all-time win streak. Arguably the worst NCAA Tournament in the last decade or so was going on (until the Final Four and national championship game) and the NFL media was talking their normal draft nonsense, as Mel Kiper and Todd McShay have to fill a segment on Sportscenter. The vultures were dying to sink their beaks into something with juice.

Eric Murdock had enough juice to pass around to every media outlet.

The now infamous lowlight compilation video of Mike Rice getting ready for Dodgeball 2 immediately caused a Twitter riot, as everyone who chimed in called for Rice to be fired. Less than 12 hours later the men’s basketball team was informed that Rice would no longer be their head coach, this was sadly just the beginning.

When morning shows expose grandparents and people who don’t pay attention to ESPN on a daily basis to a video like the one of Rice, it’s going to cause an uproar. The executioners had their hands on the rope, now they just needed a sacrificial lamb.

In my opinion, Pernetti’s performance on Outside the Lines is what doomed his tenure at his Alma matter. It was an odd 23 minute sequence to say the least. For a person with an immense television background, Pernetti seemed totally out of his element. He had to know that there was going to be a bombardment of difficult questions, but to say that Rice’s suspension was just because it was a “first offense” was just asinine.

The firing of Rice wasn’t enough. The person who enabled Rice’s actions had to go as well. There couldn’t be a feeling of, we’re moving on with a clean slate with Pernetti still on board. In 24 hours he became the root of all evil at Rutgers University according to the public, because of the way he was presented to us by the media.

When an artist paints a picture, he/she is dictating the image that you see; it’s up to you to determine what the artist’s motives were. Why did they use this color? What does this feature symbolize?

The public was forced to make an opinion on Pernetti based off of a trove of information that couldn’t be digested in a week, let alone a 24 hour period.

Do people make mistakes?

Absolutely.

Does everyone deserve a second chance?

Yes.

Does the media shape opinions in a certain way?

You’re damn right.

Let me be clear, I think Pernetti did a lame job in trying to explain what happened. I understand he was trying to keep the best interest of the university in mind by not throwing anyone under the bus, but you have to at least come off as a knowledgeable individual. We can be blinded by confidence; Mr. Pernetti was not a confident individual on Outside the Lines. Maybe he thought that his efforts to get the Rutgers in the Big Ten would be enough to sway the opinion of the board that he deserved to stay, but this story had already moved beyond just the sports page. This was national front page news.

It was only a matter of time before the guillotine rope was released by the same board of governors that originally suggested Rice’s initial punishment. There is a ton of information that had yet to be discovered, let alone released to the public for consumption, but it didn’t matter. Pernetti’s fate was sealed.

Pernetti gave Barchi and the board a middle finger in his final statement when he said that his initial reaction after viewing the video was to fire Rice, only for the board and the school’s lawyers to tell him it wasn’t possible. In the timespan of a week a school that had a promising athletic program was exposed for being a disconnected group of individuals who all had their fingers pointing in different directions.

We may never know what really happened, but at this point it doesn’t matter. The man who was going to lead Rutgers into the next phase of operation national relevance is now gone. The athletic program may teeter on once again entering the dark ages if the football team starts this season the way last season ended, but for now Rutgers needs to learn from the mistakes that were made.

The national media doesn’t care when you get something right, or if you do something good for the community. Rutgers raised over $500,000 for children with cancer this past weekend, but you won’t hear anyone talking about it. The media only cares when something negative has the ability to become a major story.

The high ups at Rutgers weren’t prepared for the media storm. In fact the only people who were ready for this were the group of kids who threw water balloons at ESPN’s media truck and yelled out vultures. Perhaps Tim Pernetti would like to throw one of those water balloons at someone.

Maybe one day we’ll know who the target should have been.

Follow me on twitter @scottdargis_NBC

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