Over my three years at Rutgers, the university has experienced a number of crises both athletic and non-athletic. The first few weeks of my freshman year was characterized by the suicide of my fellow classmate Tyler Clementi. Only one month later, I witnessed Eric LeGrand’s paralyzing injury in Metlife Stadium while a part of the marching band. This most recent incident with Mike Rice’s abusive tendencies as coach of Rutgers only adds to the negative press that the university has received in recent years.
When Mike Rice was announced as the new Rutgers head basketball coach prior to the beginning of my freshman year I was absolutely ecstatic. The basketball program was struggling considerably and Coach Rice seemed as if he would be the right fit for the job. Fresh off an incredible performance against No. 2 seed Villanova during the 2010 NCAA tournament as head coach of an up-and-coming Robert Morris squad, Rice brought hope for the Rutgers basketball faithful that we would finally see performances that were comparable to our Big East rivals.
Flashes of this renewed energy in Rutgers basketball were incredibly evident in 2011 and 2012. Rutgers stunned the 10th ranked Villanova Wildcats with a 4-point play at the buzzer, showing the Scarlet Knight fan base that Coach Rice was bringing promise to the basketball program. In 2012, Rutgers once again showed its upset prowess when the Scarlet Knights defeated the 10th ranked Florida Gators, providing me my first opportunity to storm the court in celebration. Two short weeks later, Rutgers defeated the 8th ranked UConn Huskies, where I once again witnessed a greater resurgence of Scarlet Knight basketball.
Amid all the tweets, news stories, and commentary on Rice, it is easy to portray him as purely abusive and an overall terrible influence. What is conveniently left out of the media coverage is the chest bumps, the high fives, the Mike Rice that would jump around like a little kid when these upsets would happen. The Mike Rice that actively participated in pregame warm-ups by setting up passes for players in the lay up line, and did not just stand idly as his players worked. Mike Rice the teacher, the mentor, and the coach are left out of this equation.
Is Coach Rice’s conduct or homophobic slurs during practice acceptable? Absolutely not, nor am I trying to justify it. Rather, I believe it is prudent to provide this perspective on what Mike Rice brought to a Rutgers program that had no other place other than the cellar of the Big East conference. Rice made Rutgers basketball fun to watch and his commitment and dedication to the program cannot just be swept away as a result of the media coverage.
It is unfortunate that Rice has to be the poster child for the potential reformation of coach behavior towards athletes. Junior Wally Judge on the Rutgers basketball team, who transferred from Kansas State, remarked that Wildcats coach Frank Martin’s practices were harder and worse than Rice’s. It is irresponsible to cast out Mike Rice as the sole employer of such tactics during practices. This is a cultural occurrence in sports that needs to be addressed on a broader level and Mike Rice should not be the only victim of such a crackdown.
In the end, it will be the Rutgers University athletic program that will be affected the most. With Rutgers shifting to the Big 10 in 2014, the university must get its act together starting with the athletic director Tim Pernetti. If Rutgers can get past this crisis, the future holds a lot of potential for the Scarlet Knights and hopefully this promise will not be squandered.