Public pressure ousted Pernetti
When I woke up Thursday morning, I checked Facebook as I normally do — and saw my good friend, colleague and Sports Editor Josh Bakan’s column in response to the previous day’s firing of now former head men’s basketball coach Mike Rice. He called for Pernetti to either be fired or to change his ways. Shortly after I finished reading, I received a text from an old roommate asking me if I thought Pernetti should be fired. While I respect Josh’s opinion, I greatly disagree with it because I think Pernetti was a victim of a flawed system in the ever-powerful public eye.
I, of course, agree with the Rice firing. I spent the winter as one of the men’s basketball team’s beat writers for this newspaper, so I got a firsthand look at the intensity of Rice’s demeanor every week. A team cannot move forward with a coach who is not backed by his entire team (as is evidenced by the three players who left the program in the last two seasons). So yes, I support the decision to fire Rice just as I’m sure most, if not all of you do.
But the matter of forcing Pernetti to resign is a different story. Let me explain. The first thing I mentioned as an issue was the flawed system. Whether schools will admit it — and most won’t — wins are the No. 1 priority. I’m not endorsing this notion. I’m just saying this is the reality of college sports, especially high-profile ones. This is evidenced by the amount of stories being uncovered about players who have had their grades adjusted, tampered with or faked in order to remain eligible. There are also schools giving short, meaningless suspensions to players doing poorly in classes. This is why it warms my heart to see a program like Georgetown University’s, from which the second-best player, Greg Whittington, was suspended for the season for failing a class. But the majority of schools use any means to keep players on the field or court, many of which are NCAA violations.
Anyway, like I said — wins are at the top of the list. And whether they will admit it, those in the athletic department most likely considered this reasoning when deliberating on Rice’s punishment at the end of last year.
Here is what I mean: At the beginning of Rice’s suspension, the team was 7-2, a very admirable mark for the Knights. Then the story of Rice’s behavior surfaced in December, and Rice was suspended for three games.
First off, did anyone else find it convenient his suspension ended right before the Big East schedule, when the tougher and more important portion began? Good timing for the team. Secondly, if Rice had been fired then, although associate head coach David Cox — who took over in Rice’s absence and is now the interim head coach — is experienced, there was no guarantee he would be as good as Rice. We now know the team struggled in the Big East anyway, but the athletic department did not know this when reviewing the tapes the first time. If Pernetti left the team with an interim head coach entering Big East play, he would essentially abandon them at a most crucial time.
Because of this, the head-coaching search would have been rushed, and it would have been from a small pool of coaches, which is much larger now that the season is over. So letting Rice finish out the year was the best decision for the team as far as wins go. Even if it was not what Pernetti wanted to do, the decision was within the mindset that college athletics force athletic departments to take. This is the flaw in the system. Sometimes people — in this case a very competent and capable athletic director — are forced to make decisions which are secretly fueled by the priority of wins simply because it is the way things work. Again, I’m not endorsing the idea, simply stating the reality of it.
I also said he was a victim of the public eye. What is the difference between late last year and now? Nothing — except for the fact that the public has seen the tapes. There was no word of Rice’s abusive behavior continuing beyond his suspension. Nobody called for any firings when it was handled within the department, and Rice finished the season. But once the public saw Rice’s behavior, a maelstrom of negative publicity followed. Once this happened, the only way to relieve public pressure was to sacrifice a scapegoat.
In this case, it was Pernetti. He was forced to resign simply because they thought the public might let up if it happened.
If you were to examine Pernetti’s letter of resignation, you’ll find he said: “We agreed that it was in the best interests of Rutgers University that I step down.” “We” means Pernetti and President Barchi. To me, “we agreed it was in the best interests” means they did not think Pernetti deserved to be fired, but rather, they thought it needed to be done for the school’s sake. So the decision was not made by Barchi and Pernetti, but rather forced by uninformed, reactionary public pressure because this is what often happens.
So congratulations public, you forced out a man who oversaw the continuing improvement of the wrestling and football programs — among others — and was a key player in the move to the Big Ten, a major step for the University. Reports are continuing to surface saying members of the board influenced Pernetti, so the decision not to fire Rice last year may not have even been his.
With all the negative publicity in recent years, the University had its chance to take a stand, show some backbone, make the right call and keep Pernetti in a job he rightfully deserves. But instead, it caved in to public pressure.
Sadly, it feels as though handling these matters has regressed to a witch-hunt. Whomever the crowd points at is who ends up on the end of the noose.
Finally, those of you calling for Barchi’s head as well, get real. The man should not be faulted because he trusted Pernetti to do the job he was hired for. Pernetti was not at fault and therefore, Barchi is not at fault. Axing people who have not done anything wrong only sets the University back, and this is exactly what has happened with Pernetti’s forced resignation.
Joey Gregory is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in journalism and media studies with a minor in philosophy. He is a sports correspondent at The Daily Targum.