Tuesday, December 31, 2013 4:08 pm
Rutgers still trying to find its way after scandal
By TOM CANAVANAP Sports Writer
School officials and coaches are still making mistakes off the field and life is going to be more difficult on the field as New Jersey's state university enters the Big Ten Conference in 2014.
To recap, 2013 was a year Rutgers would like to forget, starting with the handling of Mike Rice's behavior to his firing, the forced resignation of athletic director Tim Pernetti and the public relations nightmare that followed the airing of videotapes of the men's coach throwing basketballs at players and yelling anti-gay slurs.
In the aftermath, school president Robert Barchi came under fire, new athletic director Julie Hermann did as well, a lacrosse coach was suspended, and the governor had to check in.
Even after things settled down, there was more. A football player accused a coach of bullying. Hermann came under fire again for saying she talked to the family, when they said she didn't. And defensive coordinator Dave Cohen and two other coaches were fired the day after the Scarlet Knights became bowl eligible with a .500 record - a decision that cost Rutgers more than $600,000.
While Kyle Flood and his team were competitive against Notre Dame in the Pinstripe Bowl, the bottom line was a losing season after the 29-16 loss. Combined with the scandal, it cost Rutgers recruits.
On the basketball court, the hiring of former Rutgers star Eddie Jordan was widely welcomed. However, the point guard who led the Scarlet Knights to its only Final Four has found turning things around is not going to be easy. Early-season losses to Fairleigh Dickinson, William & Mary and Seton Hall haven't gone over well.
Indeed, moving forward is going to take time at Rutgers.
"I think it's embarrassing - all that's gone on," said Herman Thomas of Wayne, N.J., a Rutgers graduate who has football season tickets. "Rutgers has become a laughingstock, a big joke. We're a `Saturday Night Live' skit. You say `Rutgers' in public and people laugh. It's not funny to us. We don't want to laugh. It's sad. We want to have a school to be proud of, a football team to be proud of. How can we be proud of what's going on? The basketball coach, the athletic director, the assistant football coach.
"It's almost like you can't make it up. How much more can one school go through?"
Thomas is upset that the likable Pernetti seemingly became the scapegoat for the scandal and that the university hired Hermann despite allegations by former Tennessee women's volleyball players that she ruled through humiliation, fear and emotional abuse when she was coach there.
"They really have to do something to change the entire image of the program, make it more respectable," Thomas said. "I can't see that happening anytime soon."
Hermann refused a request by The Associated Press for an interview for this story.
The fallout from the scandal cost the football team. At least six highly regarded players who said they planned to play for the Scarlet Knights next year have changed their minds. Heading the list are St. Peter's Prep (N.J.) running back Jonathan Hilliman and quarterback Tyler Wiegers from Michigan. Hilliman is going to Boston College. Wiegers plans to attend Iowa.
St. Peter's coach Rich Hansen said whenever changes are made on a coaching staff, it has a negative effect on recruiting. Hilliman no longer felt comfortable, his coach said.
"When you're a high school kid, this creates a sense of uneasiness," Hansen said. "Rutgers knows that and is trying to correct that. But there has been a whirlwind of negative stuff, coming from all angles and all walks of life. It has hurt the overall image of Rutgers athletics. So you don't want it to happen, but it hasn't put them in a positive light. There's a reaction from recruits, from the public in general."
Zack Heeman, a 6-foot-8 offensive lineman from Mount Olive, N.J., who has only played football for a couple of years, wanted to stay in state.
"The school is moving to the Big Ten and that's exciting. I want to be part of that foundation and do something great there," he said. "I've been around the coaching staff and I know what Coach Flood is all about and what he's trying to do. I have to look at all the positives and they outweigh the negatives. I am going with my gut feeling that I made the right choice. I am ready to go. I never once thought otherwise."
Rutgers fans are getting upset with the ups-and-downs at the school. Norman Sanders of Bridgewater, N.J., is a Rutgers graduate who has season tickets for football and basketball.
"I remember back to the 1950s, going to the Rutgers-Princeton games with my dad and saying, `I'm going to go to Rutgers.' Then I went to Rutgers," the retired attorney said. "We had some successful years for a while. But we've never been able to maintain consistency. That's in basketball and football. We would have good teams from time to time, but never any consistency.
"They say to be patient, things will turn around. I'm tired of being patient. I'm old now."
Sanders said the problems of the past year have hurt the university's image on and off the field. When Rutgers graduates meet, that's always a topic of conversation. Like most, he feels the move to the Big Ten will help the school.
Rutgers fielded a young team in football so they will have a chance to develop next year.
Jordan and the basketball team, 6-7 heading into a New Year's Day game vs. Temple, are struggling, which isn't a surprise since they were picked to finish last in the American Athletic Conference preseason poll.
Jordan did not get much of a chance to recruit after being hired in April, and he has used several lineups looking for the right combination. His team should be better next year with the addition of Mike Williams, a talented shooting guard from Bishop Loughlin in New York City, and forward Greg Whittington, who was dismissed by Georgetown after being ruled academically ineligible. He averaged 12.1 points and 7.0 rebounds last season.
Freelance writer Jim Hague in Newark, N.J., contributed to this report.