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Rutgers president needs reality check

By Steve Politi, Special to CNN
updated 3:42 PM EDT, Wed May 29, 2013
Rutgers University President Robert Barchi introduces Julie Hermann as the school's new athletic director on May 15.
Rutgers University President Robert Barchi introduces Julie Hermann as the school's new athletic director on May 15.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Steve Politi: How could Rutgers hire anyone with a questionable coaching background?
  • Athletic director Julie Hermann had promised new era at Rutgers after Mike Rice debacle
  • Politi: Sports shape the public image of a school and dominate media attention
  • Politi asks how Rutgers president didn't understand reach of an athletics scandal

Editor's note: Steve Politi is a sports columnist for The Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey. Follow him on Twitter: @StevePoliti

(CNN) -- Robert Barchi believed he had much more important business to deal with at Rutgers, and in many ways, he's probably right. He is overseeing a massive merger between the university and the state's medical schools, one that will shape higher education in New Jersey for generations.

But now there was an issue involving a videotape of his basketball coach. This was early December, just after Rutgers had received a much-celebrated invitation to the Big Ten Conference. The tape contained clips of Mike Rice throwing basketballs at his players, shoving them and cursing at them, and using a homophobic slur.

When it was given to ESPN months later, it dominated the airwaves for a week and sparked a scandal that rocked the Rutgers athletic department and, for many alums, disgraced the school.

The tape was toxic. The tape overshadowed everything Barchi was trying to accomplish on the New Brunswick, New Jersey, campus. But he never watched that tape until after it aired.

Steve Politi
Steve Politi

"It was a revelation," Barchi said a few weeks later, "that the intensity of the response, both within the community, within the state and nationally on this very important and very serious issue could totally swamp out all of the other issues we're trying to deal with and color everything else we're doing."

Revelation isn't the right word. Reality is. Barchi isn't the first university president -- and he won't be the last -- to learn how a scandal in college athletics can shape his administration or, for some, end it entirely.

That's what happened at Penn State when Graham Spanier was forced to resign in November 2011 after his weak response to the scandal involving former football coach Jerry Sandusky. Sandusky was arrested and charged with 52 counts of sexual abuse of young boys.

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As another Big Ten school, Ohio State, dealt with an NCAA scandal involving rules violations with its longtime coach Jim Tressel, university President Gordon Gee was asked if he considered making a change in his football program. He famously responded, "I'm just hoping the coach doesn't dismiss me," a one-liner he came to regret when Tressel was later forced to resign.

What happened at Rutgers was nowhere close to those levels. Still, it should serve as a reminder to all college presidents that sports, while a small part of the university mission as a whole, are a huge factor in shaping the public image of a school and dominate media attention.

Barchi went from a mostly anonymous administrator, an acclaimed neuroscientist who became the 20th president at Rutgers during an important time in its history, to an embattled leader listening to calls for his dismissal from sports columnists, politicians and faculty.

That, he admitted, was frustrating.

"I guess I learned that this is one area that I have to be involved with process right from the beginning," he said, "that I have to understand that the processes are in place and being followed from the beginning and not assume that they're in place, and I have to be fully sensitive to the multiplier and how easily the game knob gets turned up on this, and spillover on everything else we're trying to do."

It was a lesson he kept learning. Barchi fired Rice and forced out athletic director Tim Pernetti. He promised a thorough background check on his choices to replace both men but then was further embarrassed when the website Deadspin.com uncovered that new basketball coach Eddie Jordan did not have a degree from the university, as his official bio claimed.

That was small potatoes in comparison to the story that broke involving his new athletic director. Julie Hermann had promised a "new day" when she was hired in April, vowing that "there's no one that doesn't agree about how we treat young people with respect and dignity and build trust" at Rutgers.

But she had, herself, been an abusive coach at Tennessee, according to a dozen former players interviewed by The Star-Ledger, accused of many of same things that got Rice fired. Hermann countered that, while she was a "super intense" coach, she was never abusive.

Then, two days later, The New York Times first reported that Hermann was at the center of a sex discrimination suit at Louisville, where she worked for 16 years as a senior administrator. A jury initially awarded $300,000 to an assistant track coach in the case, but a Kentucky appeals court later overturned the verdict. Barchi received a vote of confidence from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who declared that hiring Hermann was "not my call" and that he was "confident in President Barchi's judgment" on his weekly radio show.

But how could Rutgers hire anyone with a questionable coaching background after the Rice debacle? And how did the university fail to contact any of these former players through what was supposed to be a thorough vetting process?

The story again painted Rutgers as a laughingstock. The headline on ESPN.com late Tuesday declared, "Rutgers back to being a punchline," while SI.com wondered, "Does Rutgers even know how to run an athletic department?"

The real question: How did Barchi fail to understand the reach of a college athletics scandal? The university president, like many before him on other campuses, found out the hard way.

"I regret that I did not ask to see this video," Barchi said when the Rice scandal broke. The satellite trucks were lined up in front of his office, and much to his chagrin, nobody wanted to talk about that historic merger with the medical schools.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Steve Politi.

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