Rutgers’ Play for the Big Leagues

Photo: Ned Dishman/Getty Images

On the last Thursday of August, Rutgers lost its first football game of the season, falling to Fresno State 52-51 in overtime. But there were two saving graces to this particular Rutgers athletic defeat: It was close, and it occurred on the field of play.

The state university of New Jersey is currently suffering through the most ignominious institutional losing streak in the nation. It began, in April, with a video. Mike Rice, the coach of Rutgers’ middling men’s basketball team, had been caught on tape abusing his players during ­practices—calling them “fucking faggots” and hurling basketballs at their heads. Rutgers administrators had learned of the tape the previous November, when a disgruntled former member of the basketball staff showed it to them as part of his efforts to win a $950,000 settlement in a threatened wrongful-­termination lawsuit. The administrators fined Rice $50,000 and suspended him for three games; they did not give the ex-staffer the settlement he was seeking. The tape eventually found its way into the hands of ESPN. New Jersey governor Chris Christie called Rice an “animal.” LeBron James tweeted, “If my son played for Rutgers or a coach like that he would have some real explaining to do and I’m still gone whoop on him afterwards!” Rutgers president Robert ­Barchi then not only fired Rice; he forced the resignation of athletic director Tim Pernetti for not firing Rice five months earlier.

Rutgers compounded its troubles by botching the hirings of Rice’s and Pernetti’s replacements. For its next men’s basketball coach, the university turned to Eddie Jordan, a respected former NBA coach who, in the seventies, had played college ball at Rutgers. At the April press conference announcing his hiring, Jordan and his new bosses, striving for high-­mindedness, made an especially big deal about the fact that Jordan had earned his degree from the school. Except he hadn’t. The website Deadspin discovered that when Jordan left Rutgers in 1977, he was seventeen credits shy of graduating. Rutgers kept him as its coach on the technical grounds that “neither Rutgers nor the NCAA requires a head coach to hold a baccalaureate degree,” setting off another round of bad publicity.

For its next athletic director, Rutgers made an even bigger hash of things. The university appointed a 28-member search committee and hired an executive-search firm to recommend candidates. But after the firm gave the committee 47 names—all of which had been subject to vetting by the firm—the committee’s co-chair, Kate Sweeney, added one more, Julie Hermann. According to one person familiar with the search, Rutgers told the search firm that the school would handle Hermann’s vetting; Sweeney then proceeded to push Hermann’s candidacy through the process and across the finish line. On May 15, Hermann was named Rutgers’ new athletic director; Barchi hailed her as a history-making hire, the school’s first female athletic director and someone who shares a “commitment to the university’s core values, a deep concern for our student-athletes.” Eleven days later, the Newark Star-Ledger, having done the sort of vetting Rutgers did not, reported that in 1996, as the women’s volleyball coach at the University of Tennessee, Hermann had been accused by her players of the same sort of mental abuse that had just cost Mike Rice his job. Like Jordan, Hermann was allowed to keep her job, but Rutgers once again emerged with a black eye.

It was just the latest manifestation of the university’s rocky, decades-long attempt to join the upper ranks of college sports. The effort dates back to the eighties, when Sonny Werblin, a onetime owner of the New York Jets and a rich Rutgers alum, became bored with his alma mater’s football games, which were played in a stadium so small it couldn’t be seen through the trees and against the likes of Princeton, Colgate, and Lafayette. Thanks in part to Werblin’s deep pockets, Rutgers built a new, 41,500-seat football stadium and moved to the Big East Conference, where it would compete against powerhouses like Miami and Virginia Tech.

But Werblin’s pockets weren’t that deep—and Rutgers was forced to spend money it simply didn’t have to feed its athletic ambitions. Between 2003 and 2008, Rutgers’ overall athletic budget increased at double the rate of the university budget. This was made possible in part by the university, which, through student fees and its general fund, heavily subsidized the athletic department, sometimes to the tune of 40 percent of its budget. Worse, some of the athletic department’s budget wasn’t even accounted for, since it was kept hidden in off-the-books spending deals and secret contracts that were discovered by the Star-Ledger in 2008. Then–athletic director Robert Mulcahy stepped down soon after. As Mark Killingsworth, a Rutgers economist and critic of the school’s pursuit of athletic glory, notes ruefully, “We were a laughing­stock before we were a laughingstock.”

From top, 1891: Neilson Field; 2008: High Points Solution Stadium.Photo: Courtesy of Ballparks (1891); Jarrett Baker/Getty Images (2008)

And yet, despite the recent run of bad headlines, Rutgers’ athletic luck might be changing. Although Pernetti wound up losing his job in the Rice scandal, the former Rutgers football player and TV-sports executive understood the nature of big-time college sports in a way his predecessors hadn’t. After being hired to replace Mulcahy as the school’s athletic director, Pernetti monetized virtually everything about Rutgers athletics that could be monetized, whether it was the football stadium’s naming rights (sold for $6.5 million over ten years to a New Jersey IT company) or the opportunity to attend a football practice (which can be yours for a minimum annual $50,000 contribution to the Rutgers booster club). As a result, the subsidy to the athletic department, while still generous, has decreased.

Ironically, Pernetti’s greatest accomplishment came just six days before the events that would lead to his downfall. Last November, it was announced that Rutgers would join the Big Ten in 2014. While his bosses didn’t think it was possible that Rutgers, whose bowl games weren’t Orange or Rose but and New Era ­Pinstripe, would ever compete against the NCAA’s biggest schools, Pernetti knew Rutgers had something the Big Ten wanted more than a good football team: an important television market. He sold the Big Ten on the idea of access to New York’s, the last great swath of unclaimed territory in the college-sports television landscape.

It is television, more than anything else, that drives college sports these days. Rutgers’ ascension to the Big Ten—and its newfound access to the Big Ten’s television dollars—could be the cure for many of its other athletic ills. While Rutgers received $6 million to $8 million a year from the Big East, the Big Ten, its coffers fattened from its own television network, offers its member universities $24 million to $26 million in annual revenue-sharing payments. Rutgers will be able to use that money to reduce the athletic department’s subsidy and further invest in its teams and facilities.

It’s doubtful the Rutgers athletic de-partment will ever be completely self-­sufficient—or join the elite ranks of college sports. After all, only 23 of the 228 athletic departments at NCAA Division I public schools cover their expenses. But it’s now a good bet that, at the very least, Rutgers’ pursuit of athletic glory won’t be any more ignominious than anyone else’s.

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Rutgers’ Play for the Big Leagues