By TOM CANAVAN
AP Sports Writer
PISCATAWAY, N.J. — While Mike Rice’s abusive and homophobic actions as Rutgers basketball coach caused a scandal that brought the university under a national microscope this spring, a number of Scarlet Knights fans felt the fired 44-year-old probably deserved another shot at coaching and the chance to show that he has changed.
The fans expressed the opinion Friday night before the Scarlet Knights men’s basketball program kicked off a new era under coach Eddie Jordan, a former point guard who took Rutgers to its only Final Four in 1976 and later coached three NBA teams.
It also came on the same night Rice talked about his scandal on ABC’s 20/20.
The fans were clearly happy that Jordan was taking over a program that has not been to the NCAA tournament since 1991 and is now in the fledgling American Athletic Conference.
“We are positioned last in the league so we have nowhere to drop and everything to gain,” said John Burns of Basking Ridge, a St. John’s graduate who become a Rutgers fans after his son enrolled roughly 15 to 20 years ago.
The fans did not condone the actions of Rice, who threw basketballs at players and yelled homophobic slurs at them during practice. However, they felt he probably wasn’t doing anything other coaches haven’t done. He just got caught when a disgruntled member of his staff released a videotape to ESPN after not being re-hired.
The fans also felt athletic director Tim Pernetti was made the scapegoat for not firing him right away. Pernetti suspended him for three games, fined him $75,000 and had him take anger management counseling.
Rice finished the season but could not survive the videotape release.
“Mike was repentant,” said Burns, who is a season ticket-holder with his wife, Joan. “He may have been on the road to becoming a model of breaking the pattern. I talked to other people who have been around college basketball who felt Mike got a raw deal. If you are going to give the guy a second chance, give him a second chance. He was doing well with that and then got fired.”
Glenys and Bob Manfre of Hillsborough came to Jordan’s debut at the last minute, but made sure they videotaped the 20-20 show with Rice. They had seen a brief preview in the morning.
“It looks like he has been through hell and back,” Bob Manfre said. “There were tears flowing down and he was choking up. It looks like he is coaching his daughter’s team now and getting into coaching. In this country everybody deserves a second chance. If someone gets a second chance and they are sincere about it and they, so to speak ‘pay their dues and rehabilitate in the right way’ you have to wish the guy the best of luck.”
His wife said Rice will be the only one who knows whether he is fixing his problems.
Howard Berkowitz of Bound Brook, whose son also attended Rutgers, said everyone who watched the Scarlet Knights knew Rice was a little over the top in his coaching approach for years. He had even been to practices and saw him work.
“I remember his first game,” Berkowitz said. “He took off his coat after a couple of minutes and threw it. You knew he was volatile. Unfortunately I think he gets a bad rap. He went over the top, but most coaches can be like that. Was he excessive? Yeah, he was excessive. “
Berkowitz also would mind seeing Rice get another shot.
“I like to see everyone get a second chance,” he said. “If after your first mistake you were done for the rest of your life we’d have a lot of people sitting on the sideline.”
Having Jordan on the sidelines for the Scarlet Knights was another story.
“I do like the choice,” Glenys Manfre said. “He brings back good things, and I think people think he is good for the program considering all the things that went on. He’s pretty steady. He’s been around and been at a higher level than most and he should help the program.”