By TOM CANAVAN
PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Incoming athletic director Julie Hermann must win over supporters of Rutgers’ sports programs after a recent run of embarrassments and controversies made the Scarlet Knights the punch line of late-night shows.
Several backers said over the past two days that while they believe donations to the athletic department might take an initial hit because of the blunders made in the aftermath of the firing of men’s basketball coach Mike Rice, they feel boosters will resume contributing.
While still upset about the forced resignation of popular former athletic Tim Pernetti, the Rutgers faithful want to put the controversy behind them and look forward to joining the Big Ten in 2014.
“I absolutely feel all the donors will come back,” said Dr. Michael Kerner, a Springfield-based gastroenterologist who attended Rutgers and is a season ticket holder for both football and basketball. “Maybe not all, but the overall majority. No one wants to hurt the teams. People at some point will move on.”
Hermann, who spent three days on the Rutgers campus this past week visiting coaches, administrators and Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany, is keenly aware that fundraising is going to be one of her biggest concerns in the new job. The boosters were firmly entrenched in Pernetti’s corner.
“When I was awarded the job, I was told that would be a tough challenge and I believe it is going to be a tough challenge,” Hermann said Wednesday. “Has it been made harder? No doubt. Am I going to have to work double-time to connect with the people who are passionate about Rutgers? I am.”
Hermann had dinner with some big boosters Thursday and made a good impression by all accounts.
Rutgers grad Dr. Gerald Costa, a surgeon and hospital administrator, believes donations to the school probably will drop in the short term.
“If a company makes a bad product or toys that Hasbro makes are faulty, what’s the bottom line? Stocks drop and income starts drying up. She (Hermann) has to prove herself. I think she will,” said Costa, who plans to continue to contribute.
Still, there is work to be done.
Lou DeFalco, an accountant who attended Rutgers and lives in Scotch Plains, was upset with the decision to push Pernetti out. He noted that the former AD orchestrated Rutgers’ entry into the Big Ten, sold the naming rights to the stadium and had increased fundraising.
DeFalco said Pernetti followed all the university’s protocols in handing the Rice situation and never attempted to “sweep anything under the rug.”
“They made a decision and then they rolled up on the wrong people,” DeFalco said.
The athletic department has seemingly tripped over its own feet for the past 2½ months since the broadcasting of a videotape showing Rice physically and emotionally abusing his players during his three seasons as coach.
It caused university President Robert Barchi to review Pernetti’s handling of the allegations that surfaced late last year and his decision to suspend Rice for three games, fine him and order anger management counseling.
Barchi quickly fired Rice and forced Pernetti and the university’s interim chief counsel to resign along with an assistant basketball coach. Despite calls for his resignation, Barchi survived.
That wasn’t the end, though. After Eddie Jordan was hired to replace Rice, the university made the mistake of saying he graduated when he didn’t.
Even the hiring of the first woman to be Rutgers’ athletic director was a mess when it was revealed that volleyball players Hermann coached at Tennessee in 1996 complained she abused them verbally and emotionally when she coached there. Hermann admitted she made mistakes as a coach but denied abusing her players.
Rutgers also took fire for not thoroughly vetting Hermann about the volleyball issues and a sexual discrimination lawsuit at Louisville before signing her to a five-year, $2.25 million contract May 15.
“It makes the leadership of the school look like they’re bumbling all the time and have an agenda, and I don’t know what that agenda is,” said DeFalco, who graduated in 1969. “Hopefully, this gets behind us and hopefully, she’ll do a job. But at a time of need, where we had momentum — there was fundraising, there was enthusiasm — we now have to start all over again. We made a commitment to the Big Ten, and if we don’t raise the capital to improve the RAC and get this place going in the right direction rapidly, we are going to get into the Big Ten with a lot question marks.”
DeFalco, who described himself as “not a top donor,” said he will continue to give to Rutgers annually and attend games.
“I think the school heals itself,” DeFalco said. “It moves forward. It’s still Rutgers. I still love going to the games. I still like to see them win and move forward. I am proud of the school. I am proud of the achievements of the football program — both the athletic perspective and the academic perspective. The school has a lot of positive things going for it. There is an integrity there. It’s just all these peripheral distractions that hurt.”
Costa, who got his degree in 1979, hopes the problems of the spring will be a distant memory in the fall.
“The important thing for me as an alum is that we get off to a good start in August and September,” Costa said.