Christie stands by Rutgers prez, calls coach an 'animal'

Rutgers University men's basketball coach Mike Rice, who was fired Wednesday for abusive treatment of his players in his three seasons, confronts forward/center Derrick Randall during a Big East game against Seton Hall on March 8.

For full story in Tuesday's paper, click here.

Gov. Christie reiterated his support for the way the president of Rutgers handled the situation involving an abusive coach, saying he thought President Robert Barchi should have watched the video of the coach’s actions months ago but handled it appropriately once he saw it.

“He should have looked at the videotape but I don’t believe not looking at the videotape is a fireable offense,” Christie said today, adding that “the university would be hurt drastically” if Barchi left.

Christie said Barchi showed decisive leadership in firing basketball Coach Mike Rice as quickly as possible. “What parent would let this animal back in their living room to try to recruit their son after viewing this video?” Christie asked.

Christie spoke in front of reporters at the Statehouse for the first time since the video surfaced last week while Christie and his family were vacationing in Jamaica. He fielded more than a dozen questions on the topic. He was speaking both as the leader of a state in which the state university is undergoing a reputation-damaging scandal and as the father of a son, Andrew, who plays Division 1 baseball at Princeton University.

If a coach who behaved like Rice called him to recruit his son, “I’d hang up the phone,” Christie said.

Christie also said he wouldn’t have hired an outside law firm to investigate Rice’s behavior, as Rutgers did last year. “I don’t even know why they had outside counsel,” Christie said. “Fire him and let them sue you.”

Christie said he first saw the video compilation of Rice’s physically and verbally abusive behavior at 1 p.m. last Tuesday as ESPN was preparing to air it. He had arrived in Jamaica with his family 90 minutes earlier.

“So I had about an hour-and-a-half vacation -- a good hour-and-a-half though,” Christie said. “And I became engaged starting then.”

“The conduct on that tape is unacceptable for any person who is supposed to be a role model and leader for student athletes,” Christie said. “He should have been fired in November, and quite frankly should have been fired well before then.”

That’s why he agreed with the resignation of the athletic director, Tom Pernetti, he said. “I don’t know whether he knew and condoned [Rice’s behavior] or didn’t know,” Christie said. “But the fact of the matter is he was the main person charged with supervision of Coach Rice.”

Christie spoke to Pernetti when the video surfaced but did not ask him to step down. “I said, 'I want to make this really clear: I’m not calling you as governor asking you to do anything,’” Christie said. “’I’m calling you as a friend saying you need to get rid of this coach.'"

Christie said he had no issue with the payouts given to Rice and Pernetti, saying a settlement is better than a protracted court battle that could further damage Rutgers’ reputation. 

Rutgers said today that another top official – a member of the board of governors, Mark P. Hershhorn, of Media – also viewed the video back in December. Christie said “that member of the board is just as wrong as Coach Rice was in his conduct,” but he said it would be up to the Rutgers’ board of governors and the board of trustees to fire him.

By contrast. Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) is calling for Hershhorn's ouster. 

“Any trustee or member of the Board of Governors who witnessed the tape at any point before it was publicly aired, and took no action, should be removed or resign immediately,” Sweeney said in a statement. “The standard for them, or anyone in a position of authority at Rutgers, should be no different than for Mike Rice or Tim Pernetti.”

Christie said he thought Democratic calls for legislative hearings were unnecessary since Rutgers announced today it was opening an independent investigation into the matter.

“There tends to be a feeding frenzy in this kind of stuff and getting everyone’s head you can get,” Christie said. “I’m not going to participate in that.”

Legislative hearings “will get a lot of you to show up,” he said of reporters, but it "does continue the reputational damage to Rutgers.”

“I think we need to move on,” Christie said.

Democrats immediately pounced on that pronouncement, indicating that the scandal has now triggered a political fight that will likely play out in Trenton for weeks to come. Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D., Essex), said this in a statement: “The Legislature is asked to approve legislation which operationalizes the functioning and funding of Rutgers, and there are no greater champions of our state university than the members of the New Jersey Legislature. To imply that the Legislature seeks to cause ‘reputational damage’ or create a ‘circus’ atmosphere is extremely disingenuous.”