PAWTUCKET – In the wake of Rutgers University's Wednesday afternoon firing of men's basketball coach Mike Rice for physically and orally abusing his players, some local – and legendary – high school coaches/athletic directors chose to “weigh in” on the subject.
Rice's dismissal came at the helm of a video that news outlets nationwide carried throughout the afternoon and evening hours. It showed numerous clips of Rice rifling basketballs at players' backs, legs, etc., grabbing them by their jerseys and shoving them; he also could be heard screaming obscenities and homosexual slurs at them.
According to Associated Press reports, Rutgers Athletic Director Tim Pernetti had received a copy of the tape from a previously-fired employee, later identified as former Providence College hoop standout and NBA player Eric Murdock, back in November.
Pernetti later issued the coach a three-game suspension, a $75,000 fine and an order to attend anger management classes, but – in part because the video had gained so much notoriety – the school fired him.
“(The tape) was horrible; I can't believe they didn't fire him right away,” offered Ray McGee, the current Shea High athletic director and former hockey coach at Shea, Tolman and St. Raphael. At 64, McGee has been involved with mentoring student-athletes since the 1967-68 academic year.
“When they discovered all that information, in other words the physical and oral abuse, it's amazing they didn't level that (termination) sooner,” he added. “I mean, it's really simple: You just don't hit a kid. Coaches may fly off the handle at times, and throw a ball, but not right at a player.
“Years ago, football coaches could get away with grabbing a facemask and getting in a kid's face, but kicking somebody? No way. The first time I saw it on TV, I wasn't horrified, but I was surprised to see that kind of thing was going on. The college had all that info from the video, and all he got was a three-game suspension? That's unbelievable. Again, you just can't do that stuff to an athlete.”
George Nasuti, who has been the athletic director at Woonsocket High for 11 years now but became a coach for the first time 32 years ago, indicated he didn't witness the video until mid-afternoon Wednesday.
“I was in the gym when I saw it, and my first thought was, 'You've got to be kidding me!' In this day and age, there are coaches out there doing these kinds of things?'” he stated from his home that night. “I couldn't hear it, but I wanted to learn more about what happened.
“I've been watching it for the last couple of hours, and I saw (Rice's) apology, but I have to say there's no place for that kind of behavior at any level of sports, youth leagues right on up through the pros,” he continued. “I've seen college football practices before where the language coming out of the coaches' mouths, it takes it to a new level, and you can see it filter its way down to high school sports.
“Still, this is a good time – with this news coming out – for coaches to anaylze what's acceptable and unacceptable on a practice or playing field or court. Even if this was pro basketball, there's no place for it.”
Nasuti claimed there are times on the high school level where emotions run high, as a student-athlete may continue to make the same mistakes or isn't as respectful of a mentor as he/she should be, “but that's no excuse for abuse, be it physical or emotional. There's a fine line that can't be crossed, and we're all aware of it,” he said.
“Coaches were tough when I was playing, and you could take it to another level 40-50 years ago, but I don't think it ever went to abuse like that. He was getting away with doing things that he shouldn't have been able to, and it's a shame. I feel bad; maybe there's some kind of training coaches could get to address (those issues).
“I've been coaching a long, long time, and I never had a class about how to act in front of a group of young student-athletes, but I do think we can all learn from this,” he added. “Like I said, there's a fine line between sending a message to a player and abusing him. We all learned how act as coaches from those who coaches us, the people we looked up to; I know I had some great coaches and some bad ones, and they could be hard on you, but I never had one who took it to that next level.
“Today's athlete is a lot less emotionally tough that years and years ago. I know I've been tough on athletes; I've always believed, probably because I learned from my coaches, in the old adage, 'You've got to break them down to build them up,' but it doesn't hold true now.
“It's very unfortunate it had to happen, but – again – maybe it's good it went public. We've all experienced some level of issues with this, but in no case have I seen a coach be abusive. I've actually talked to other mentors, and I've said we need to take a lesson from what happened (at Rutgers) to deal with student-athletes in a respectful manner.”
Then there's Mo Jackson, at 66 the Shea girls' softball chief but one who also has coached high school football and track for 32 years (and youth football for 47). After his Raiders defeated Central Falls in their Division III season opener on Wednesday, he mentioned he hadn't seen the tape, so wouldn't comment directly about it.
He did say this: “If he was accused and shown physically abusing a player, you just can't do that; it's not right,” he noted. “Being a football coach, sure, I've gotten stern with a player, like when he leads a tackle with his helmet. I've got in their face and told them that they can't do that, but that's for safety reasons. I explain to him that he could get seriously hurt if he does that.
“It's like, as a parent, you tell a kid not to touch a hot stove, but he does anyway, you have to discipline him,” he added. “You don't want him to get burned, just like coaches don't want to see someone get hurt. Still, some coaches cross that line.
“If you're joking around with a guy and flip a foot at his butt, and he knows you're joking, that's one thing. If you're doing it to injure a kid, that's quite another. As a coach, you always have to remain in control.”
Jackson hesitated, then delivered a comment that spoke volumes: “Hey, the days of Bobby Knight are over.”