BRIDGEWATER, N.J. -- All Eric Murdock says he wanted to do was take a morning off to attend a summer basketball camp at his son's high school.
Eric Murdock Jr. is a star senior point guard at Bridgewater-Raritan High School, the alma mater of his father, a nine-year former NBA player who is a beloved hoops legend in central New Jersey. "My son's worked so hard," says Murdock, 44, "and I just wanted to go, talk to his teammates and recognize him -- you know, do this for him."
The camp was June 26, 2012, the last week of the month and the final week of Murdock's second one-year, $70,000 contract with Rutgers as its basketball team's director of player development. Basketball coach Mike Rice, who was running his own camp at the time, told Murdock he did not want him to go his son's camp, Murdock says.
But Murdock attended his son's camp, anyway; it took an hour and "it meant everything" to his son, he now says. But the commitment at his son's school made Murdock miss a one-hour "individual skills" session of Rice's summer basketball camp, run by Coach Rice LLC, a private company owned by Mike Rice.
Later that day, Rice called Murdock. "Before I could get the words out, Rice flipped out, shouted at me, told me I was fired and hung up," Murdock recalls. "That's the problem with Rice -- you can't talk to him."
Murdock says he repeatedly tried to call back Rice, but the coach refused to speak with him. The next day, Murdock says he talked by phone for about 30 minutes with Tim Pernetti, the now-departed Rutgers athletic director who had hired Rice in 2010. Pernetti and Murdock had a solid relationship. "We were always good, me and Tim," Murdock says. "He'd come to the gym, and because I wasn't technically a coach, I wasn't allowed on the floor. And he'd say, 'Off the floor, man' -- you know, half-kidding -- before he left the gym."
Murdock says that during that conversation, he told Pernetti for the first time that Rice had mistreated his players, which had caused some players to transfer. Pernetti "didn't even ask me to explain what I meant," Murdock recalls. "He just said, 'You and Mike will work this out.'"
Pernetti said that on the following Monday, July 2, he would arrange a meeting between Rice and Murdock to attempt to broker a peace agreement. The implication, from Murdock's point of view, is that perhaps he would get his job back. But the meeting, which was scheduled, never happened. Instead, on that same day, a letter was written to Murdock by Janine M. Purcaro, chief financial officer of Rutgers: "Dear Eric: Please allow this letter to serve as official notification that your contract that expired on June 30, 2012 will not be renewed. Your last day in the office was June 29, 2012."
The letter put an official end to Murdock's two years at Rutgers, and it began an eight-month odyssey that culminated this week with the firing of Rice and questions about the judgment of Pernetti and university president Robert Barchi. Questions also have been raised about the motives of Murdock, who has been portrayed as a money-chasing, disgruntled former employee who tried to extort the university for silence and, alternatively, as a whistleblowing hero who should be hailed for his speaking up on behalf of the players.
Pernetti and Barchi declined through a Rutgers spokesman to comment for this story. Pernetti also did not return numerous messages left on his cellphone in recent days. Rice, reached at home, also declined comment. Murdock was interviewed by "Outside the Lines" this past weekend and again this week, but on Wednesday, after Rice's firing, he said he would have no further comment. He is expected to file a wrongful termination lawsuit against Rutgers on Friday.
There is disagreement over whether Murdock was fired or simply did not have his contract renewed. On "Outside the Lines" and other media outlets this week, Pernetti insisted that Murdock was not fired. His contract simply wasn't renewed. Same thing, Murdock says. "I was fired, terminated, for speaking up about Mike Rice," Murdock now says. After that happened this past July, Murdock called a local lawyer. He then made plans with a friend to open a local restaurant. And while his lawyers were talking with Rutgers officials about a potential settlement that was never finalized, Murdock began mulling over breaking the locker room code of silence and telling the world about the real Mike Rice.
Rutgers' strange basketball past
When it comes to the behavior of its head basketball coaches, Rutgers University, the largest state college in New Jersey, has had a bizarre and shameful history. Kevin Bannon was fired in 2001 after media reported that two players and a manager ran wind sprints in the nude after a 1997 free throw shooting contest. Gary Waters resigned after the 2006 season after missing one of the team's games that season to attend a Hall of Fame ceremony at Kent State. Rice's predecessor was Fred Hill Jr., who was let go in 2010 after an incident at a Rutgers baseball game in which he shrieked at Pittsburgh coaches after the game and was told not to attend any more games. When Hill disobeyed that order, he was let go.
After Hill's dismissal, Pernetti, a former television executive and the newly hired athletic director at Rutgers, had the opportunity to make a splashy hire intended to put that decade of unpleasantness behind the university. Briefly, Bobby Knight's name was dropped as a possible candidate for the job. A Rutgers source says that Knight had expressed interest. But Pernetti passed on hiring Knight and turned his attention to Mike Rice.
At the time, Rice was the coach of Robert Morris, the small university outside Pittsburgh that was a two-time Cinderella story after twice making the NCAA tournament. At Robert Morris, Rice had compiled a 73-31 record and a 46-8 conference record. Pernetti liked Rice's recruiting ties to New Jersey and Pittsburgh.
But Rice, a Fordham graduate, had been passed over for the head-coaching job at his alma mater, and at Seton Hall, which also had been in the market for a coach. A Rutgers source now says, "These should have been red flags. His own school wouldn't hire him? Why was that?"
Pernetti interviewed Rice for five hours. During that conversation, Pernetti asked a lot of questions about Rice's reputation for possessing a "fiery" temperament. There had been rumors of brawls between coaches and players at Robert Morris. Pernetti said this week that he was satisfied at the time by Rice's assurances of professionalism.
Pernetti introduced Mike Rice as Rutgers' next coach in May 2010. Rice signed a five-year contract estimated to be worth about $3 million. In more than one story about the hire, Rice's passion and fiery edge were mentioned as intangibles that Pernetti valued.
"I think Rutgers is on its way to a new era in basketball," said John Russo, then a member of the board of governors.
Murdock a silent witness for months
The locker room code of silence stretches from the head coach and assistants to the players, managers and hangers-on. What goes on in locker rooms, on practice floors, almost always stays there. Assistants depend on head coaches for their jobs; players depend on coaches for their scholarships. Rarely is the code of silence broken.
After Rice was hired, it was Murdock's idea to try to land a job at Rutgers. He didn't know Mike Rice. But the job made sense for Murdock at this stage of his life; the gym would be a 20-minute drive from his Bridgewater home. Within five minutes of talking with Rice, Murdock says he was offered the job.
"It was the perfect position for me," Murdock says. "I wasn't doing it for the money … I wasn't trying to become a coach in college. I would be helping kids learn to play basketball. It was perfect."
As the Rutgers director of player personnel, Murdock wasn't technically a coach. His job was to help the student-athletes, motivate them, accompany them to lunch and dinner, and just be there to support them.
Murdock says he got an initial read on Rice's temperament soon after joining the staff.
In the summer of 2010, Murdock joined Rice at a summer camp attended by children ages 10 through 12. A few kids came into the gym late. "So now [Rice] feels he has a need to embarrass these kids in front of other campers," Murdock says. "And then he noticed that they have on flip-flops. So he looks down, and he said, 'Flip-flops are for f----ts. Flip-flops are for f----ts.' I mean, in front of 10-year-old kids."
Rice brought that same kind of homophobic language and abrasive style into the Rutgers gym, videos show. At the first or second practice, Murdock recalled Rice calling him and another coach "dumb motherf----s" in front of the team. That was just the beginning. At those early practices, Rice routinely blew up at his players, hurling basketballs at them from point-blank range, kicking them, shoving them, and shrieking homophobic and misogynistic epithets into their faces. Murdock remembers often shooting a look at the other coaches. "It was like, 'Whoa, can you believe this?'"
The driving force for Rice, according to Murdock, was money via a contract extension: "That's what it was all about is money. … I think that's the reason why he treated these players like they were robots: This kid can't help me win, I'm going to get the next kid in there."
But Murdock says he did little more than have "sidebar discussions," with players and the assistant coaches about Rice's behavior, over two years. Murdock says he and others brought their concerns about the coach to the team's most senior assistant, David Cox. Murdock says Cox said he talked with Rice, and it appeared at times that he did, as Rice's behavior would improve for short periods of time, Murdock says.
But he says he watched as Rice's tactics sapped the players of their energy and enthusiasm. "It did the opposite of what he wanted it to do," Murdock says. One player, a sharpshooting guard, stopped shooting over the course of five games to protest Rice's treatment, Murdock says. Rice piled homophobic slurs on Gil Biruta, a Lithuanian-born fan favorite who ended up transferring to Rhode Island. "His nickname was basically 'Lithuanian f----t,'" Murdock says. "He really hurt that kid, set him back." He adds that he now feels guilty he didn't do more or say more sooner.
Whatever concerns Murdock had about Rice at the time, he kept them within the basketball family. At a Rutgers fundraising dinner in May 2011, a Rutgers alumnus said he sat next to Murdock for two hours. "He had nothing but good things to say about Mike Rice," the alum says. "Maybe you'd expect that. He was being a team player. But I was surprised this week to see this was all brought forward by Eric Murdock."
The investigation of Rice begins
Pernetti insists that after hearing the allegation about Rice from Murdock in late June 2012, he launched a wide-ranging and exhaustive investigation that lasted months.
"In the summer," Pernetti said Tuesday, "we went through a series of discussions with our men's basketball staff, current and former players, including all the support staff in and around men's basketball from academic support to people on the inside, outside, all the way down the line."
But four former players now tell "Outside the Lines" that they were never questioned by Pernetti about Rice's treatment. A fifth player could not recall being asked about Rice. Murdock also says there was no follow-up communication from Pernetti, but a person familiar with the investigation said that Murdock had been interviewed by Rutgers' outside counsel.
Pernetti said Tuesday that Rice's December suspension was appropriate for a "first offense." Yet he also said that when Murdock initially expressed concerns about Rice, it was not the first time as athletic director that he had heard about Rice's coaching tactics.
"Prior to Eric Murdock having any discussions with anybody about this … you know, there were things that, in practices and games," Pernetti said on "Outside the Lines" Tuesday. "And you know, it's not unlike how I would deal with any other head coach, where we sit down and discuss the approach, and making sure we are creating the right environment around our student-athletes. But, this matter was not ignored, it was dealt with, and the minute we were presented information and facts to back that up, we dealt with it."
As Pernetti began his summertime inquiry, Murdock's lawyer, Raj Gadhok, wrote a letter to Rutgers and soon afterward began discussions about Murdock's departure from the team. Gadhok complained, for one thing, that Rice's "firing" of Murdock was over a dispute about attendance at his own camp and not an official Rutgers event. On July 16, Rice wrote an $800 check to Murdock, paid by Coach Rice LLC, for the camps his assistant had worked in June.
"A week before he fired me, [Rice] gave me a great review," Murdock says. "He told me how important I was to the kids and how much he appreciated what I had done." A brochure for Rice's July camp included appearances by Murdock, which Murdock says he took as an indication the university was planning to re-sign him to another one-year deal before his dispute over the unaffiliated Rutgers camp with Rice.
In the ensuing weeks, Pernetti would suddenly field an incredible opportunity that offered the chance to change the future of Rutgers athletics. On a September morning, Pernetti's phone rang and it was Jim Delany, the commissioner of the Big Ten Conference. "We should talk," Delany told him.
A trove of practice videos
At every Rutgers practice, a team manager sits several rows up in the bleachers with a video camera and records the plays. The video is of the action and is intended to help the coaches; the camera is usually stopped after the action stops. The camera that caught Rice bullying players -- rocketing balls at their feet, backs and heads, pushing them, shoving them, shrieking homophobic slurs at them -- all happened before the camera was turned off after each stop in the action. "That's what people don't understand," Murdock says. "It often got worse after the camera was shut off."
After each practice, each coach was given a copy of the practice DVD to watch and study. Murdock had some of those DVDs, but his lawyers decided to file a public records request with Rutgers for all of the DVDs compiled in the two years Murdock was employed there. It took several months for Murdock's lawyers to receive more than 300 DVDs.
This past fall, Murdock painstakingly reviewed many of the recordings, marking the time of bad behavior by Rice on the DVD. He turned over the DVDs to a friend who does videography. On a 30-minute DVD, Murdock's friend strung together a lowlight reel of Rice's abuse. The intention was to bring the video to Pernetti to prove to him what Murdock had told him in the summer, Murdock and his lawyer say.
All the while, Murdock's lawyer had discussions with Rutgers lawyers about a settlement. A news report this week said Murdock had demanded $2 million, but a letter from Murdock's attorneys obtained by ESPN on Thursday shows that the figure was instead $950,000. Both sides were always far apart in their settlement discussions. Sources say Rutgers didn't budge from its highest offer of $70,000 -- one year of Murdock's salary.
The Big Ten call consumed Pernetti
Throughout October and November, Pernetti was busy attempting to seal the deal to get Rutgers into the Big Ten. It was a frantic and all-consuming process; according to some reports, Pernetti and Delany, the Big Ten commissioner, spoke nearly every day. Murdock's lawyers say they were scheduled to sit down in mid-November with Pernetti and several other Rutgers officials to show the videotape of Rice, but the meeting was postponed by Rutgers.
On Nov. 20, Rutgers officially announced its acceptance by the Big Ten, which would mean as much as $25 million in additional annual revenue for Rutgers. "A perfect marriage," President Barchi said at the news conference. By winning Rutgers' entry into the Big Ten, Pernetti was suddenly the university's "golden boy," a Rutgers source said this week.
Pernetti's meeting with Murdock and his lawyers had been postponed until Nov. 26. In a conference room that morning, Pernetti met with Murdock and his lawyers. The athletic director was joined by a Rutgers lawyer and several other university officials. As he silently watched the images of Rice physically and verbally abusing his players, Pernetti was "shocked -- absolute disbelief," Murdock recalls. Murdock and his lawyers say Pernetti said he would look into the matter and get back to them.
After the meeting, Pernetti said he immediately notified Barchi about the matter. And on Nov. 27, Pernetti hired "an outside investigator" to look into the matter. That investigator -- John Lacey of Connell Foley LLC -- is listed at the Rutgers website as an executive committee member of Rutgers School of Law.
Pernetti said of this second investigation, "We talked to everybody in the program." Four former players spoken to by "Outside the Lines" said they were never interviewed by Pernetti or by the outside investigator about Rice.
On Dec. 13, Pernetti announced that Rice would be suspended for three games and fined $50,000. The penalties "followed an internal investigation that revealed abusive, profane language used by Rice toward his players and an incident during his first or second season in which Rice threw basketballs at some players' heads during practice."
On Dec. 27, Barry A. Kozyra, Murdock's attorney, sent a two-page letter to Rutgers, which was obtained by ESPN, seeking $950,000 for wrongful termination:
"While we believe that the recent suspension and fine of Mr. Rice and his enrollment in anger management and future monitoring of his conduct (as we suggested) was a small step in the right direction, it is unfathomable to think that Mr. Rice's employment with the University continues while Mr. Murdock remains unemployed for simply having done the right thing.
"We are willing to give your clients until the close of business on Friday, January 4, 2013, to address final resolution of this matter. Otherwise, we have already prepared a Complaint and will file suit without further notice. To resolve claims for damages inclusive of attorney fees and costs, Mr. Murdock is willing to accept $950,000.00."
Pernetti's review on Nov. 26 of the the 30-minute video -- and the hundreds of hours of video obtained by "Outside the Lines" -- show Rice hurling basketballs at his players dozens of times, hundreds of incidents of expletives and slurs, and dozens of incidents of Rice shoving or pushing players. Clips from that video -- and the extra hours that "Outside the Lines" is reviewing -- also show assistant coach Jimmy Martelli acting and speaking in a similar manner.
"It's a difficult situation, certainly," Pernetti told reporters Tuesday. "I was made aware of some things in the last couple of weeks. We commenced a pretty thorough and lengthy investigation, and this was the result of that investigation. There was obviously some things that are not to the Rutgers standard that we evaluated."
Pernetti told reporters he spoke with Martelli about the behavior, but it's unclear if any disciplinary action was taken. During Rice's suspension, Rice was forbidden from entering the Rutgers gym. He returned on Dec. 29 to prepare his team for Rutgers' first Big East game, at Syracuse. He hated the hiatus, although it did mean he was able to go Christmas shopping with his family, he told reporters. He seemed chastened and pledged that he had change his ways, saying, "My favorite quote is -- you can't control what happens to you 100 percent of the time, but you can control how you respond."
When Rice returned, Rutgers was 9-2, but the Big East schedule had not yet begun. The Scarlet Knights went 5-13 in the tough Big East and ended the season 15-16. It was Rice's third straight losing season. Murdock said he heard from some of the players that Rice had not changed much in practices in the past few months.
Pernetti said Rice would be monitored during practice, but he has not identified the monitors. Murdock says he had heard it was done by a rotation of secretaries working for the athletic department. It is also unknown how many courses of anger management training and counseling were taken by Rice.
After the season, Pernetti gave a vote of confidence to Rice, telling The Newark Star-Ledger in March, "Of course he's coming back."
Conflicting accounts of how Rice was handled
On Tuesday afternoon, "Outside the Lines" aired clips of the video first shown to Pernetti on Nov. 26. Aware that ESPN had been working on a story for this week, Rutgers officials and Pernetti hastily gathered local reporters and showed them the same tape; ESPN wasn't invited to the session. Within minutes, the video clips of Rice aired by ESPN went viral. 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! C'mon".
That afternoon, Pernetti appeared on "Outside the Lines" and then later on WFAN's Mike Francesa Show, where he said he had shared the tape with the Rutgers president in November.
But it is unclear whether that is true. Although a Rutgers source says Pernetti and Barchi spoke frequently about the matter in late November and December, Barchi -- according to a Wednesday statement from the university -- did not first watch the Rice videotape until Tuesday.
Rice was fired midmorning Wednesday, and Martelli resigned later. Outside his home, Rice told WABC-TV that he was sorry he had let down Rutgers, his players, the fans and his family, which he said is "sitting in their house because of the fact that their father was an embarrassment to them."
In a statement, Pernetti explained that he and Barchi agreed in December that a suspension of Rice was appropriate. "Robert Barchi and I worked closely together when this issue came up," he said. "We worked closely together with members of the board. He's a lot like me. We deal with everything in the wide open. We had the same concerns but we felt strongly that the actions we took was important to take and deal with it."
In an interview with Channel 12 in New Jersey, Pernetti had promised "transparency" with the public about how he had handled Rice's punishment, in December and this week. But initially, Rutgers refused to release the name of the "independent investigator" hired by the university on Nov. 27. Late Wednesday, a Rutgers official said it was John Lacey of Connell Foley LLP.
Reached late Wednesday in his office, Lacey said he could not comment without the permission of Rutgers. His 52-page report has still not been made public.
By Wednesday evening, 13 Rutgers University professors demanded the resignation of Barchi over his response to Rice. In a letter to the school's trustees and board of governors, the professors said that Barchi's handling of the "homophobic and misogynistic abuse" by Rice was "inexcusable" and that he had to go. On Thursday afternoon, more than 50 faculty members signed a letter calling for Pernetti's dismissal; they also want Barchi to explain why Rice was not fired in November.
On Friday morning, Pernetti resigned from Rutgers, though a source told ESPN that the university had decided his future on Thursday. Rutgers' general counsel, John Wolf, also resigned this week.
Murdock hopes to move on
Eric Murdock is moving on to a life without basketball. His friends have told him that, because he broke the coaches' code, he'll never coach again. He says he's OK with that. On Friday, his lawyers are planning to file a lawsuit in Essex County against Rutgers for wrongful termination.
In the meantime, Murdock is busy preparing for the grand opening next month of his restaurant in a strip mall just off Route 22 in Raritan -- a 10-table place with a custom-built, U-shaped bar, Bose audio and a well-respected local chef. It will be named Stapleton's, after Murdock's high school basketball coach, Vaughn Stapleton, the hero of his life and of his high school pals. Driving a green pickup truck, Stapleton would show up as Murdock and his pals played ball in the Hobbstown neighborhood and hand out soda and snacks. He treated the teenagers like his own sons, Murdock and his pals say.
Eric Murdock never knew his father. His mother was a 16-year-old high school student when she became pregnant with Eric. Six months later, his mother was killed on Christmas Eve, and Murdock was raised by his maternal grandmother, who had nine children of her own.
"He was the best, the best," Murdock said of Coach Stapleton on Tuesday night at his restaurant. "We would have run through a wall for him."
Murdock said he showed a copy of the Rice tape to Gerry Stapleton, the coach's widow. "She was so sickened," Murdock says, "she couldn't sleep."
Sipping white wine with a half-dozen pals Tuesday night, Murdock stood behind the half-finished bar and surveyed his new place. He said he hopes Stapleton's can be a place where he and his friends and locals will feel at home and, at times, reminisce about his high school coach.
On the wall just next to the door, Murdock is putting up a mural of Coach Stapleton, with a brass plate engraved with his career win-loss record. And, on a flat-screen TV near the bar, Murdock says he will show videotaped images of his high school team's games, with his coach clapping and encouraging his players on an endless loop.
Reporters John Barr, Brett McMurphy and producers Greg Amante, Rayna Banks, Justine Gubar and Michael Sciallo of "Outside the Lines" contributed to this report.