PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) — Two Rutgers basketball players on Mike Rice’s team say the fired coach wasn’t the abusive tyrant he appears to be on a widely viewed video that ultimately cost him his job.
“You can’t let those individual moments define what he was,” junior forward Wally Judge said during a telephone interview Thursday. “In my past two years, me being an older guy and being under other coaches, I have grown from the moment I stepped in these doors, not only as a player but also as a person because of how he has treated me.”
Sophomore forward Austin Johnson agreed.
“He did a lot for us off the court, academically, socially,” he said during a separate telephone conversation. “I have to say I enjoyed my time, even it was an emotional rollercoaster.”
Rice was fired Wednesday, the day after a video aired on ESPN showing him shoving, grabbing and throwing balls at players in practice and using gay slurs.
“I feel if people had a chance to see the other portions of practice, or had been at practice, their judgment would not be as severe,” Johnson said. “I am not saying what he did wasn’t wrong, because I do believe it was wrong. But it is also tough because it was a highlight reel of his worst moments.
“I never expected for this to escalate as fast as it did,” Johnson said. “We have to deal with this and it’s new for a lot of the younger guys.”
Judge believes some of those moments come across worse on camera than they really were.
“Honestly, a lot of the things that have been seen have been taken out of context. A lot of things that aren’t seen are when we grab him and kid around,” Judge said. “Like I said before, when people ask me why did I play for him, I told them ‘He’s a players’ coach.’
“Mike was almost like a big brother. He would get on the floor with us and go through drills with us. He made it fun. When you have a big brother-type of figure, you know you can play around like that. I have grabbed Mike and put him in a headlock and we joke around and kid. That was the type of relationship he built with his players.”
Eric Murdock, former director of player development at Rutgers, put together the video that showed clips of several different practices over three years. In November, he showed it to athletic director Tim Pernetti. The following month, Rice was suspended three games for improper conduct, fined $75,000 and required to take anger management classes.
Like the two Rutgers players, Pitt guard Travon Woodall also defended Rice, who recruited him when he was an assistant coach there.
“They are going at my man Mike Rice too hard,” Woodall tweeted. “He’s the reason I came to Pitt.”
Woodall later added Rice is “not the only coach to put his hands on a player, or talk the way he did.”
Murdock played in the NBA and was viewed in the program as someone who could mentor players. His contract was not renewed.
“I have a lot of respect for him. When he was here, he was somebody I would talk to because he knew of my aspirations for playing at the next level and he was a guy who had done it,” Judge said. “He was a great guy to talk to. As far as this situation goes, I understand everything that is going on; I can’t necessarily be mad at him, but it’s been blown out of proportion. There are certain ways of going about things and this wasn’t the way.”
Rice left Pitt to coach at Robert Morris before landing at Rutgers, where his record was 44-51 over three seasons. He posted a 16-38 mark in the Big East, after going 73-31 in three seasons at Robert Morris. The Scarlet Knights went 15-16 this season and 5-13 in the league.
Rice’s assistant, Jimmy Martelli, who was with him at Robert Morris, resigned Thursday.
Judge, meantime, insisted Rice wasn’t a “villain.”
“He wasn’t a guy we hated or despised,” Judge said. “After practice, we would all go in the locker room and laugh. It was never a sad face or a hung head. What he did was he separated the court and he separated life. When we were on the court, we were on the court and locked in. That’s why you see so many intense moments because he was so locked in on turning this program around. When we got in the locker room we were a family. We laughed.”
Johnson hopes Rutgers’ next coach can bring success to a program that hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1991.
“I feel like winning solves everything,” he said. “If we can get someone in and change the culture, I feel like all this stuff will be forgotten.”
Said Judge: “We don’t want a white-collar, clean-cut guy. We want somebody who understands us and will push us every day, like Rice did.”