For three years, Mike Rice used Robert Morris University as a career springboard, leading the Colonials' men's basketball program to back-to-back NCAA tournament berths in 2009-10 on the way to landing the head-coaching position at Rutgers University of the Big East Conference.
Wednesday, after Rutgers fired Mr. Rice because of an intense public outcry related to a practice video that surfaced on national television Tuesday showing him physically and verbally abusing players, the Robert Morris community was left with a question: Just what was going on in Moon during the time Mr. Rice roamed the sideline?
On the Robert Morris campus, there was largely silence Wednesday amid the surrounding acrimony. School officials said head coach Andy Toole, who was an assistant under Mr. Rice for three seasons, and other members of the athletic department were not available to comment.
The video of Mr. Rice shows him kicking and shoving players, screaming at them using foul language and ethnic and homophobic slurs, and hurling basketballs at them. In December, Rutgers suspended Mr. Rice for three games, fined him $75,000 and sent him to anger management counseling.
It is unclear whether Rutgers administrators had viewed the video aired Tuesday by ESPN's "Outside the Lines" when they suspended him in December. But, less than 24 hours after it surfaced, the school had seen enough.
Mr. Toole and Mr. Rice are confidants and speak one or two times a week, according to Mr. Rice, who talked with the Post-Gazette in March for a feature story about Mr. Toole.
Mr. Toole, when asked in March about Mr. Rice's earlier suspension and its effect on his own practice behavior, said:
"He's probably my best friend in the coaching world. It's a pretty cutthroat situation. I think you do some self-analysis. You think about situations. Mike and I have some similarities in terms of our intensity level, our desire to get the most out of people, to see people reach their max potential. So, yeah, you think about it, and you make sure you're in control. There's times when things aren't going well and guys aren't responding, and there's rage, and that intensity can turn difficult to manage at times.
"You have to take a step back and realize that you are coaching 20-year-old kids and just because you've chosen a life that's based on those guys and the way they handle certain situations doesn't mean they have the same passion [you do]. A lot of guys that coach have that passion, and a lot of guys that play don't live and die with it like that."
Some of Mr. Rice's former Robert Morris players have come to his aid, defending him on their Twitter accounts. One of them was Mezie Nwigwe, who played for Mr. Rice's Northeast Conference championship teams in 2009 and 2010, and told the Post-Gazette that much of the outrage is a product of out-of-context footage.
"All they're showing are highlights, that's all it is," Mr. Nwigwe said. "If they put together all of the good things he did, they could make him look like an angel."
Mr. Nwigwe looked to Mr. Rice's subpar record at Rutgers (a 16-38 mark in Big East play) and dealing with the extra pressure and scrutiny that accompanies a big-time job as reasons for why Mr. Rice's fiery personality turned into a detriment in the past three years.
Mr. Nwigwe theorized the differences could also be traced back to the players at the respective programs.
"Ego always takes a big part in things like that," Mr. Nwigwe said. "I'm sure being in the Big East, you have a big ego, especially when you have a coach coming from a smaller school. Sometimes you don't want to listen to them as much."
Though Derek Coleman never played for Mr. Rice while he was at Robert Morris, he developed a close relationship with the then-Colonials coach and would attend practices.
"Coach Rice would give you the shirt off his back," Mr. Coleman said. "They're not showing him grabbing guys and saying, 'That's what I'm talking about,' 'Great job' or 'That's what I'm looking for.' "
One former Robert Morris player, who asked not to be identified, said that, while Mr. Rice never displayed the extreme physical actions that were on the video, he would often use slurs against his players.
"He always reiterated how hard it was to win in a Division I game, so I think for us players, that was just kind of trying to get used to the things that they did as far as practice goes," he said. "But, stepping back and looking at it now, that's definitely not the way you go about anything. I think that's what's being seen."
Robert Morris athletic director Craig Coleman issued a statement Tuesday that Mr. Rice's behavior in the video was "quite unfortunate" but not indicative of his time at the school.
Mr. Rice, a Pittsburgh native, also coached at Pitt from 2006-2007 as an assistant to head coach Jamie Dixon.
"Mike is a good friend. He's a good person," Mr. Dixon said Wednesday. "As he has said, he has made some mistakes. He's a good father. The people who know him here and at Robert Morris know he's a good person. ... He made some mistakes, and I'll leave it at that."
Nationally, Mr. Rice's actions and his firing have packed the 24-hour sports news cycle.
"I was sickened by it," ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas said. "I don't know that we need to have a line of demarcation on behavior, but I think it's pretty clear for most reasonable people that there are certain things you do not do. I tend to think that [former Indianapolis Colts coach] Tony Dungy said it best ... a coach can be demanding without being demeaning. Once you get into areas of being demeaning, you are crossing that line."
He believes Mr. Rice's behavior is the exception and not the norm in college basketball.
Dick Vitale, Mr. Bilas' colleague at ESPN, agreed, saying the most important question is whether or not Rutgers president Robert Barchi and athletic director Tim Pernetti saw this exact footage back in December when they suspended Mr. Rice.
"Because if it was, I say to the president and the A.D., if they saw that video, they've got to be held accountable," Mr. Vitale said. "He deserved to be fired immediately when looking at that video. I hate to say that, but that's the fact of the matter."
On Wednesday, Mr. Rice stood outside his Little Silver, N.J., home, expressing regret and accepting responsibility for his actions.
"I've let so many people down: my players, my administration, Rutgers University, the fans," he said. "My family, who's sitting in their house just huddled around because of the fact their father was an embarrassment to them. It's troubling, but at some time maybe I'll try to explain it. But right now there's no explanation for what's on those films.
"There is no excuse for it. I was wrong. I want to tell everybody who's believed in me that I'm deeply sorry for the pain and hardship that I've caused."
Ray Fittipaldo of the Post-Gazette and The Associated Press contributed to this report. J. Brady McCollough: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter: @BradyMcCollough. Craig Meyer: email@example.com and Twitter: @craig_a_meyer. First Published April 4, 2013 4:30 AM