This is A Tale of Two Messes — well, actually three messes, but three doesn't fit the tired sports writing metaphor. Besides, I'm not sure that "mess" fully describes the inane garbage that comes out of the mouth of Ohio State president E. Gordon Gee.
It is a question, The Question, that Connecticut has a right to ask these days. Right and ripe for the state's political leaders, for the flagship university, for those who care about the state's athletic ambitions.
Save your emails and texts, Rutgers fans. We know. We know. It is sour grapes for anyone in Connecticut to ask. We know it's about the television sets. It's about being a major research university, an AAU member and being in a state contiguous to the Big Ten that leads through the Lincoln Tunnel and into New York gold.
Seeing that my dad was a proud Rutgers graduate, I promised myself that I wouldn't resort to making some stupid joke like Snooki was probably paid $32,000 once to speak at the school. Oh, wait, that really happened. Nevertheless, at this point, there aren't many folks who would argue that the school hasn't become a national punch line. Behind closed doors, the Big Ten must be kicking itself and praying for all of this to go away.
An abhorrent videotape exposed basketball coach Mike Rice for his serial verbal and physical abuse and not only cost him his job, but dragged down athletic director Tim Pernetti for not reacting nearly harshly enough. Everybody was mortified by Rice's actions, mortified enough for Pernetti, architect of the lucrative Big Ten move, to be forced to resign.
From that moment, everybody was watching Rutgers. Everybody knew the school needed to be ultra-wise, uber-transparent and cautious not hire anybody who had ever been accused of abusing athletes. But the school reacted as if nobody was watching and began showing the judgment of Snooki on a summer night at the Shore. Rutgers hired Eddie Jordan as coach and bragged that he was a Rutgers graduate. One problem: He didn't graduate.
Rutgers hired Julie Hermann as the new AD and suddenly her memory turned worse than a Rutgers fan who ever claimed the school was a Big East power. The Star-Ledger of Newark reported Hermann left her job as Tennessee volleyball coach after all the players on her 1996 team submitted a letter accusing Hermann of mental cruelty and alleging she had called them "whores, alcoholics and learning disabled." Hermann said she didn't remember the letter and denied the ugly words. She also said she didn't remember attending the wedding of her assistant coach, Ginger Hineline. Hermann was a bridesmaid! The Star-Ledger obtained a wedding video where Hermann joked that it would be hard to have a baby around the Vols' office. Well, Hineline got pregnant, got fired, filed a lawsuit and won a $150,000 verdict. When asked about it at her introductory Rutgers news conference, Hermann said, "There's no video, trust me."
Rutgers president Robert Barchi has been standing behind Hermann, although the Star-Ledger reported Saturday a series of on-campus meetings with her suddenly has been postponed. At best, Hermann is in the wrong place at the wrong time. At worst? Barchi may be an accomplished neuroscientist and neurologist, but when it comes overseeing a BCS-level school, he has come off as a neuro-nitwit.
Maybe that's what it takes to get into the Big Ten. After all, Gee, named the country's best college president by Time in 2010, certainly came off as one when a tape of him speaking to the Ohio State athletic counsel in December surfaced. Gee said this about Notre Dame and Catholics: "The fathers are holy on Sunday, and they're holy hell on the rest of the week. You just can't trust those damn Catholics on a Thursday or a Friday." When asked how to respond to SEC people who point out that the Big Ten has 14 members, he said, "You tell the SEC when they can learn to read and write, then they can figure out what we're doing." Gee said the Big Ten wanted to "make certain that we have institutions of like-minded academic integrity. So you won't see us adding Louisville." He added that the Big Ten wouldn't be adding Kentucky either. On and on the "jokes" went.
Gee has apologized to everyone and is undergoing a school-ordered "remediation plan." Still, as long as he remains one of the most effective and prolific fundraisers in the nation, he'll keep on ticking as one of the leading purveyors of the sham that is amateur athletics in the NCAA. He already has offended Poles and the Little Sisters of the Poor in the past, and that didn't stop him from keeping a job that brings him nearly $2 million annually.
In the middle of his performance at Ohio State, Gee praised Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany before adding, "We need to make certain he keeps his hands out of our pockets while we support him." Yes, it's all about the TV money, and that's why Rutgers got the Big Ten gig. Yet Connecticut has to wonder about Big Ten accounting. UConn won 11 times as many Big East championships as Rutgers [78-7, by my count]. And while there are 40 percent as many television sets in Connecticut as in New Jersey, there's no argument that Connecticut is more passionate about its state university's sports. You have to wonder if Delany regrets inheriting the Rutgers mess. You have to ask, deep down, if he wonders whether UConn would have been a better choice.
Mess II: Mark Messier Should Not Coach The Rangers
John Tortorella had to go. No, not because he was an obstinate and condescending ass in news conferences. And, no, not solely because the Rangers, supposedly built for a serious run at the Stanley Cup, underachieved in 2013 and finished one Tuukka Rask banana-peel slip from being swept by the Bruins.
Tortorella had to go because he suffocated his players, although enough of them did have sufficient oxygen remaining to tell Glen Sather exactly that in exit interviews and helped convince him to fire Torts. Tortorella suffocated his team's creativity. Tortorella suffocated his team's spirit.
Maybe he believed the Stanley Cup ring he won in 2004 with Tampa Bay was an all-powerful weapon to ward off any and all doubters. Maybe over the years, his ego and his fiery resolve had arc-welded to the point of miserable inflexibility, to the point where it became paramount that everyone adapt to him and he never had to adapt to anyone.
The strategic problem was somewhere along the line, Tortorella coached every game in a zealot's pursuit of a 0-0 victory, and anybody who didn't subscribe body and soul was himself a zero. Shot-blocking and defensive discipline were the supreme sacrifice. It didn't matter that the Rosetta Stone could be translated in the time between power-play goals. The Rangers did not appear to play with any joy. Even worse than being afraid of making mistakes, the Rangers played like they were afraid of Tortorella's wrath. And it sure didn't look as if Torts was planning to change any time this century.
Yet there's an odd thing about athletic suffocation. It can take different forms. That's why I'd argue it would be a mistake for Mark Messier to become coach, a mistake for Mess and a mistake ultimately for the Rangers.
By making famous predictions and playing with an even more famous fury, Messier is New York legend. Among the great winners in sports, I'd rank him up with Bill Russell. Yet there is a vast difference in leading as a player and enduring the unrelenting daily grind of winning, losing and coaching players with less skill and determination. In the intense glare of New York, I would argue that this would come to suffocate Messier, who previously has shown only marginal interest in coaching.
I also would argue — and this includes Wayne Gretzky, whose name also has surfaced — that it would come to suffocate his team. Look at Isiah Thomas with the Knicks. OK, Messier is twice the man Isiah Thomas is, but the point is in the most intense fishbowl in sports, it ultimately would come to be all about Messier or Gretzky in the tabloids, on the radio, in the hearts of fans and even players. Would Mess' hiring be heralded in New York as the greatest thing of earth? Sure. It would make an enormous splash. And that's the point. Why would Messier put himself in position to damage his New York legend with his own sun-blocking shadow? The Rangers already were all about the coach and that, in the end, was exactly the problem.