Former Husker star Eric Piatkowski spent 19 years in college and professional basketball. He endured thousands of practices with every type of coach.
Yet when he saw video clips Tuesday of the Rutgers coach hurling basketballs at players, Piatkowski witnessed something new.
“It’s appalling when you watch it,” Piatkowski said. “You’re like, wow. I’ve been in a lot of locker rooms through high school and college and the NBA. ... I’ve never, ever, ever seen anything like that happen.”
Rutgers coach Mike Rice was fired Wednesday morning, but his verbal and physical abuse remains a hot topic, even outside the basketball community.
“Obviously, any kind of action like that, that’s uncalled for,” said Nebraska football coach Bo Pelini, answering a question Wednesday after practice. “There’s no room for anything like that.”
In 1986, Pelini was a senior basketball player at Cardinal Mooney High School in Youngstown, Ohio. Five miles away, Rice was a sophomore starter at Boardman High. Common backgrounds didn’t stop Pelini from condemning Rice’s behavior.
“It was ridiculous,” Pelini said.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a coach or player who disagrees. The Rutgers practice video, compiled during a two-year period, is “like something you would’ve seen in the ’60s,” said Bellevue West coach Doug Woodard.
“I’m sure 30 years ago, 40 years ago, there were guys that threw balls at kids. But obviously, it’s not that time. That’s just not going to be tolerated in society.”
Piatkowski witnessed plenty of coaches get in a player’s face and challenge him with colorful language. But never did a coach lay his hands on a player.
How Rice’s actions stayed relatively quiet for so long is a mystery, Piatkowski said. Why didn’t players stand up for themselves? Why didn’t one confront Rice and demand that he stop?
As Woodard put it, “I can’t imagine one of those guys not hitting him. Or at a minimum taking that ball and firing it back.”
Creighton senior Grant Gibbs understands why Rutgers players didn’t cry foul.
“The truth is, being a college basketball player, you’re not really in a position to take that to anybody or to argue back,” he said. “You don’t want to be the guy who goes and tells the administration and feels like you’re snitching on your coach.”
Moreover, these players are coming straight out of high school. They don’t know what’s normal and what’s extreme.
Anthony Tolliver, the ex-Creighton forward now with the Atlanta Hawks, doesn’t condone Rice’s actions. But he suspects that players actually respected him. If they didn’t, it wouldn’t have taken an assistant — Eric Murdock — to blow the whistle.
What would Tolliver do if faced with a coach like Rice? He probably wouldn’t go to the administration, he said. He’d just transfer.
Andy Markowski, who was a college assistant after his playing career at Nebraska, never witnessed anything like Rice’s actions. But a lot of coaches are prone to verbal abuse, he said. He’s seen coaches step over the line.
“Athletics is a very competitive environment,” Markowski said. “Sometimes when you have motivated people, the best decision isn’t always made in the spur of the moment.”
Gibbs isn’t surprised by the occasional incident. Stakes are high. Pressure is intense. Players and coaches spend a lot of time together. There are bound to be moments when emotions “get pushed to the brink,” Gibbs said, prompting verbal confrontations.
But the consistency of Rice’s abuse is alarming.
“To treat his players like that on what seemed like on a daily basis,” Gibbs said, “that’s the shocking part.”
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