Leadership & Governance

Rutgers Coach Treated Players as 'Slaves,' Former Assistant Says in Recording

AP Photo/Rich Schultz

Eric L. Murdock, a central figure in exposing the scandal that led to the firing of Mike Rice as Rutgers' head men's basketball coach, was recorded unleashing to colleagues last summer, shortly before his own contract expired and was not renewed.
June 14, 2013

The boiling point for Eric L. Murdock came late last June.

Mr. Murdock, then the director of player development for Rutgers University's men's basketball team and later a central player in exposing a sports scandal there, had spent several days in the throes of a personal and professional crisis. By June 29, 2012, he sounded unglued, training his anger on Mike Rice Jr., a hot-tempered head coach.

When Mr. Murdock, a former NBA player, arrived at the university's basketball facilities that day, he was loaded for bear. With his girlfriend at his side, Mr. Murdock marched into an office and told two of his colleagues that he was convinced Mr. Rice had fired him over a minor infraction. This was typical, he said, of Mr. Rice, whom Mr. Murdock described as ruled by emotion and abusive to his players.

In an 11-minute, profanity-laced rant, which was secretly recorded by an assistant coach and reviewed as part of a Rutgers investigation of abuse allegations, Mr. Murdock described the staff's unsuccessful efforts to rein in their volatile boss over the preceding two years. But the head coach, Mr. Murdock asserted, was still treating players "like slaves."

"Just cracking the whip," Mr. Murdock says on the recording, which The Chronicle obtained through a public-records request. "That's all you're doing. You're cracking the whip." And, he continues, when a player "can't deliver you cut his toe off like ... Kunta Kinte."

Mr. Murdock, who is black, conjures up slave imagery several times in the recording when describing Mr. Rice, who is white.

The tape provides a rare glimpse into the chaotic environment of Rutgers University's basketball operations almost a year before Mr. Rice was fired for his treatment of players. The Scarlet Knights coach was terminated in April, less than a day after the ESPN program Outside the Lines aired video footage of Mr. Rice hurling basketballs and gay slurs at members of the team. (Mr. Murdock, who says in a continuing wrongful-termination lawsuit that he was fired for making complaints about the abuse, appeared on the broadcast.)

Mr. Murdock's taped remarks were principally addressed to David Cox, the associate head men's basketball coach who served for a time as interim head coach after Mr. Rice was fired. Mr. Rice was in a nearby office with his door closed, and "did not seek to confront" Mr. Murdock, according to a report by Connell Foley, a law firm Rutgers hired to investigate the abuse allegations.

Throughout the tape, Mr. Cox is silent as his colleague berates their boss and discusses past efforts to deal with Mr. Rice's coaching style.

"I tried it two years," Mr. Murdock says. "We had our conversations about how he needs to be more positive," but "he doesn't listen."

The 'God's Honest Truth'

Despite his stated disapproval of Mr. Rice's methods, Mr. Murdock describes a culture of deference to the coach that permeated the program. He signals an end to that deference, however, proclaiming that he will now tell the "God's honest truth" about Mr. Rice.

"We've all have bitten our tongues," he says. "Because why? Because he's the boss, and you've got to respect the boss. I've done that. I've done that. I respected the boss for two years, even though there's a lot of things I disagree with. I respected my position, and didn't say anything. Didn't. Whatever you want me to do, I'm doing it."

Questions have been raised about the purity of Mr. Murdock's motives for threatening to go public with the allegations. In December a lawyer representing Mr. Murdock sent a letter to the university offering to settle for $950,000, ESPN first reported.

Mr. Murdock had an annual salary of $70,000.

In April reports surfaced that the FBI was investigating whether Mr. Murdock had tried to extort money from the university. The bureau, as a matter of policy, would neither confirm nor deny those reports.

The tape of Mr. Murdock was recorded with the video function of a camera phone, but for the most part there are no visual images because the device appears to have been turned screen-side down. Jimmy Martelli, an assistant coach, can be seen briefly, appearing to turn on the tape. (Mr. Martelli resigned in April, after ESPN aired video footage that showed him shoving players and using a gay slur.)

Rutgers officials redacted a portion of the tape, citing public-records exemptions for students and a "reasonable expectation of privacy" for Mr. Murdock's son, who is mentioned.

A spokesman for the university, citing pending litigation, would not comment on whether the tape lent credence to Mr. Murdock's contention that he had aired grievances about the treatment of players while he was still employed at Rutgers.

Matthew J. Hiltzik, a spokesman for Mr. Rice, declined to comment on the tape directly. He did confirm reports, however, that Mr. Rice has participated in an anger-management program in Houston founded by John H. Lucas II, a former NBA player.

"He's spending time on his family and overall self-reflection and improvement," Mr. Hiltzik said.

Conflict via Text Message

Central to Mr. Murdock's lawsuit is the claim that he was fired for raising concerns about Mr. Rice's behavior, but at no point in the tape does he draw such a direct correlation. Rather, he repeatedly asserts that he was fired because he left a basketball camp run by Mr. Rice to speak at one where his son was a camper.

Rutgers officials dispute the notion that Mr. Murdock was fired at all. Rather, they say his second one-year contract with the university expired one day after the tape was made and was not renewed.

Barry A. Kozyra, Mr. Murdock's lawyer, said the nonrenewal still qualifies as an "adverse employment action" and constitutes wrongful termination in light of the facts. The tape, he said, "confirms essentially what we've stated in the complaint, that he raised issues before he was dismissed."

The Connell Foley investigation reached a different conclusion. The firm reviewed the tape and said it revealed that Mr. Murdock's own version of the facts demonstrate that he believed he was fired for disobeying his boss, not as retaliation for whistle-blowing.

During the tape, Mr. Murdock is at his most emotional while discussing his son. Mr. Rice's refusal to let Mr. Murdock speak at his son's high-school camp, Mr. Murdock says, was in itself an act of cruelty.

"When he makes first team All-Defensive Team, All-County, I want to recognize him for that, for the hard work and dedication he's put in," he says. "And you're going to take that away from me."

Once Mr. Rice discovered that Mr. Murdock had ducked out of the Rutgers camp on June 26, three days before the tape was recorded, the head coach instructed a member of his staff to tell Mr. Murdock to leave the camp, according to the Connell Foley report. In a series of text messages, which were obtained by The Chronicle through a public-records request, Mr. Rice explained his rationale.

"Please leave," he wrote. "Don't want any incident in front of campers."

Mr. Murdock repeatedly tried via text message to explain himself and pleaded for the coach to talk with him, but Mr. Rice appeared unmoved.

"Can't tell u how many important things my staff and I miss on a daily basis," he wrote. "Sorry will talk mon."

Days later, the tape shows, Mr. Murdock unleashed on Mr. Rice and described him as a "greedy pig." As the recording concludes, Mr. Murdock quietly suggests that Rutgers officials will try to force him to resign in the hope of saving face.

"So," he says, "now it's all damage control."

AP Photo/Rich Schultz

Eric L. Murdock, a central figure in exposing the scandal that led to the firing of Mike Rice Jr. as Rutgers U.'s head men's basketball coach, was recorded unburdening himself to colleagues last summer, shortly before his own contract expired and was not renewed.

Audio: Eric Murdock on Mike Rice

In the recording, which was obtained by The Chronicle, Mr. Murdock outlines his complaints about the head coach's behavior and his own dismissal. Warning: These audio excerpts contain obscenities.

In this clip: Mr. Murdock compares Mike Rice to a slave driver who wears players down by "just cracking the whip." He also questions the head coach's credentials: "You're only a three-year coach at ... Robert Morris" University, a Pennsylvania institution where Mr. Rice coached from 2007 to 2010.

In this clip: Mr. Murdock says Mr. Rice is pocketing money from the basketball team's ticket sales and basketball-camp revenue.

In this clip: Mr. Murdock bemoans what he views as the assistant coaching staff's reluctance to challenge Mr. Rice's abusive behavior. "Everybody is trying to feed their family," he says.

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Listen to the Full Audio

Warning: This recording contains obscenities.