By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) As the Big Ten heads into a big summer, it has a big problem.
Because when the league announced in November 2012 that it was expanding eastward, the thought was that in addition to providing entrance into lucrative new media markets, the inclusion of Rutgers and Maryland into the conference would also give Penn State some more natural rivals.
And in the case of Rutgers, it most certainly has – in terms of bad publicity.
Almost since the moment that Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany revealed that his conference would be growing to 14 schools, the Scarlet Knights have been leaving it with black eyes. So much so that Rutgers has managed to picked up the unwanted mantle of bad publicity that the Nittany Lions laid down after its messy housecleaning following the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
Last week, for example, Rutgers, doing New Jersey no favors as the state university, turned itself into an unfunny punch line for at least the sixth time in 14 months when the school either “miscommunicated” an invitation or a subsequent un-invitation – or both – to former football player-turned-inspirational figure Eric LeGrand to speak at graduation.
LeGrand, who was paralyzed in a Rutgers game in 2010, said he was asked by a school administrator to give the commencement address on May 18, to which he happily agreed. But then in they type of boneheaded move that Rutgers has mastered, athletic director Julie Hermann last week revoked LeGrand’s invite so former Gov. Tom Kean could instead speak.
Understandably, LeGrand was hurt and expressed so publicly. As a result, when the inevitable public outcry began, Rutgers did yet another about face – still covered in egg – as school president Robert Barchi called LeGrand and re-invited him to speak at commencement.
LeGrand said he will, which is good. But nevertheless the embarrassing saga still prompted Yahoo’s Pat Forde to write that, “The conference’s new gateway school to New York City cannot stop bringing disrepute upon itself … From the abusive basketball coach (fired) to the scapegoat athletic director (fired) to the amnesiac and tone-deaf replacement athletic director (not fired yet, somehow) to the new basketball coach without a degree from the very school that hired him (working on it) to disrespecting a classy guy in a wheelchair, Rutgers is on a roll of prodigious incompetence.”
Even Penn State has to be impressed with the idiocy.
And that prodigious idiocy rolled on again over the weekend, when Rutgers quarterback Phillip Nelson – a transfer from Minnesota – was arrested early Sunday morning in Mankato, Minn., after allegedly kicking a bar bouncer in the head while he was lying on the ground following an altercation. The blow was so severe that if left 24-year-old Isaac Kolstad in critical condition and reportedly fighting for his life.
On Monday, Nelson was charged with one count of first-degree assault and one count of third-degree assault. And on Tuesday, Rutgers football coach Kyle Flood announced that Nelson had been dismissed from the team.
“The Rutgers football family’s thoughts and prayers are with Isaac Kolstad and his family,” Flood said in a terse two-sentence release issued by the school regarding Nelson’s dismissal.
For a school so awash in bad press, that was undoubtedly the right move. But as the school prepares to officially join its new conference on July 1, Rutgers desperately needs to get its act together. Delany, meanwhile, needs to press the school hard to do so, even if it includes pushing for the school to institute new leadership.
Because, if Rutgers can’t start projecting a more positive image out East, the only name that the Big Ten is going to make for itself in New York will be spelled with scarlet letters.
And that spells bad news.