Rice coached at the suburban Pittsburgh school from 2007-10 before taking the job at Rutgers, who fired Rice last week after video of the coach physically and emotionally abusing players became public. Former Rutgers employee Eric Murdock said Rice told him players and coaches at Robert Morris fought several times during practices, prompting athletic director Craig Coleman to look into the matter.
The school interviewed 17 people — five current Robert Morris players, seven former players, three members of the coaching staff and two athletic trainers — either in person or on the phone and Coleman is satisfied Murdock's statements are unfounded.
"I think it is unanimous that the Murdock allegations did not occur," Coleman said Tuesday.
One former player who transferred out of the program during Rice's tenure told Campbell the coach directed anti-gay slurs at him and heaved a basketball in the direction of another player "once or twice," behaviour that led to Rice's downfall at Rutgers. The former player — who was not named by the school in the report — indicated he saw a shoving match between Rice and a different player in the locker room during a game.
Coleman spoke to the player allegedly involved in the shoving match, and that player acknowledged getting into a heated argument with Rice but stressed there was no physical contact.
"In terms of the homophobia, the throwing of basketballs, the physical altercations, if those happened I think it's probably fair to conclude that they happened on a scale smaller than what happened at Rutgers based on the report we got," Coleman said.
Robert Morris officials could not find practice tapes from Rice's tenure at the Northeastern Conference school. Coleman said it was common practice for Rice to tape the first few weeks of practice then discard the video following the team's first scrimmage. Coleman pointed out the practices were open to the public and he was a frequent visitor. Though Coleman said Rice used profanity he did not feel the use of it was "over the line."
Rice went 73-31 in three seasons at Robert Morris, winning the NEC title in 2009 and 2010 while taking the school to consecutive NCAA tournaments before moving on to Rutgers. Coleman promoted assistant Andy Toole to the head coaching job following Rice's departure and Coleman said there have been no complaints about Toole's behaviour during his tenure.
"When you're talking about Andy, you're talking about a different cat," Coleman said. "He's got so much self-control it's hard to believe."
Coleman targeted players who transferred away from Robert Morris during the investigation in case there was an axe to grind. Three of the players gave no indication of improper conduct by Rice. The fourth had very specific memories of the times in which Rice lost control. Coleman said the player did have an issue with Rice over another matter but doesn't feel it factored into the player's comments.
In the immediate aftermath of Rice's firing Coleman issued a statement in which he said Rice's problems at Rutgers were "not indicative" of his stay at Robert Morris. Coleman didn't go quite that far Tuesday but pointed to the lack of significant testimony against Rice as proof the widespread problems that led to his firing at Rutgers was not an issue when he coached the Colonials.
"We received nothing during Mike Rice's time here that came anywhere close to what was going on at Rutgers," Coleman said.
Coleman allowed he "didn't know what to make of" having one player offer a stark contrast to the picture painted by the other 16 people interviewed but did not want to dismiss it out of hand.
"It does make it difficult to sort of synthesize all of this over here and then this one opinion over there," Coleman said. "But even if you look at what he reported ... he clearly (said) it was not the stuff Mr. Murdock was alleging. No one indicated any 'brawl' between players and coaches."
Coleman said he has spoken to Rice and that the former coach called the allegations made by Murdock "bogus" but declined to go into specifics.
Rice was suspended three games and fined $75,000 by the school when the tape was given to athletic director Tim Pernetti last fall but he returned to guide the Scarlet Knights to a 15-16 season. Rice was fired Wednesday, and Pernetti resigned Friday. Murdock, whose contract was not renewed by Rutgers, is under investigation by the FBI.