By DON GLYNN
Niagara Gazette — Former Niagara University basketball coach Jack Armstrong is saddened by the chain of events that led to the downfall of Rutgers coach Mike Rice, fired for physically and mentally abusing his players. Rice's shocking out-of-control behavior was captured on a video taken last November during the team's practice on the New Brunswick, N.J. campus.
"I'm obviously deeply disturbed and disappointed after seeing that video," Armstrong said, noting that he had coached Rice during his freshman year at Fordham University in New York City and later hired him as an assistant basketball coach at NU for the 1997-98 season.
Armstrong, now a TV analyst for the Toronto Raptors of the NBA-Canada, vented his feelings in a late-night interview on FAN Radio (590) in Toronto.
"To see that behavior absolutely blew me away," Armstrong said, alluding to Rice's habit of kicking his players, flinging basketballs at them and continually taunting them with vulgar language as they practiced. "I love him to death but the minute that I saw that video, I would have fired him immediately.”
Armstrong's reaction was in sharp contrast to Rutgers Athletic Director Tim Pernetti's decision to suspend Rice for only three games and slap him with a $50,000 fine. After the tumult and outcry over the video — it was first seen by officials some five months ago —that turned up recently on TV networks, Pernetti resigned, claiming he was made a scapegoat over the scandal.
In earlier days on Monteagle Ridge, Armstrong described Rice as a person who did a great job, performing his role with energy and enthusiasm. In today's NCAA highly competitive atmosphere, Armstrong said there's always intense pressure to win but "coaches are handsomely compensated" for handling that. He estimated that Rice had been making upwards of $750,000 per year.
In retrospect, Armstrong, 50, conceded that when he coached in his late 20s or early 30s, he would sometimes totally flip-out and yell at players. "Yes, I would even grab a player by the shirt and move him from one spot to the next (in practice) but you did that in the 1980s, and it was accepted. You can't do that in 2013." Armstrong added: "If my own kid was playing and acting like a jerk or being a wise-guy, I'd fully expect the coach to thoroughly ream him out. But if the coach started smacking him, pushing him around and throwing balls at him, I'd have a problem with that."
Asked what he saw as Rice's future, Armstrong replied: "Mike is a good man. We all know people who have screwed up and deserved what they got. But Mike will grow from this. He will be better for it." Armstrong said that after the scandal broke, he texted Rice to comfort him "He knows he messed and he's very sorry about it. I intend to stay in touch with him."
Armstrong, the NU coach from 1989 to 1998, led the Purple Eagles to a 23-7 season in 1992-93, when he was named the New York State Division 1 Coach of the Year. He later joined the Toronto radio station. He is a color commentator for the Toronto Raptors games and a college basketball analyst on TSN.
He and his wife, Dena, have three sons and the family lives in Lewiston.