(USA TODAY) -- On a night when he hoped to celebrate World Autism Awareness Day by taking part in a ceremony to illuminate his football stadium and basketball arena blue, Rutgers athletics director Tim Pernetti was bunkered in his office late Tuesday night finalizing plans to fire Mike Rice.
Only hours before, Pernetti offered a vote of confidence for the university's embattled men's basketball coach, saying he "dealt with this issue" in December when news of an explosive tape showing evidence of Rice physically and verbally abusing players first surfaced and added that unless new allegations came to light, Rice would continue serving as Rutgers' coach.
But when faced with intense public outcry, including calls from several state leaders to fire Rice, Pernetti reversed course, meeting with Rice at approximately 9 a.m. for 15 minutes in his office, where he terminated Rice's contract based on, according to the university, "recently revealed information and a review of previously discovered issues."
"I am responsible for the decision to attempt a rehabilitation of coach Rice," Pernetti said in a statement. "Dismissal and corrective action were debated in December and I thought it was in the best interest of everyone to rehabilitate, but I was wrong. Moving forward, I will work to regain the trust of the Rutgers community."
Pernetti declined further comment, avoiding dozens of reporters and television crews who had descended to the Rutgers Athletic Center for a news conference that never came. Rutgers officials offered no timetable for when Pernetti will speak publicly, but when he does, the fourth-year AD will need to answer a number of questions, including:
What changed from late November, when he first reviewed the tape provided by former men's basketball aid Eric Murdock, to Wednesday when he fired Rice?
Exactly what went into his decision not to fire Rice at the time he reviewed the tape, considering the public outrage in the aftermath of ESPN's airing of the tape Tuesday afternoon.
How much input he received from Rutgers leaders, including university president Robert Barchi and the governing board, when he opted to suspend for three games - but not fire - Rice in December.
All three answers could go a long way to determining his future as the head of a $58 million athletics department with 22 intercollegiate teams. Before Rice's practice tape surfaced, Pernetti appeared to have as much job security as any AD in college sports after brokering a deal last November for Rutgers to defect the crumbling Big East and join the Big Ten for the 2014 season.
Now, the 42-year old Bergen County resident is fighting to keep his lucrative position at the school he literally bled for as a member of the Scarlet Knights football team in the early 1990s.
Within hours of the tape surfacing, Pernetti's decision to not fire Rice was called into question, with several national columnists calling for the Scarlet Knights AD to suffer the same fate Rice ultimately met.
The prevailing criticism that enveloped Pernetti was this: If he knew in December what the public viewed Tuesday, shouldn't he also be fired for misjudging the severity of Rice's abuses?
Others defended Pernetti's actions, believing his decision not to fire Rice wasn't as cut and dry in December when the university still owed its men's basketball coach approximately $1.6 million. While that figure may seem paltry considering the national embarrassment Rutgers endured this week, it's possible Pernetti would've received his share of criticism then for terminating the contract of a coach without cause during a time when the athletics department was receiving the nation's third-largest subsidy from the state university.
That financial consideration is believed to be the impetus for why Pernetti hired an independent investigator to review the Rice practice tapes. That investigator, Rutgers officials said Wednesday, was John Lacey of Connell Foley LLP, who reported back to Pernetti two weeks after looking into the case Nov. 27.
An attempt to reach Lacey at his office Wednesday was unsuccessful. But sources indicated university counsel notified Pernetti that Rutgers would be on the hook for the remaining salary Rice was owed had he been fired in December. Despite terminating Rice's contract Wednesday, a source said Rutgers is negotiating a settlement for a portion of the remaining contract because he was terminated without cause.
"(The investigators) looked at this tape and they also looked at every clip you saw that you saw within the context of the practice," Pernetti told reporters Tuesday. "These guys watched hundreds of hours of film because I thought it was important that if we were going to make a determination we looked at it in context. But I don't think we could've spent any more time investigating the matter than we did. What I did ask the investigators to do was investigate but not make a recommendation on sanctions. I made that decision on my own.
"Once we had come to a conclusion I met with the investigators and asked them for input on the penalty. And they felt very much that it was in line with what was discovered over the course of the investigation."
Sources familiar with the investigation said Wednesday that the investigators interviewed all the current players on the team and the student-athletes unanimously said not to fire the head coach.
While Pernetti drew rebuke in the Rutgers community for his decision, university officials kept mum on the situation. Attempts to reach six members of the Board of Governors, including chair Ralph Izzo, were unsuccessful and Barchi declined to comment further than the 213-word statement he released through the university's media relations department Wednesday morning.
"Coach Rice's abusive language and actions are deeply offensive," Barchi said, "and egregiously violate the university's core values."
Barchi's statement also unveiled an apparent contradiction between the statements Pernetti made to reporters Tuesday and the quote he released.
Asked by reporters Tuesday whether Barchi had seen the tape, and if not, whether he was aware of the contents on it, Pernetti said: "Yes and yes. President Barchi and I worked closely together when this issue came up. We worked closely together with members of the board. He's a lot like me. We deal with everything in the wide open. We had the same concerns but we felt strongly that the actions that we took was important to take and deal with it."
However, Barchi indicated that Tuesday was the first time he viewed the tape, saying in a statement Wednesday: "Yesterday, I personally reviewed the video evidence, which shows a chronic and pervasive pattern of disturbing behavior. I have now reached the conclusion that coach Rice cannot continue to serve effectively in a position that demands the highest levels of leadership, responsibility and public accountability. He cannot continue to coach at Rutgers University. Therefore, Tim Pernetti and I have jointly decided to terminate Mike Rice's employment at Rutgers."
A Rutgers athletics spokesperson later clarified Pernetti's statement, saying Pernetti was referring to Barchi's Tuesday morning viewing and it should've been made clear that the Rutgers president hadn't seen the tape when Rice was suspended in December.
Hired by his alma mater in February 2009 after a successful career as a television executive, Pernetti is in the penultimate season of a five-year deal featuring a base annual salary of $410,000 and including performance bonuses up to $50,000 and a $12,000 automobile stipend. According to Gannett New Jersey's Data Universe, his gross pay in 2012 totaled $508,710, a salary that ranks him among the lowest-paid ADs in both the Big East and Big Ten conferences.