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Former Robert Morris players defend fired Rutgers coach Rice

| Wednesday, April 3, 2013, 9:18 p.m.
Former Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice reacts to play during the first half of a game against South Florida on Jan. 17, 2013, in Piscataway, N.J.

A.J. Jackson was in Sewall Center at Robert Morris to hear former coach Mike Rice yell at his players. His voice rose every time someone made a mistake.

Their reaction?

“We'd yell right back at him,” Jackson said. “We respected one another.”

Rice was fired Wednesday as Rutgers' coach after ESPN's “Outside the Lines” aired video of him throwing basketballs at players, shoving them and using homophobic slurs. Jackson immediately called his friend.

“He said he was the Tiger Woods of the basketball world,” Jackson said of Rice. “He told me, ‘You know me. I am a very intense guy, but I did not intend to hurt anybody.' He sounded up and good about himself.

“What he really felt bad about was how it affected his family. He said his kids didn't go to school (Wednesday) because of it.”

Jackson, a Monessen graduate who played at Robert Morris from 2004-08 and was part of an athletic committee that interviewed and hired Rice in '07, admitted Rice was no saint.

“Were we cussed out? Yes, I'm not going to deny that,” said Jackson, now an assistant coach at First Assembly Christian School in Charlotte, N.C. “But it was never over the top.

“He never threw the ball (at players), but he would get mad and throw the ball or kick it (at a wall or an empty spot in the gym).”

Rice, who was suspended, fined and ordered to attend anger management classes after athletic director Tim Pernetti was given a copy of the tape by a former employee in November, addressed reporters outside his New Jersey home and apologized.

“As I stated three months ago after I watched the video how deeply regrettable those actions (were), I also stated I was going to try to work on changing. I think I've accomplished a lot of that,” said Rice, who was 44-51 in three years at Rutgers. “I can't say anything right now except I'm sorry.”

Before Rice arrived at Robert Morris, the Colonials had not been to the NCAA Tournament since 1992. Rice took the team there twice.

“A lot of kids didn't have the fire in them,” Jackson said. “But after we practiced the way we did and played the way we did, we got the fire.”

In only three seasons, Rice won 73 games and went 46-8 in the Northeast Conference.

“He's a tremendous coach,” Jackson said. “I was happy to be under him. I was a very selfish player when it came to scoring points (before going to college). He sat me down and said, ‘You are either going to do it my way, or you are going to be sitting next to me on the bench.' ”

When Rice was an assistant at Pitt, he recruited point guard Tray Woodall, who has several friends at Rutgers and Robert Morris.

“They tell me about how his coaching style is,” Woodall said, “and they have no problem because they are tough kids who know the coach only wants the best from them.”

Jimmy Langhurst played at Robert Morris and said Rice did use “colorful language.”

“What coach doesn't use colorful words?” he said. “Everything was like a family. He is the first one to pat you on the butt and say, ‘Nice job.' We were stronger because of him.”

Former Colonial Mezie Nwigwe defended Rice, tweeting: “Man, I don't care what the media (say). Rice was cool in my book.”

Tweeted teammate Jeremy Chappell: “All I know is we had bullies on our team we (weren't) backing down from nobody no team and we got that from #rice.”

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