As governor, Chris Christie was not about to let New Jersey be defined by the jokes forever told at its expense, the jokes about exits and accents and crime families run amok. If you were laughing at his state, or even at his weight, Christie would either stare you down or disarm you. Or both.
That's why he pulled a doughnut from his pocket on David Letterman's show and wolfed it down mid-interview. If Letterman wanted to entertain America by using the governor's girth as his punch line, Christie would show the host he could still steal the scene.
No, Christie doesn't back down from much. In the immediate wake of Superstorm Sandy, he wasn't afraid of Republican reaction to his warm embrace of President Obama, just as he wasn't afraid to book Tuesday's reunion with Obama at the rebuilt Jersey Shore.
Christie wasn't afraid to confront coastal-area residents fixing to ride out Sandy ("Don't be stupid. Get out."), even if his words amounted to a tempered version of the same order before Irene ("Get the hell off the beach in Asbury Park and get out. You're done. It's 4:30 and you've maximized your tan."). The governor wasn't afraid to get in Snooki's face on the boardwalk, or to tell the Nets to have a nice NBA life in Brooklyn ("Good riddance, see you later.").
But apparently the same outsized figure who has come to personify Jersey strength and stubbornness and resilience is indeed afraid of Rutgers president Robert Barchi, who somehow remains employed atop a state university that deserves much better.
Barchi should've been gone the minute it was clear he didn't drop everything to watch a video showing one of his most visible employees, Mike Rice, abusing multiple Rutgers students multiple times. In the hours after ESPN aired that video, too many people focused on Rice (already a dead coach walking) and athletic director Tim Pernetti (another ex-jock), and not enough on Barchi, whose chief responsibility as the school's chief executive is to protect and nurture the sons and daughters who fill his classrooms, his dorms and his gyms.
Soon enough, dozens of faculty members called for Barchi's ouster. The president would come across as clueless in a news conference called to begin healing a wound now ripped open by the hiring of Pernetti's replacement, Julie Hermann, who stands accused of abusing and degrading her University of Tennessee volleyball players -- Mike Rice style -- in a different life.
A Star-Ledger report said the entire Tennessee team signed a letter claiming Hermann had subjected the players to "mental cruelty" that they found "unbearable," and that the coach had called them "whores, alcoholics and learning disabled." Hermann denied the charges, denied even knowing of the letter's existence, and Barchi released a statement supporting his new AD and her assigned task of "leading the university through the coming transition into the Big Ten."
Of course, with Rice and Pernetti long gone, Barchi realized the firing of Hermann three weeks before she officially started would've finally sealed his fate. He has no choice but to defend the school's search for a new AD as "rigorous" and "deliberative," even as Hermann concedes Rutgers head-hunters never asked her about the alleged abuse at Tennessee.
The same Rutgers head-hunters who accepted Hermann's version of why she fired a former assistant coach (for underperformance, not for getting pregnant), a version a 1997 jury rejected in awarding the assistant $150,000.
Common sense says that verdict alone should've steered Barchi away from Hermann. Common sense says the Tennessee allegations -- made by 15 players, not one -- should make Rutgers run as far away from Hermann as it's running from the Big East.
Common sense also says Christie should've leaned hard on the university's Board of Governors to dismiss Barchi along with Rice and Pernetti and install someone who would see how vital it was for Rutgers to get this one right. Someone who would've ordered the search committee to take an extra two weeks to examine Hermann's career head to toe, to interview administrators, coaches and players from every corner of the candidate's past.
What was the rush, anyway? The new basketball coach had already been hired. The new basketball coach who didn't earn the undergraduate degree his Rutgers bio said he'd earned.
But Barchi survived Eddie Jordan like he survived Pernetti and Rice, and like he'll probably survive Julie Hermann. Christie, whose press secretary didn't respond to an interview request Monday, is promising to ask questions of university officials this week, the same promise he made after the Rice video went public.
"It's not the type of leadership we should be showing our young people," Christie said through his press secretary at the time, "and clearly there are questions about this behavior that need to be answered by the leaders at Rutgers University."
It's hard to believe Barchi answered those questions to Christie's satisfaction. It's harder to believe the governor couldn't have persuaded Rutgers elders and trustees to terminate the university president if that's the outcome he desired. In his televised news conference in April, an overmatched Barchi said, "I consider resigning every single day when I wake up because -- let's be honest -- I don't have a contract here. Every day I serve at the discretion of the board."
There's no way Chris Christie, of all people, couldn't get a guy like that fired. And as valuable as Barchi might be to the merger of Rutgers and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, his cons far outweigh his pros. Long before Barchi had even heard of Julie Hermann, his staggering inaction in the Mike Rice case had diminished his school's prominent academic standing.
"The first thing that's going to come up at academic meetings and conferences for Rutgers professors is going to be, 'Oh, you teach at that school where that coach went nuts and beat on his players,'" Murray Sperber, professor emeritus at Indiana and author of four books on major college athletics, told me in April. "Rutgers has very distinguished programs and faculty, but try telling that to people now."
Another outspoken critic of the Division I sports machine, William C. Dowling, university distinguished professor of English and American literature at Rutgers, said then that Barchi should've been fired for incompetence or negligence, take your pick. Richard Codey, former New Jersey governor, told the Star-Ledger's Steve Politi the other day that Barchi absolutely had to go.
"Three strikes and you're out," Codey said. "A great university with great students and alumni deserve better."
If a past governor can grasp the obvious, why can't the current governor?
Christie is a devoted sports fan who understands what a big-time athletic program can do for (or to) a university's reputation. The governor also understands what a strong leader means to an ambitious team, college or pro.
On the February day in 2012 when a MetLife Stadium crowd celebrated the Super Bowl champion Giants, Christie stopped in the loading dock area to talk up the value of Tom Coughlin.
"The guy is so resilient," the governor told me. "That's such a big part of leadership, because every day isn't going to go great no matter what you're trying to do. When you lead a group of people, there's going to be tough days, and he's had plenty of them."
Christie's had his share, too.
"People admire strength and certainty in where you want to head and where your goals are," Christie continued, "and that you have a plan to get there. I think that's true whether you're the governor or the president of the United States or a head football coach."
More often than not, Christie has exhibited that strength and certainty in proving that New Jersey, and its great people, are nothing to laugh at. But by failing to get tougher with Robert Barchi and the board members lording over him, the man who refused to let his state become a national joke helped his state university become one instead.