Students Suing Rutgers Coach

Three young men who say Rutgers basketball coach Kevin Bannon made them run naked after they lost a free-throw shooting contest are suing him and the university, charging civil rights violations.

The contest came at the end of a practice in December 1997, with an article of clothing forfeited for each missed shot. But the men maintain they expected it would stop at undershorts.

"Well, I thought it was funny when we were taking free throws ... but no one was laughing at the end," said Earl Johnson Jr., a sophomore point guard at the time. "We didn't want to do it."

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday, contends Bannon rigged the contest against players recruited by his predecessor, Robert Wenzel, including Johnson and 7-foot center Josh Sankes. Other players could skip rounds or replace clothing, according to the lawsuit, filed in state Superior Court in New Brunswick, where Rutgers is based.

Bannon coerced the losers, including two student managers, to run the wind sprints by threatening grueling drills for the entire squad the next day, said the men's lawyer, Richard M. Winograd.

Only one of the managers, Juan Carlos Pla, joined the lawsuit. The other, Robert O'Connor, is still a team manager.

While they were running in the athletic center in Piscataway, Bannon sat by the scorer's table at courtside with a cigar in his mouth "just chuckling," Pla said.

Johnson, Sankes and Pla left Rutgers after the 1997-98 season. Johnson, who had starred at Trinity Catholic High School in Stamford, Conn., and was Big East Rookie of the Year, is to play next season for Iona. Sankes, of Buffalo, N.Y., sat out last year and is playing this season for Holy Cross.

"This was a humiliating experience," Winograd said. "It served no useful purpose whatsoever, and it should not have happened."

Rutgers counsel David B. Scott said Tuesday that the athletic department investigated after media reports in August.

"The university believes that any such lawsuit would be without legal merit, and the university will defend it vigorously," he said.

At that time, Bannon called the episode a "lighthearted contest" and insisted, "Absolutely no one was forced to remove his clothes or to run."

Athletic director Robert E. Mulcahy III, who joined Rutgers in 1998, said in August that the contest would never be repeated at the Big East school.

The lawsuit charges violations of the state Law Against Discrimination, intentional nfliction of emotional distress, and invasion of privacy.

It seeks unspecified monetary damages and a court order forcing the school to institute a training and monitoring program to prevent similar "wrongful conduct" in its sports programs.

It does not seek to remove Bannon because the plaintiffs do not want to harm the team, Winograd said.

Also sued were assistant coach Tod Kowalczyk, who the lawsuit said helped conduct the contest; Mulcahy, and his predecessor, Fred Gruninger, who hired Bannon from Rider in 1997.

Rutgers should have discovered that Bannon had a similar contest at Rider, and should have told him not to do it at Rutgers, Winograd said. In addition, Rutgers has yet to discipline Bannon or provide counseling for the team, the lawyer said.

Bannon also coached at Trenton State College, now The College of New Jersey.

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