The Gym Walls Are Closing in on the New Rutgers Athletic Director

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The Gym Walls Are Closing in on the New Rutgers Athletic Director
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The Gym Walls Are Closing in on the New Rutgers Athletic Director

This has not been a good week for thee scandal-prone Rutgers University. Over the past four days, questions surrounding the New Jersey flagship's newly hired athletic director, Julie Hermann, have heightened in number and intensity, beginning with allegations that Hermann mistreated players at the University of Tennessee and that she fired an assistant coach at Tennessee after the assistant coach divulged her pregnancy. Under criticism from the press, Rutgers's president Robert Barchi issued a statement defending Hermann's hiring on Tuesday morning — only to be upstaged, hours later, by a New York Times report concerning Hermann's role in the controversial firing of another assistant coach at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, where Hermann served as an associate athletic director before arriving at Rutgers. (A pending lawsuit filed by the assistant coach alleges that Hermann fired her in retaliation for complaining about sexist remarks made by male Louisville coaches.) This was not, of course, what Rutgers administrators were expecting: Herman had been characterized as a safe choice for a program still reeling from the firing of basketball coach Mike Rice after videos of him cursing and throwing balls at players emerged in late March. And with a taxpayer-funded salary of $450,000, Hermann is already an obvious target. 

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Amidst a growing chorus of critics, however, Hermann gained a few supporters on Tuesday: three former volleyball players she coached in the early 1990s. Given New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's hands-off approach to Hermann's past, this may be all the only public support she has.

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New Jersey Press Media recently located and interviewed three women who played under Hermann at the University of Tennessee, where Hermann coached volleyball from 1991 to 1997. One woman "couldn't believe" reports that Hermann had abused players in 1996, several years after the woman graduated. "Everything that I saw her do not only then but in years past has been graceful and well thought out," another woman told reporters Ryan Dunleavy and Keith Sargeant. "She's such an opposite person from the perception that's being played out." Their testimony does not exactly diminish on-the-record statements provided by 11 former players from the 1996 volley season, when the abuse allegedly took place.

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In fact, these supportive statements may underscore the allegations against Hermann. In a 3-page letter written by the Lady Vols varsity volleyball team and delivered to Hermann in 1996, Hermann is accused of actively encouraging players to sabotage each other:

Julie has succeeded in tearing our team apart. From the first day of preseason, it has been her intention to pit us against one another. This was not in a healthy competitive manner, but rather a backstabbing event in which Julie supplied the knife.

It's not difficult to see how her coaching style could strike its beneficiaries as practical and constructive, and its targets as cruel and alienating.

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Indeed, Hermann's divisive coaching style was notable enough to earn special coverage of the Knoxville News-Sentinel, a local newspaper, during her tenure at the University of Tennessee. In a September 1994 article accessed via LexisNexis, sportswriter Dan Fleser observed Hermann placing two players in direct competition with each other for the position of setter (a player designated to arrange plays, much like a quarterback in football). "Tennessee volleyball coach Julie Hermann sat down her two setters earlier this season and said chances are they would be more like Joe Montana and Steve Young instead," Fleser wrote, referring to former NFL quarterback Joe Montana's 1993 departure from the San Francisco 49ers. "They would be two players vying for one position, hardly a cause for conviviality. ... Even a community theater production of such drama can be compelling."

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One of these players told Fleser that "it's almost like (Hermann) is playing us against each other." But, Fleser wrote next, "Hermann said that is not the case at all. She thinks this is no different than, say, Pat Summitt sorting through her basketball players for the best lineup and the right chemistry."

It's unclear, in any case, and just a week after she was hired, whether this late support will affect Hermann's employment at Rutgers. Similar statements provided by former players about Rice since he was let go have done little to salvage Rice's reputation. (Rice remains under treatment at a anger management clinic in Texas.) In the meantime, New Jersey leaders have been reluctant to stump for the flagship university's prominent hire. "My job is not to run Rutgers," Christie told reporters on Monday, handing off responsibility to Barchi, the school president, who has come under considerable pressure from sports critics for approving Hermann's hire. On Monday, however, State Senator Richard Codey (a Democrat) suggested that Christie had more to do with Hermann's hiring than he wants to let on: "He decides who's the janitor at the statehouse at night. There's a lot of politics going on here."

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