Rutgers AD Hermann faces tough road
The day after Louisville's epic upset of Baylor in this year's NCAA women's basketball tournament, I chatted with then-Cardinals senior associate athletic director Julie Hermann in Oklahoma City.
In 2007, Hermann had been in charge of hiring Jeff Walz, the coach who had already taken the Cardinals to one Final Four, and was on the verge of another.
In late March, things could not have been going better for Hermann or Louisville. When the announcement came in mid-May that she'd been hired as Rutgers' new athletic director, it seemed to make perfect sense. She'd apprenticed a long time for the job, and I'd never heard anything negative about her.
Now, at the end of May, the only things some people know about Hermann are negative. For the drive-by pundits looking for controversy du jour and/or easy punch lines, Rutgers and Hermann have provided them.
The most caustic portrayals have cast Rutgers' administrators as inept, bureaucratic bumblers who -- having botched things with the Mike Rice situation and subsequent forced departure of AD Tim Pernetti -- once again fumbled. Hermann has been depicted as an amnesiac Cruella de Vil who was propped up as a candidate by search committee co-chair Kate Sweeney in an act of feminist cronyism.
But there's also been serious, thoughtful and valid reporting and commentating that questions how Rutgers, coming off one public relations mess, could have ended up in another, and how an administrator who was respected and successful has appeared so unprepared to answer about difficult situations in her past. Especially knowing she was going to have to deal with the crush of the greater New York City media.
Ultimately, it looks as if Rutgers is going to stand by its decision, and Hermann will tackle an already tough job made more difficult by missteps she's had even before officially taking over.
Missteps in past
How will Hermann move forward? We all know the saying, "You don't get a second chance to make a first impression." I was familiar with Hermann's work at Louisville before she took the Rutgers position and respected her. I was not aware of the allegations that have since come out, and they didn't fit with my perception of her. I've had to re-evaluate my view but must acknowledge it is still tempered by the positive impression I'd already formed.
Many people weren't aware of Hermann at all until last weekend's report in the Newark Star-Ledger, so it's entirely understandable if their opinion of Hermann is harsh.
In the story, several former Tennessee volleyball players recounted their disdain for Hermann as a coach because of what they called a verbally abusive environment in the 1990s. It also detailed a lawsuit by former Tennessee assistant coach Ginger Hineline, who said Hermann fired her in 1995 for becoming pregnant.
Hermann acknowledged having a difficult season with her team in 1996 but said she was not abusive as they described. She also said Hineline was fired because of job performance.
You can dissect these situations and make your own judgments. Was there a letter detailing elements of the alleged verbal abuse? Yes, but it had no signatures on it, nor was it dated or specifically addressed to anyone at Tennessee. Neither Hermann nor her former boss at Tennessee, Joan Cronan, recall the letter. However, the Star-Ledger did contact 11 former players who went on record supporting the allegations.
Was there a wedding video from 19 years ago in which Hermann said she hoped Hineline didn't come back from her honeymoon with any "surprises?" Yes, but a reasonable interpretation could be Hermann was joking, as people do at wedding receptions. However, was Hermann believable when she said she didn't recall any video or even being at the wedding?
The vivid recollections by some of her former players from the 1990s can't be discounted, and Hineline was awarded $150,000 by a jury.
However, other former players have come forward saying they had positive experiences playing for Hermann and don't recall an abusive atmosphere. And current Metro State athletic director Joan McDermott -- who coached two of the Lady Vol volleyball players who now allege verbal abuse after they transferred -- has said they never told her about difficulties with Hermann.
Work at Louisville
The reality? It's not uncommon in college sports for athletes to have very different experiences despite having the same coach. And coaching isn't for everyone; sometimes other avenues in college athletics are a better fit. Many who have worked with Hermann as an administrator have praised her.
"The main thing with Julie is that she was always about student-athletes being empowered and treated well," Walz said.
Walz, who stressed he did not want to invalidate the experiences described by the former Tennessee players, said he had not heard about it until the Star-Ledger story came out.
But Walz, an admittedly intense coach, said Hermann had spoken to him at times about "easing up a little" in how he addressed student-athletes in games and practices. Other Louisville personnel have told me that as well. If anything, Cardinals coaches felt Hermann typically leaned toward the student-athletes' side in all issues.
Putting on an amateur psychologist's hat, it makes you wonder if Hermann in fact learned from her coaching troubles and used those lessons as an administrator.
As part of athletic director Tom Jurich's staff at Louisville, Hermann oversaw department-wide success in men's and women's sports. There was a time when Louisville wasn't thought of as a consistent contender in college athletics. That absolutely changed in the nearly 16 years Hermann was at the school.
The people who support and admire Hermann say she is not the caricature now being vilified, but they also understand why the criticism is happening.
"It's just sad," one of her former co-workers told me. "They have really mishandled this at Rutgers, and she's made mistakes. But if you're asking if Julie is a good person and good at her job, she is."
Hermann has been quiet in recent days, as Rutgers would prefer the story cool off a bit. She is scheduled to start her new job officially on June 17.
What realistic way is there for Hermann to gain the trust and goodwill of her new department's employees, Rutgers' student-athletes, alumni and donors and the skeptics who are convinced the Scarlet Knights are in a doomsday situation?
She could reach out to the former Tennessee players and explain to them who she is now. It could be therapeutic for both sides.
Certainly, though, she should give a cogent description of the two lawsuits that she was involved in, the second of which -- at Louisville -- is still being litigated. Neither seems of a nature to disqualify Hermann as an effective AD, but she should thoroughly explain them.
Hermann should let people get familiar with who she is as a person and where she came from. She was raised in small-town Nebraska, where she learned the importance of hard work and had athletic success. She's someone who has been actively involved in many civic causes in the Louisville community beyond her role in athletics.
Finally, Hermann needs to say, "I've gotten off on a terrible foot, and I know I'll have to win back many people who don't believe in me. But I'll put everything I have into this job. Please give me a chance to prove that."
And then … she just has to get to work. There is so much to do. Even more than she originally thought.