NEWARK, N.J. — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie plans to speak with Rutgers officials about a report that the athletic director hired to clean up the school’s scandal-scarred program quit as Tennessee’s women’s volleyball coach 16 years ago after her players complained she ruled through humiliation, fear and emotional abuse.
Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak says the governor is aware of the report about Julie Hermann in the Star-Ledger of Newark but wants to get more details before commenting.
“He’s not going to make any judgments at this time,” Drewniak said Sunday in an email to the Associated Press.
The Star-Ledger reported that Tennessee players wrote the mentality cruelty they suffered when Hermann was coach was unbearable, adding she called them “whores, alcoholics and learning disabled.”
Hermann, 49, was hired May 15 to replace the ousted Tim Pernetti, who was let go after basketball coach Mike Rice was fired for abusive behavior.
She is scheduled to take over at Rutgers on June 17, making her the first woman to run the Scarlet Knights’ athletic program and one of three female ADs at the 124 schools playing at college football’s top tier.
However, it’s uncertain whether the report will force Rutgers to reconsider the appointment. It also could give impetus to those who want new university president Robert Barchi to step down after yet another black eye for the state’s largest university.
The university had not issued a comment by 4 p.m. Sunday.
Hermann was not immediately available for comment, but she told the Star-Ledger that she did not recall the Tennessee letter. The newspaper said that when it was read to her by phone, she replied, “Wow.”
Rutgers board members Candace Straight and Joseph J. Roberts Jr. did not return telephone calls by the AP seeking comment.
“The questionable decision-making at this program so heavily funded by taxpayers continues to astound me,” Assembly speaker Sheila Oliver said in an email to the AP.
Louisville Athletic Director Tom Jurich, who was Hermann’s boss for almost the last 16 years, said the report surprised him.
“For me to say this is a shock, it totally is because of the tremendous job she did for me,” Jurich said Sunday in a telephone interview. “When she was with me at Northern Arizona, her players adored and loved her. I never heard anything about this at all from the Tennessee players, and a lot of them have come through Louisville a number of times. Everybody is always singing her praises.”
The Star-Ledger report said that wasn’t the case late in her coaching career at Tennessee.
In the letter submitted by all 15 team members in 1996, the volleyball players said Hermann called them “whores, alcoholics and learning disabled.” They wrote: “It has been unanimously decided that this is an irreconcilable issue.” The players told the Star-Ledger that Hermann absorbed the words and said: “I choose not to coach you guys.”
After a series of interviews with many of the former Tennessee players about Hermann, the Star-Ledger said:
“Their accounts depict a coach who thought nothing of demeaning them, who would ridicule and laugh at them over their weight and their performances, sometimes forcing players to do 100 sideline push-ups during games, who punished them after losses by making them wear their workout clothes inside out in public or not allowing them to shower or eat, and who pitted them against one another, cutting down particular players with the whole team watching, and through gossip.
“Several women said playing for Hermann had driven them into depression and counseling, and that her conduct had sullied the experience of playing Division I volleyball.”
The Star-Ledger asked Hermann about the players’ lingering grievances.
“I never heard any of this, never name-calling them or anything like that whatsoever,” she told the newspaper. “None of this is familiar to me.”
Hermann had promised to restart the Rutgers’ athletic program after the ouster of its men’s basketball coach and the resignation of other officials.
“No one on the coaching staff doesn’t believe that we need to be an open book, that we will no longer have any practice, anywhere at any time, that anybody couldn’t walk into and be pleased about what’s going on in that environment. It is a new day. It is already fixed,” Hermann said at her introductory news conference.
At that news conference, Hermann was questioned about a 1997 jury verdict that awarded $150,000 to a former Tennessee assistant coach who said Hermann fired her because she became pregnant.
Rutgers’ problems started in December, when Rice was suspended three games and fined $75,000 by the school after a video of his conduct at practices was given to Pernetti by Eric Murdock, a former assistant coach. The video showed numerous clips of Rice firing basketballs at players, hitting them in the back, legs, feet and shoulders. It also showed him grabbing players by their jerseys and yanking them around the court. Rice can also be heard yelling obscenities and using anti-gay slurs.
The controversy went public in April, when ESPN showed the videos and Barchi admitted he didn’t view the video in the fall. Rice was fired, and Pernetti, assistant coach Jimmy Martelli and interim senior vice president and university counsel John Wolf resigned.
Even when Rutgers has made a move that was well received, there was a glitch.
After hiring former Scarlet Knights star Eddie Jordan to take over the basketball program, the university made the mistake of calling him a graduate. He had never finished work for his degree.
Now the Hermann problem has popped up when many thought that the worst was over and that the athletic department could start focusing on its move to the Big Ten in 2014.