The troubled Rutgers athletic program is facing a fresh batch of controversy with new questions arising regarding the past of new athletic director Julie Hermann.
Hermann resigned as the head volleyball coach at the University of Tennessee 16 years ago after all of her players on the 1996 team combined to write a letter alleging she ruled through humiliation, fear and emotional abuse, The Star-Ledger reported.
Confronted by the players, Hermann reportedly said, "I choose not to coach you guys," and turned and left the room, with many of her players saying they never saw the coach again.
Hermann has already been questioned about a 1997 jury verdict that awarded $150,000 to a former assistant coach who claimed she was fired because she became pregnant and was told a baby would affect her job performance. Hermann said the assistant was fired due to underperforming.
Rutgers president Robert Barchi ordered an investigation of that lawsuit, and on Friday the school released a statement saying: "We have looked at the totality of Julie's record in athletics administration and we look forward to her continued success as she leads Rutgers' transition into the Big Ten."
At the very least, it's a rocky beginning for the woman who was hired by Rutgers at an annual salary of $450,000 to clean up the program's image, which was tarnished amid allegations that former men's basketball coach Mike Rice physically and verbally abused his players, followed by the resignation of Hermann's predecessor, Tim Pernetti.
Barchi has portrayed the 49-year-old Hermann as the right leader to steer the athletic department going forward -- a vision shared by Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich, who worked with Hermann for 17 years between Northern Arizona and Louisville.
"I knew things didn't end well," Jurich said about Hermann's departure from Tennessee, per the Star-Ledger, "but that happens to a lot of coaches at a lot of places."
Several of Hermann's former players have kept in touch through Facebook, and they had differing reactions to her hiring by Rutgers. For her part, Hermann claims not to remember the letter from her players 16 years ago, and simply said "wow" when it was read to her over the phone by "The Star-Ledger."
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie weighed in on the issue on Sunday and indicated he would speak with university officials.
"I read the story about two hours ago. It was the first I've heard of it. So I've gotta talk to university officials and try to get the complete story," Christie told mycentraljersey.com. "It would be irresponsible for me to comment at this point on it. All I know is what I saw, like I said, two hours ago when I read the newspaper. I wasn't involved in the search at all and I haven't met Miss Hermann. So let me talk to university officials. I'll probably have more to say later in the week."
Eleven of Hermann's former Tennessee players went on the record for the report, while others declined for fear of retribution. Six of those 11 players were on the 1996 team that confronted Hermann with the letter.
Hermann told The Star-Ledger she doesn't recall the name-calling or other grievances from her former players.
Hermann arrived at Tennessee following stints as an assistant at Georgia and the head volleyball coach at Northern Arizona. After leaving the Lady Vols' volleyball team, she spent six months as an "assistant in development" before moving on to become an assistant with the U.S. national women's volleyball team and eventually on to Louisville.
Former Tennessee athletic director Joan Cronan said she knew there were "frustrated" players, but doesn't remember "intense disgruntlement" and called Hermann "one of the most outstanding administrators in the country."
"I'm being very honest. I don't remember that letter," said Cronan.
Hermann maintained she also doesn't recall the letter, and told The Star-Ledger that she views the Rice saga as a cautionary tale as she prepares to lead Rutgers into the Big Ten.
"In my opinion, that can't go one inch forward until we have healed from the inside out," said Hermann. "All of us need to buy into, 'Here's what we stand for.' And if we don't stand for that, you can't stay. No one can stay."
Hermann still has her supported. One of her former assistant coaches at Tennessee, Kim (Zenner) Tibbetts, told ESPN.com disputed the allegations made by the players.
"I was in every huddle and involved in every volleyball substitution, and what they are saying is crazy," Tibbetts said. "I was by Julie's side in every meeting and every practice, and she never did what they're saying. What they are saying is not true. She was the most supportive coach. She loved those kids. What I'm hearing and seeing now is just shocking."
Jenny McDowell, a coach at Emory who previously coached with Hermann at Georgia, told ESPN.com, "I worked side-by-side with her, and she is without question one of the finest coaches I've ever seen and is beloved by athletes. She treated them with incredible respect and dignity."
Current Louisville volleyball coach Ann Kordes told ESPN.com, "The reports are completely contradictory to who she is, her personality and management style. She has been nothing but encouraging and supportive of male and female coaches starting a family."