(USA TODAY) -- Newly appointed Rutgers athletics director Julie Hermann acknowledged Monday that there were some difficult issues facing the women's volleyball team she coached at Tennessee in 1996, but that revelation would not cause her to resign.
In a brief conference call with a small group of reporters, Hermann indicated that while she was an intense coach, she was not an abusive one, as former players claimed in a story Sunday in The (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger.
She asserted the lessons she learned from those experiences make her uniquely qualified to heal the Scarlet Knights' athletics department in the wake of the abuse scandal involving former men's basketball coach Mike Rice.
Hermann also noted that she still feels the support of the "Rutgers community" and has discussed the most recent allegations with top leaders at the university in recent days.
President Robert L. Barchi issued a statement of support Monday.
"Since the announcement of her selection, some media reports have focused on complaints about aspects of her early career," he wrote. "Looking at Julie's entire record of accomplishment, which is stellar, we remain confident that we have selected an individual who will work in the best interests of all of our student athletes, our athletics teams and the university."
Still, a decision on whether to cut ties with Hermann, in which case the university could owe her $2.25 million, or stand behind her is expected to be made this week, with Gov. Chris Christie having said he will be in contact with school officials.
Hermann maintained she had no prior knowledge of the two-page letter reportedly signed by members of her 1996 team, in which they said "the mental cruelty that we as a team have suffered is unbearable," and that Hermann called them "whores, alcoholics and learning disabled."
"It's actually not true that I ever referred to them with any name-calling like that. It's not part of my vocabulary," Hermann said. "As far as, here is what I would say. Am I an intense coach? I'm absolutely an intense coach because many coaches are. There's a big canyon between being super-intense and abuse. And this was not an abusive environment for these women. Was it challenging? It was incredibly challenging. And was I aware that there were players that were unhappy? I was aware of that by the end of the season. And I was unhappy. We had so many challenges going on with this group of women and as painful as that time was for them and for me."
Many within college athletics have rushed to Hermann's defense in recent days, including Joan McDermott, in her 15th season as athletics director at Division II Metropolitan State (Colo.). McDermott coached two of the former Tennessee players quoted in the story, Amy Buchanan and Kelly Hanlon, when she was coaching volleyball at Metro State.
"The thing that was shocking, when I read those quotes, was they never said anything like that to me about Julie before," McDermott said. "There was kind of a disconnect for me. No. 1, why this came out now? We had a good year competing with them but never once did they talk about Julie in any negative way."
In the wake of her experience at Tennessee, however, Hermann noted that when she arrived at Louisville, where she spent 16 years as assistant athletics director, she sought out experts in various fields to form a student welfare team that worked with coaches, who in many cases are unequipped to deal with issues facing today's student-athletes.
While she did not elaborate on exactly what problems her former players were dealing with, Hermann noted that she plans on setting up the same kind of support system for coaches at Rutgers.
"That's part of why I feel I'm very uniquely qualified for Rutgers, because I've had an experience where it's not working with your team and how difficult a spot that is with a coach when you're dealing with the most challenging issues that young people can bring," she said.
Hermann acknowledged there were things she would have done differently with her teams at Tennessee, but that she has evolved from her days as a young coach through her tenure as an administrator. At Rutgers, she will be faced with setting the tone and an example for the department's 24 head coaches.
"You can't be in this profession and not be learning from your mistakes all the time, because we make them," she said. "I've been learning all the time, and as I shared earlier, the difficulty we had in getting our arms around what was going on for those students in '96 was a big impetus for me to realize that we've got to put more support around these sports programs, because asking our coaches to manages some of what we're required to manage with young people today puts them in an almost impossible position. So yes, you are learning nonstop, and of course maturing. Absolutely maturing, as fast as you can, constantly."
In terms of fundraising for projects such as the planned renovation of Rutgers Athletic Center, Hermann did not feel like all the negative publicity would affect her ability to twist donors' arms.
"The ability to inspire donors to support these student-athletes is a one-on-one conversation, and when I actually have the opportunity to actually arrive on campus and meet the people who are going to be critically involved with supporting Rutgers, I think they will meet me and know me and know what I stand for," Hermann said.
Barchi's statement also defended the vetting process of her selection.
"Julie Hermann's appointment as the next director of intercollegiate athletics at Rutgers University followed a rigorous and consultative selection process to ensure we had the best person for the position," he wrote. "We look forward to her joining Rutgers and leading the university through the coming transition into the Big Ten.
"Julie was one of 63 individuals initially considered by the search committee, and she swiftly stood out as a leading candidate. She ultimately emerged from a vetting process that involved multiple stakeholders from across the university and leaders in the sports community around the country. The search was coordinated by an experienced executive search firm and included a thorough background check conducted by one of the world's leading private security firms.
"Rutgers was deliberative at every stage of this process. Over the course of the search, Julie's record established her as a proven leader in athletics administration with a strong commitment to academic success as well as athletic excellence, and a strong commitment to the well-being of student athletes."
Hermann made it clear that she has no intention of backing down from the challenge of rebuilding the reputation of Rutgers athletics.
"I have 16 years working in what I truly believe is the best athletic department in the nation, by far," she added. "Our body of work speaks for itself, and the class and integrity we have used to build the entire athletic department at Louisville is really above reproach. And whatever mistakes you make as a young person as noted by Tom (Jurich, the Louisville AD), you've got to learn from them and go and grow. So it's my intention to go to Rutgers with this vast experiences of super highs and super lows and lead what I feel is an outstanding team into the Big Ten."
Stephen Edelson also writes for New Jersey Press Media.
Contributing: Keith Sargeant