By John Berman and Catherine E. Shoichet
(CNN) — Julie Hermann promised to help Rutgers’ athletic program bounce back after an abuse scandal rattled the university and drew national attention.
But now the woman tapped to turn around the troubled program is facing abuse allegations herself.
Hermann’s appointment as the school’s athletic director came more than a month after a video of a Rutgers coach hurling basketballs and yelling homophobic slurs prompted the coach’s firing, the resignation of the school’s athletic director and sharp criticism from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
“It is a new day,” Hermann told reporters on May 15. “(The problem) is already fixed, and there is no one that doesn’t agree about how we treat young people with respect and dignity and build trust.”
But a group of former volleyball players said Hermann used a different approach when she coached them at the University of Tennessee in the 1990s: “mental cruelty.”
In a letter written in 1997 and obtained by the The Star-Ledger newspaper, members of the team purportedly claimed that Hermann called players “whores, alcoholics and learning disabled.”
Verbal abuse from Hermann became so intense, they claimed, that the team banded together to write the letter, calling the situation “irreconcilable.” After the team presented the letter to Hermann, she chose to stop coaching them, according to the newspaper’s report.
In a written statement released Monday, Hermann said her former students’ comments are “heartbreaking.” She denied the allegations of abuse and vowed to push ahead in her new role.
“I was never notified of the reported letter outlining the concerns of some former athletes. However, I am truly sorry that some were disappointed during my tenure as coach,” she said. “For sure, I was an intense coach, but there is a vast difference between high intensity and abusive behavior.”
Hermann said her commitment to students’ success has been firm throughout her career.
“Over the years, I have tried to learn from each mistake, including the lessons I learned as a young coach,” she said. “I have become a stronger leader, administrator, and educator as a result. If you look at my 25-year career in athletics, I believe the record shows I am a steadfast advocate for student athletes. I intend to take that passion and hard-earned experience into my leadership role as athletic director of Rutgers University.”
Rutgers University President Robert l. Barchi said Monday that he stands by the school’s choice.
“Rutgers was deliberative at every stage of this process,” he said in a written statement. “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.”
Word that Rutgers picked Hermann to turn around the school’s athletic program after an abuse scandal came as a surprise to Kim Obiala, one of the players who said she wrote the letter about her coaching in 1997.
“I think my first reaction was, ‘Hey, isn’t that ironic?’ Of all the people that they can hire, (they pick) someone who’s actually done that kind of thing to me and to others,” Obiala told CNN’s “Starting Point” on Monday. “Over the years, she might have changed and learned her lesson. Back then, she was a similar coach.”
Players whom Hermann coached were pushed to a breaking point, Obiala said.
“You have to keep it on the court. Once you attack someone outside the court, where you’re attacking their personality, who they are as a person, that’s where you’ve crossed the line. There’s no reason for that,” she said. “I’ve definitely had such tough coaches that have pushed me beyond my physical limits. But this was more mental and psychological.”
A University of Tennessee spokeswoman declined to comment.
The abuse allegations once again drew the attention of New Jersey’s governor.
“He’s not going to make any judgments at this time, but he expects to be talking with the Rutgers administration this week to get the details,” said Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Christie.
Another allegation from Hermann’s past came up at a news conference after Rutgers announced her hiring.
In 1997, a jury awarded $150,000 to a former Tennessee assistant coach who claimed that she was fired because she was pregnant.
To make her case, the former assistant coach, Ginger Hineline, gave a copy of her wedding video to The Star-Ledger.
“I hope it’s good tonight,” Hermann, then a bridesmaid at the wedding, says in the video. “Because I know you’ve been waiting for a while, but I hope it’s not too good, because I don’t want you to come back February with any surprises, you know, the office and all, and it would be hard to have a baby in there.”
Asked about the video at a news conference this month, Hermann appeared taken aback.
“There’s a video?” she asked. “I’m sorry, did you say there’s a video? There’s no video, trust me.”
According to The Star-Ledger report, Hermann told the newspaper that Hineline was fired because of performance issues. She told the newspaper she could not recall attending Hineline’s wedding and said that because she was a witness at the 1997 trial, she would not have been permitted in the courtroom when the wedding video was played.
“On the matter of the litigation, that issue was addressed many years ago and was known to Rutgers. I am sorry for the confusion I created by misspeaking about the existence of a video tape,” Hermann said Monday. “It was recorded nearly 20 years ago and I simply did not recall the video tape until I saw it in media reports.”
Obiala told CNN that she and her former teammates aren’t trying to create problems for Hermann.
“We weren’t trying to cause any waves. Honestly, I don’t think any of us expected it to get to this point,” she said. “Hopefully, at this point Julie’s changed, and she’s realized what a program needs.”
The former players, Obiala said, have moved forward.
“Once the (athletic) department acknowledged our letter and gave us the opportunity to speak with her, and she chose not to coach for us anymore, we all accepted it. We said our piece. We’ve moved on,” she said. “We’re moms, we’re career women, and we’re happy.”
CNN’s Jason Kessler, Laura Dolan and Lorenzo Ferrigno contributed to this report.
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