NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — A high-ranking official at the University of Tennessee and a former graduate assistant have voiced support for Rutgers' incoming athletic director Julie Hermann, who is facing allegations she verbally abused players while she was the volleyball coach with the Volunteers.
In a statement released Tuesday, Joan Cronan, women's athletic director emeritus at Tennessee, said she holds Hermann in high regard, and that while the ex-coach's tenure in the 1990s "was a very frustrating time for everyone connected with the volleyball program, I do not recall it being an abusive situation."
Hermann said Monday she hasn't considered resigning following a report that, 16 years ago, she humiliated Tennessee players. She denied having knowledge of a letter players say they submitted to the school. The 49-year-old Hermann acknowledged she made mistakes, but says she has matured and believes she is qualified to lead Rutgers, an athletic program mired in scandal.
"I believe she is well-prepared for her new role at Rutgers University," Cronan wrote. "After Julie's sixth season as the head volleyball coach, I decided that a change was needed, and I moved Julie to a position in athletics administration.
"Clearly, I am disappointed that some of the players did not have a positive athletics experience at the University of Tennessee."
Marc Gesualdo, a graduate assistant for Tennessee's sports information department from 1994-96, said he didn't see any instances of abuse while handling media inquiries for the volleyball program under Hermann. He attended virtually all of Tennessee's games during that stretch, but he wasn't at all practices.
"Never did I see anything that I would deem as inappropriate or just like so outlandish that it was bordering on abuse," Gesualdo said. "I can't say I saw anything at all that bordered on abuse."
Gesualdo said he had heard the players sent a letter expressing their dissatisfaction with Hermann, though he had forgotten about its existence until a story appeared in the Star-Ledger of Newark last weekend. He said he did not know what was in the letter and the exact nature of the players' complaints.
He also didn't believe the letter led to Hermann's exit. He said it was "pretty common knowledge" going into the 1996 season that Tennessee had to show major progress for Hermann to keep her job.
"My understanding is Julie had been told, going into that last season, that her job was basically on the line because they weren't winning," said Gesualdo, who now lives in Edison, N.J., a short drive from the Rutgers campus.
Gesualdo called Hermann "a very educated person" and didn't think she would have used the profane language mentioned in the players' allegations. He said he noticed occasional disagreements between players and coaches, but he didn't see anything that was cause for alarm.
"Complaints? Yes. Of course there were complaints. ... To me, that's just the nature of college sports," Gesualdo said. "But I never saw anything that was like, 'Oh, my God, this person is ruining my life.' I honestly think that's an unfair assessment of the situation."
While Hermann received support from Cronan and Gesualdo on Tuesday, athletic directors at two of the most prominent schools in the Big Ten Conference said the recent problems at Rutgers should not derail the university's entry into the league in 2014.
Michigan's Dave Brandon and Ohio State's Gene Smith each said that while there is some concern after seeing Rutgers fire men's basketball coach Mike Rice for physical and verbal abuse — then force former athletic director Tim Pernetti to resign only to step into the Hermann situation — they believe the state university of New Jersey shouldn't be judged solely on those problems.
Brandon and Smith believe Rutgers will be a good member in the Big Ten based on what they surmised before the scandals.
"The decision by Big Ten presidents to accept Rutgers into the conference was a long-term decision — spanning decades," Brandon said. "While the recent distractions are unfortunate, I don't think they change the bigger picture or the reasons Rutgers was viewed as an appropriate member of the Big Ten conference."
"Obviously, this is a concern that we need to help them address, not knowing what some of the internal deals are," he said. "We have to help them from the conference perspective. But, no, when you look at their long-term body of work and the things that ultimately they bring into the league, no, it's not something that causes me to say they should not be in the league."
Despite continued support from Rutgers President Robert Barchi, Hermann's future at the Scarlet Knights' next athletic director could be cloudy after former players at Tennessee said she emotionally and verbally abused them. While the Rutgers board of governors is the only group that can fire her, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie can easily influence a decision if he wants.
Christie was scheduled to appear on TownSquare Media's "Ask the Governor" program Tuesday evening and may be asked about the Rutgers situation.
The problems with the Scarlet Knights, however, go beyond Rice, Pernetti and Hermann.
In the last two months, the university said the new basketball coach, Eddie Jordan, had a degree from Rutgers when he didn't. There was additional controversy when men's lacrosse coach Brian Brecht was suspended for verbally abusing his players following a university-wide investigation into all Scarlet Knights coaches. Brecht missed the final two games of the season.
Smith said the issue of Jordan, who was a star on Rutgers' Final Four team in 1976, was concerning.
"We do a thorough background check and sometimes you still miss things," Smith said of Ohio State's vetting of coaches. "You do a thorough background check as best you possibly can. We use our university human-resources office to facilitate that for us.
"There's a number of things that they check and that's one of them, is to ensure that a degree was obtained, to ensure that there's any criminal background issues that those things emerge. But there's a number of things that they check. It is an administrative responsibility and checklist that you have to have in place."
Tom Osborne was the athletic director at Nebraska when it was announced in November that Rutgers and Maryland would join the Big Ten.
"During the time that I was athletic director, I was unaware of problems within the Rutgers athletic department," Osborne wrote in an email. "Everything that I have heard about Julie Hermann has been positive."
Herman, who played volleyball at Nebraska in the 1980s and is a native of Nebraska City, Neb., is scheduled to begin her new post June 17.
Additional reporting from AP sports writers Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tenn., Rusty Miller in Columbus, Ohio, Larry Lage in Detroit and Eric Olson in Omaha, Neb. and Associated Press writer Steve Megargee in Knoxville.