Men's Basketball

Mark Story: Julie Hermann has at least one defender in Lexington

Julie Hermann was picked as the new athletics director at Rutgers after the last one was ousted over a player abuse scandal.
Julie Hermann was picked as the new athletics director at Rutgers after the last one was ousted over a player abuse scandal. ASSOCIATED PRESS

From their days as rival head volleyball coaches at Kentucky and Tennessee in the early 1990s, Kathy DeBoer considers Julie Hermann a friend.

Right now, the embattled Hermann can use all the friends she can find. Controversy arising from how Hermann allegedly (mis)treated players during her time at Tennessee (1991-96) has engulfed the ex-UT coach and Louisville administrator since she was named the new athletics director at Rutgers.

For DeBoer, the tumult engulfing someone she likes has been tough to watch.

"I feel bad, pretty much, for everybody involved," DeBoer said Friday. "It's become an unfortunate situation for Rutgers, for (Hermann) and for the (ex-Tennessee players) who feel wounded."

The state university of New Jersey has been turmoil central this spring. Rutgers fired its head men's basketball coach, Mike Rice, after practice videos were leaked to ESPN showing the coach physically and verbally abusing Scarlet Knights players.

Aftershocks from the Rice scandal led to the ouster of Rutgers Athletics Director Tim Pernetti. Hermann, who built a strong reputation while working for 15 years as a top aide to Louisville AD Tom Jurich, was picked to be a healer at Rutgers.

Instead, after her hiring was announced, the Newark Star-Ledger reported that some players from Hermann's final Tennessee volleyball team (1996) accused the coach of subjecting them to demoralizing treatment that included calling them "whores, alcoholics and learning disabled."

"I obviously do not know what was going on in Julie's gym (at Tennessee) anymore than she would know what was going on in mine," said DeBoer, who stepped down as Kentucky volleyball coach in 1992 to move into athletics administraton at UK. "I do know the Julie that I knew, that I worked clinics with and camps with, was someone I respected."

If Hermann withstands the clamor over her past and officially becomes Rutgers AD on June 17, she will be only the third female athletics director at one of the 124 FBS schools.

DeBoer once seemed on the same career path. When Larry Ivy succeeded C.M. Newton as Kentucky athletics director in 2000, DeBoer moved up to the number two post in UK athletics administration.

However, Ivy lost his hold on the UK AD job in 2002 after the Kentucky football program became engulfed in an NCAA cheating scandal. New Wildcats athletics director Mitch Barnhart brought in his own people, and DeBoer left UK.

Now, rather than an athletics director at an FBS school, DeBoer is the Executive Director of the American Volleyball Coaches Association. She described that role as being "the coach of the coaches."

This is an unsettling time to be a college coach, DeBoer said. She suggests "the social contract" that governs what is acceptable behavior between coaches and their players is changing so rapidly and substantially that it has become disorienting in terms of what is acceptable.

"A lot of coaches right now are holding their breath because they don't know the answer to that question," DeBoer said.

Some things seem clear. No coach should ever strike a player physically in anger or throw objects at them. Abusive language that involves offensive name calling or slurs is out of bounds.

Still, it is a hard fact of life in competitive sports that some athletes respond best to strident forms of verbal motivation.

"The whole point of coaching is pushing people out of their comfort zone both physically and mentally," DeBoer said. "But any coach who has ever worked for more than a year will have a list of, at least, five kids they coached as hard as they could that you didn't reach or that didn't respond to you in the way you wanted."

There are some gray areas, things which some athletes will accept as hard coaching that others might find offensive.

"If you look at what is being written by some of (Hermann's) players at Tennessee, some say they had the best experiences of their lives with her," DeBoer said. "Others, obviously, seem very wounded and hurt."

Moving forward, many believe the allegations about Hermann's treatment of volleyball players in the 1990s have already doomed her chance to succeed as Rutgers AD before she has officially started.

DeBoer, looking at Hermann through the eyes of a friend, is not one of them.

"Obviously, this is not the way anybody would choose to start their time as an AD," DeBoer said. "But she can survive this. Julie's tough. She's a leader. And she's not afraid of criticism."

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