Rutgers, Julie Hermann controversy now a Big Ten issue

Andy Marlin

Rutgers President Robert Barchi has said the newly hired athletic director will keep her job, further muddying the university's' transition into the Big Ten. Can the conference do anything about it?

Rutgers is standing behind Julie Hermann, telling the athletic director it hired just two weeks ago that she will indeed keep her job despite controversy that continues burgeoning toward full-blown scandal. One newspaper columnist called it "politically expedient," and sad as it seems for a university that just can't do any right lately, it's the only way to characterize the decision.

After allegations surfaced over the weekend that Hermann verbally traumatized nearly a dozen volleyball players (reportedly calling them "whores," "alcoholics" and "learning disabled") while she was a coach at Tennessee in the 1990s, Rutgers quickly backed its new hire, who succeeds a popular athletic director in Tim Pernetti, forced to resign in the wake of the Mike Rice Scarlet Knights men's basketball scandal. It was Steve Politi of The Star-Ledger who rightfully pegged the university's decision to keep Hermann politically expedient, noting the new hire is getting not only full support, but the benefit of the doubt while Pernetti -- successful and a Rutgers alum, beyond just being popular -- was forced out almost immediately.

Granted, Rice should've been canned sooner. But such a one-strike policy suggests that's all it takes to lose your job at Rutgers. Hermann not only was implicated in a letter (read it here) signed by all 15 members of the 1996 Tennessee volleyball team that suggested the verbal abuse, she skated by the issue of a discrimination lawsuit filed that same year by a former assistant coach, alleging Hermann discouraged her from getting pregnant. Not only was the lawsuit well known before Hermann's eventual hire -- let's not forget she wasn't even on the list of candidates submitted by the head-hunting firm retained by Rutgers, a farce in its own right -- she blatantly denied the existence of the letter even after The Star-Ledger obtained a copy and published it far and wide. Hermann also did the same when a wedding video of her at the 1994 wedding of the assistant, Ginger Hineline, was brought up at her introductory press conference.

Remarks Hermann made at the wedding were caught on tape by the wedding videographer and would become central to the discrimination lawsuit against the university in 1997 that ended with the jury siding with Hineline.

When asked about the video during her introductory news conference at Rutgers on May 15, Hermann said, "There's a video? I'm sorry, did you say there's a video? There's no video, trust me."

[SNIP]

"I hope it's good tonight," she says into the camera. "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."
Near the end of the video, Hineline throws the wedding bouquet, and Hermann is the one who catches it.

"The wedding?" Hermann said in an interview two days after her news conference. "Was I at her wedding? They eloped? I don't even remember that, honestly. It doesn't mean it didn't happen. It's just, it's been so long for me. I can't picture standing at her wedding, unfortunately."

After a transcript of her remarks at the wedding were [sic] read to her by The Star-Ledger four days ago, Hermann said she still could not retrieve the wedding from her memory.

Now, as Hermann remains the person tasked with ushering the Scarlet Knights into the Big Ten, we're left to wonder how the conference will accept them. Though the details -- specific enough to warrant the concern, though -- continue to surface, Rutgers' transgressions seem to pale in comparison to the horrors of Penn State's Jerry Sandusky scandal and the scope of Ohio State's improper benefits saga.

What isn't debatable is the Big Ten's need for the new era beginning next year with the inclusion of Rutgers and Maryland to go smoothly. From improved non-conference scheduling to a more favorable bowl lineup and higher pay for assistant coaches -- not to mention the escape from the Legends and Leaders divisional setup -- the Big Ten has done most things right since the initial shock and awe of the latest round of expansion subsided.

But now, the conference finds itself ensnared in this Rutgers situation even though it bears no responsibility. Andy Baggot of the Wisconsin State Journal wrote this morning that the Big Ten's members "must be gluttons for ridicule." Sure, that's a catchy way of saying, "Oh, not again." Remember, Rutgers also flubbed the semantics of its Eddie Jordan hire, saying the new men's basketball head coach earned a degree from the university when he never actually did.

The fact, as Baggot later addresses, is that the Big Ten doesn't have many options here. Rutgers is joining the conference next season, and not even a surprisingly good football season this fall will prevent this controversy from resurfacing in 2014. Its only hope is to leverage its muscle in pressuring Rutgers to either 1) reverse course and dismiss Hermann, or 2) oust university President Robert Barchi, who allowed these ghosts to slip past the interview process and oversaw the rapid elimination of the momentum the athletic department gathered after announcing its Big Ten future last November.

The former appears unlikely, and the latter would be a dramatic, although probably necessary, action for an institution running out of options. Dismissing Barchi is arguably the best move Rutgers has left to make, but the removal of its president would cement the extension of this nightmare beyond the realm of athletics, and what a horror that is for a public institution.

And if it were to boldly renege on its promise to keep Hermann, where would Rutgers turn? The other finalist for the job was Wisconsin deputy athletic director Sean Frazier, who would have to answer for the John Chadima scandal before the 2012 Rose Bowl.

Could Rutgers afford to go there after all this? Unlikely. It could of course reopen the search, but what qualified candidate would want the job after seeing how the institution allowed all of this to happen?

Again, it's not as though the Big Ten is at fault here. But for those invested in the conference, how much can they take on before an apparently bright future is put at risk?

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