- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Needing to clean up the mess left behind by the abuse scandal involving basketball coach Mike Rice, Rutgers made a bold move. The school hired Julie Hermann as its new athletic director, making her just the third active woman AD at a major-conference school. In 2014, Hermann will become just the second woman athletic director in Big Ten history, following Michigan State's Merrily Dean Baker (1992-95).
Hermann has impeccable credentials, having served as the No. 2 in charge at Louisville under Tom Jurich for the past 15 years. She also has some Big Ten experience as a former volleyball player at Nebraska, though she says she still finds it hard to believe that her Huskers are no longer in the Big 12.
She'll soon have to guide her new school into a new conference, something she's gained experience doing. I recently caught up to Hermann to ask about her challenges ahead.
Was being an athletic director a dream of yours all along?
Julie Hermann: I had the greatest job in sports, being No. 2 with Tom. So it's kind of with caution that you even imagine anything other than that. I'm not the kind of person who looks around for another job. I really wasn't interested until Rutgers initiated a conversation. It was the first time I'd really heard an institution say, "We are wide open to great leadership. We don't care if you're a farmer, or a woman, we don't care. We just need great leadership." A lot of women went for this job, because I think they heard, "Wow, I can actually be more than just a candidate." And I really owe it to Rutgers for legitimately being open to hiring whomever they felt was the best candidate.
You've obviously been working in the same conference as Rutgers for a while. How much did you know about the school, its teams and its culture?
JH: Very familiar with their programs and the state of their programs. I wasn't that familiar with the institution until I started researching it. And the more I researched it, the more I was like, "Wow." So that wow, plus the state of where their programs are competitively, and then the big steep hill in front of them of the Big Ten, those things are wildly challenging and they got me really excited about it.
You enter this job after some controversy. How do you address that, or does a simple change in leadership fix those issues?
JH: For me, it's actual a simple change. You say to your coaches, "This is what we stand for." And give each of them an opportunity to buy into those guiding principles. That's one meeting. That's not something that takes a long time, to understand what the standard is. Ensuring each of them have what they need so they can meet that standard, that's going to take a little more time. But I felt comfortable, even in the press conference, saying, "That's fixed. We don't ever coach like that again." And unfortunately, jobs like this are rarely open unless things are deep and dark in the well. You don't usually get these jobs when everybody is riding high.
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said he would help in the process of picking a new athletic director. Did you hear at all from him or from anyone in the Big Ten during this process?
JH: I would absolutely think that the commissioner would have taken the opportunity to express things to [Rutgers president] Dr. [Robert] Barchi. I don't know if he did. Ultimately, I didn't worry about it. There's no doubt that there were probably going to be a lot of people who wanted to influence the hire. But what I've already learned about the Rutgers president is that he's his own man. I think he's a fantastic leader. He's strong. He's already been through a ton because of athletics that no president should have to go through. He's clearly a standup guy. Despite all the input he was getting, I think he made the decision he felt best about. I think the commissioner's opinion would have been important to him, but in the end, clearly it was his own decision.
You worked for a long time with Tom Jurich, who has done great things with the Louisville football program and is known as a football guy. What did you learn from that, and what is your own experience working with football?
JH: The funniest thing is, when you become an AD, you become an all-sport guy. Tom's a football guy, but he's also a basketball guy. He's a rowing guy. He's also a volleyball guy. And I'm a ex-volleyball player, but I'm also a basketball guy, and a lacrosse guy. When you become an AD ... you quickly become somebody who's about the business of every single sport you sponsor. So when they said to me up there, "You haven't really managed a football coach," I said, "OK. But I've managed scores of coaches for 15 years."
While every sport is very different -- that's one of first things you learn -- managing coaches is pretty consistent. I'm very thankful to have been a head coach at the Division I level, because that actually helps me speak coach. I would never consider doing this job had I not been a Division I head coach, because I think it's really easy to say the wrong things to your coaches. I see a lot of guys who played college football, but they never coached it. And I think if you've never coached, you set yourself up to not understand what your coaches do for a living. ... And that's what I'll take to Rutgers for all of my coaches including Kyle Flood, whom I think is fantastic.
One of the marks of your tenure with Tom Jurich is how many great coaches you've hired in different sports. Is that the most important thing for an athletic director?
JH: To me, being an AD is 100 percent about who you hire. Your success or failure is based on who you hire. Obviously, they have a staff at Rutgers, and I look forward to adopting and taking on that entire staff. And then, when we have opportunities to hire, that's one of the areas where I have to compete in the marketplace at the highest possible level, because every hire you make can make or break you. And not just at the highest level. The grass guy can make or break your athletic department. If the grass isn't where it needs to be, you're not playing sports, you're just completely jacked up. So there is no hire in college athletics that is not mission critical.
Based on what you learned during the interview process, how do you feel about the state of the Rutgers football program and what things it might need to compete in the Big Ten?
JH: Well, I've actually got [a meeting] with our football coach [on Tuesday afternoon], and that will be my first chance to begin a little deep dive, a little exploration on how I help coach Flood the most. I'm going to be listening intently to him about what he thinks the program needs and what I should be focusing on that will help him. My entire focus is on surrounding him [with what he needs] and making sure he doesn't feel like everything is strapped on his back. I think a lot of football coaches feel like the entire athletic department is strapped on their backs, and that's not fair. So wherever he needs me to focus, that goes to the top of my list.
What's your experience and understanding of the Big Ten and its culture?
JH: I've been on more Big Ten campuses than probably any in my 15 years here. Because when we were first building at Louisville, the beautiful thing is that the Big Ten is our neighbor. So we could actually afford to go to Indiana and play, could afford to go to Ohio State, could afford to go to Purdue. So we did a lot of driving to compete against some of the best programs in the country at what they do. So in some ways, outside of my own league, it's the league I'm most familiar with. Especially in Olympic sports, the Big Ten was so dominant. I feel like I've been to Ann Arbor every year for 15 years. So I've seen the facilities, and I've seen a lot of the real recent developments, which has been phenomenal. What Michigan is doing with development is incredible, what Ohio State is doing is is incredible, Purdue. God love them.
It's absolutely an arms race, and now in Olympic sports, not just the big stadiums. So they're definitely raising the bar in the Big Ten, and we have a lot of work to do at Rutgers to play catchup. But we have so many assets at Rutgers to sell to America's best talent in that corridor. That's part of why I have a lot of faith. It's just organically such a great place to go, a great academic institution. And if you're from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, it's right there. And the exposure is going to be off the charts.
Finally, you'll be leading a transition to a new league, something you've had experience with at Louisville. How much will that help you in this process at Rutgers?
JH: We could literally switch leagues at Louisville in our sleep at this point. We did the Big East drill, and now Tom has almost completed our ACC transition drill. That was one of the things I shared with the [Rutgers selection] committee. They were thinking, "We kind of need some Big Ten experience." Then I think, through the process, they realized, "No, no, no. We need somebody who knows how to transition between leagues."
And 90 percent of what happens in the power leagues is pretty much the same. It's the 10 percent of different policies, different ways of operating, diiffrent guiding principles to some extent. But really it's not so much that you need to know about the Big Ten. You need to know where you are stepping in, and where the gaps are. So every single part of your athletic department, every sport and every unit, whether it's academics, compliance or sports medicine, what level are they entering into the Big Ten and where are our biggest gaps that will hurt our ability to compete in that market? That's what you're measuring -- where is Rutgers stepping into the Big Ten? And so that drill will happen the whole rest of the summer, as soon as I get there.