Ex-colleagues defend Julie Hermann

Updated: May 27, 2013, 1:58 PM ET
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

A former Tennessee women's volleyball assistant coach and a number of staffers at Louisville came to the defense of new Rutgers athletic director Julie Hermann on Sunday, denying allegations of mistreatment made by her former Vols players, one of whom went on the record Monday.

"I was in every huddle and involved in every volleyball substitution, and what they are saying is crazy," said Kim Tibbetts (formerly Kim Zenner), an assistant coach under Hermann beginning in 1992.

I was in every huddle and involved in every volleyball substitution, and what they are saying is crazy. I was by Julie's side in every meeting and every practice, and she never did what they're saying. What they are saying is not true. She was the most supportive coach. She loved those kids. What I'm hearing and seeing now is just shocking.

-- Kim Tibbetts, former assistant
coach under Julie Hermann

"I was by Julie's side in every meeting and every practice, and she never did what they're saying. What they are saying is not true. She was the most supportive coach. She loved those kids. What I'm hearing and seeing now is just shocking."

Rutgers hired Hermann, 49, as its new AD on May 15, replacing Tim Pernetti. Pernetti resigned as athletic director in April after former men's basketball coach Mike Rice and assistant Jimmy Martelli were fired after ESPN's "Outside the Lines" released videos showing physical and verbal abuse by Rice during practices the previous two years. Hermann starts at Rutgers on June 17.

The Newark Star-Ledger reported Saturday that Hermann quit as the head women's volleyball coach at Tennessee 16 years ago after all 15 of her players at the time, in a letter, accused her of calling them "whores, alcoholics and learning disabled."

According to the report, Hermann was confronted by players, who piled into an office -- some sitting on the floor and others sitting on a black leather couch. After hearing their complaints, according to the report, Hermann said she didn't want to coach the team anymore. The players remained anonymous in the report; however, one, Abbey Watkins, who played for Tennessee as Abbey Blazer from 1995-96, responded to the denials of mistreatment.

"I write this in response to make sure that the pain that we went through as a team is validated," Watkins wrote in an email Monday to ESPN.com. "All of the things that were written are unfortunately true. Many of these things happened to me personally. I truly hope that Julie has changed but refuse for anyone to deny the fact that our dreams had been crushed and our hearts broken. I pray that each of my teammates are happy and well despite what we went through. I was the first player to speak at the meeting with my team, Julie, Kim and Joan. I said that she had made me hate the game I loved. For her or anyone else in the room to say that meeting didn't happen is appalling. I will never be able to get that day (and yes those black leather couches) out of my head."

Watkins also said that the situation was so bad that "we all had to go to individual counseling sessions mandated by the university's athletic dept. after she left the university."

On Sunday, The Associated Press reported that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie plans to discuss the allegations about Hermann before commenting.

"I knew things didn't end well at Tennessee," said Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich, who added that he didn't know of the allegations. "I talked to her AD at Tennessee and the coach of the Olympic team (on which Hermann was an assistant in 1996), and everything was clear sailing. I hired her to be our head coach at Northern Arizona. She was with us for six months before she went to Tennessee.

"For the past 15 years here she did impeccable work for us. No one has said anything the past 15 years. She is beloved here. I never saw anything close to this. She is intense, but I don't know a coach who isn't."

Former Vols assistant volleyball coach Ginger Hineline sued Hermann in 1997, alleging she discouraged her from getting pregnant. Hineline won a $150,000 settlement.

The Star-Ledger reported Rutgers investigated the lawsuit and continued to back Hermann.

"We have looked at the totality of Julie's record in athletics administration and we look forward to her continued success as she leads Rutgers' transition into the Big Ten," the university said in a statement Friday, according to the Star-Ledger.

[+] EnlargeRutgers' Julie Hermann
U of L Card Game.comShortly after being introduced as Rutgers' athletic director, Julie Hermann was facing abuse allegations from her former volleyball players at Tennessee.

The Star-Ledger acquired a video from Hineline's wedding, which Hermann couldn't recall attending when asked about it at her introductory news conference at Rutgers two weeks ago. In the video, Hermann said, "I hope it's good tonight. 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 (in) February with any surprises, you know, the office and all, and it would be hard to have a baby in there."

On Sunday, Tibbetts said she took the wedding video, grabbing the camera from the videographer.

"I'm the one taking the video, the one laughing on it, the one prompting the question," Tibbetts said.

Tibbetts said she initially forgot they attended the wedding in 1994. She said she talked to Hermann about it Sunday and prior to seeing the release of the video, which neither of them remembered.

"I know that comes off badly," Tibbetts said. "(Hineline) used that in the lawsuit and it was ridiculous and out of context. (Hineline) was fired because of her lack of performance, recruiting ability and ability to relate to players. That's why she was fired, not because she was pregnant. Julie is a complete supporter of women. It was me who had to take up the responsibilities for (Hineline's) lack of performance. I became the recruiting coordinator because this woman couldn't perform. It's ludicrous. It was a video at a wedding reception, and if you see it we all had love for Ginger then."

In an interview with the Star-Ledger, Hineline gave a different version of the events, saying to the newspaper, "I would say, 'Hey, we want to start a family,' and that's where the discouragement kept happening. She was reminding me of the demands that would come with a baby, and the job being demanding.

"So what you're telling me is that I could lose my job if I had a child? And Julie said, 'I hope it doesn't come to that, but it could.'"

Hineline told the Star-Ledger she and her husband put off having a baby, and when she told Hermann she was pregnant, she was fired four months later, in January 1995.

The Star-Ledger spoke with a number of former Vols players who attested to verbal and physical abuse while Hermann was coaching.

The Star-Ledger said: "Their accounts depict a coach who thought nothing of demeaning them, who would ridicule and laugh at them over their weight and their performances, sometimes forcing players to do 100 sideline push-ups during games, who punished them after losses by making them wear their workout clothes inside out in public or not allowing them to shower or eat, and who pitted them against one another, cutting down particular players with the whole team watching, and through gossip."

Hermann was an assistant coach at Georgia in 1987-88. Former Bulldogs player and coach and current Emory head coach Jenny McDowell said Sunday, "I worked side-by-side with her, and she is without question one of the finest coaches I've ever seen and is beloved by athletes. She treated them with incredible respect and dignity."

The praise for Hermann is clearly high at Louisville, where she was an administrator for 15 years. Second-year volleyball coach Ann Kordes called Hermann a mentor on Sunday.

"I'm the president of the volleyball coaches association, and several ADs hold her in high regard," Kordes said. "The reports are completely contradictory to who she is, her personality and management style. She has been nothing but encouraging and supportive of male and female coaches starting a family. The people at Rutgers got one of the best ADs in the country. Her management style is collaborative and supportive. Everything that is coming out from these accusations is completely opposite of who she is and has been for 15 years at Louisville. Whatever happened (to the Tennessee players) is important to them. She was a phenomenal AD here and treated her staff at Louisville well. We were all terribly sad when she left."

Teena Murray, the director of sports and performance at Louisville, was hired by Hermann and said she had been an unbelievable advocate for her and the strength and conditioning program.

"I've spent a lot of time with her," Murray said. "What is being said is alarming. Those are not my experiences. The people I know here who have worked with her say great things about her."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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