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New Rutgers AD was named in sex discrimination lawsuit in 2008

By Rande Iaboni and Chelsea J. Carter, CNN
updated 11:16 PM EDT, Tue May 28, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: A Louisville coach says Hermann "always put the student-athletes' well-being first"
  • Hermann was named in a lawsuit while at the University of Louisville
  • She was accused, along with others, of sexual discrimination
  • Some of her ex-players at Tennessee accused her of "mental cruelty"

(CNN) -- The woman hired to turn around Rutgers University's troubled athletic program came under renewed fire Tuesday after news emerged she was named in a sex discrimination lawsuit at the University of Louisville, according to court documents obtained Tuesday.

The revelation that Julie Hermann was at the center of a discrimination lawsuit while working at the University of Louisville, according to the documents, came just days after a report that a group of University of Tennessee volleyball players accused her of verbal abuse when she coached them in the 1990s.

Hermann's appointment as Rutgers athletic director came more than a month after a video of a Rutgers coach hurling basketballs and yelling homophobic slurs prompted the coach's firing, the resignation of the school's athletic director and sharp criticism from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

"It is a new day," Hermann told reporters after being appointed. "(The problem) is already fixed, and there is no one that doesn't agree about how we treat young people with respect and dignity and build trust."

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The allegations against Hermann have raised questions about whether the Newark, New Jersey, university properly vetted Hermann before hiring her.

But Christie told New Jersey 101.5 radio that he spoke with the university's president and board chairman about the allegations and that he would not second-guess Rutgers' hiring of Hermann.

"I told them I had questions, and I was going to get answers to those questions," he said on the radio station's weekly "Ask the Governor" show on Tuesday. "I have gotten answers to those questions."

Rutgers, meanwhile, went on the defensive Tuesday, releasing a list of names and contacts for supporters of Hermann. It also put out a statement that said she was on the "original list of candidates" assembled by a search firm for the position.

"Julie also was among the group of candidates considered at each step of the search process from the beginning," the statement said.

Hermann was named in a 2008 lawsuit filed by Mary Banker, an assistant track and field coach, who alleged she was the victim of sex discrimination by the head coach and then fired after she complained to Hermann and the university's human resources department, according to documents.

Banker alleged in the complaint that when she told Hermann about the discrimination, which included offensive comments, she was praised.

"We're lucky to have you," Hermann allegedly said in an e-mail, according to court documents.

A jury in Kentucky awarded Banker $300,000 in damages and lost wages, but it was overturned by an appeals court. Banker's attorney is appealing the ruling to the Kentucky Supreme Court, according to court documents.

Hermann did not return a telephone call from CNN seeking comment.

The University of Louisville, in state Supreme Court court filings, defended the firing, saying the evidence showed Banker was "an abysmal coach and recruiter."

Word of the Louisville lawsuit followed news first reported Sunday by a New Jersey newspaper, The Star-Ledger, that a group of former volleyball players at Tennessee accused Hermann of "mental cruelty."

In a letter written in 1997 and obtained by the newspaper, members of the team purportedly claimed that Hermann called players "whores, alcoholics and learning disabled."

Verbal abuse from Hermann became so intense, they claimed, that the team banded together to write the letter, calling the situation "irreconcilable." After the team presented the letter to Hermann, she chose to stop coaching them, according to the newspaper's report.

One former Tennessee volleyball player defended Hermann in a statement of support, which was released by Rutgers.

"You were tough no doubt but I knew you cared and I went from being a kid with a bad attitude who thought I was God's gift to athletics to the captain of my team," wrote Sonya Thomas, who played for Tennessee from 1992 to 1995.

"Your intensity helped me be mentally tough and it was exactly what I needed. None of it was abusive, mean spirited or demeaning."

In a written statement released Monday, Hermann said her former students' comments are "heartbreaking." She denied the allegations of abuse and vowed to push ahead in her new role.

"I was never notified of the reported letter outlining the concerns of some former athletes. However, I am truly sorry that some were disappointed during my tenure as coach," she said. "For sure, I was an intense coach, but there is a vast difference between high intensity and abusive behavior."

Hermann said her commitment to students' success has been firm throughout her career.

Rutgers University President Robert L. Barchi said Monday that he stands by the school's choice.

"Rutgers was deliberative at every stage of this process," he said in a written statement. "Over the course of the search, Julie's record established her as a proven leader in athletics administration with a strong commitment to academic success as well as athletic excellence, and a strong commitment to the well-being of student athletes."

A University of Tennessee spokeswoman declined to comment.

Louisville women's basketball coach Jeff Walz backed Hermann, his boss over the last six years.

While he couldn't speak about what may or may not have happened at Tennessee, Walz said that in their time together at Louisville, he found Hermman to be "a very good administrator who always put the student athletes' well-being first, no matter what situation it was."

The Cardinals coach said he didn't see the uproar over Hermann coming, given his observations of her with him and his players. He credits her with helping put a solid system in place, so student athletes were in good hands from their first day on campus through to their graduation.

"(In) the six years that I had with her, she was very competent at what she does, how she handles situations, and how she treats the student athletes," Walz said.

CNN's Greg Botelho, Aaron Cooper, John Berman, Catherine E. Shoichet, Jason Kessler, Laura Dolan and Lorenzo Ferrigno contributed to this report.

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