Julie Hermann, Rutgers University's embattled new athletic director, said today that she had not been abusive toward volleyball players at the University of Tennessee 16 years ago. One of her accusers told ABC News that she and other members of the team had been called "whores" and "alcoholics."
"For sure, I was an intense coach, but there is a vast difference between high intensity and abusive behavior," Hermann said in a statement today.
Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey, issued that statement – and a second one in support of Hermann from university President Robert Barchi – after more than a day of damage control.
A day earlier, New Jersey's Star-Ledger reported that 15 players on the University of Tennessee's 1996 volleyball team had written a letter saying that Hermann, their coach at the time, had "ruled through humiliation, fear and emotional abuse." In a lengthy story, the newspaper raised a series of questions about the temperament and honesty of a woman brought in to fix an athletic department besieged by scandal after accusations that former basketball coach Mike Rice had abused and berated his players.
Kelly Hanlon Dow, one of Hermann's accusers, told ABC News today that at the time -- 16 years ago -- she and her teammates decided they could no longer play under Hermann.
"She told us we sucked. ... We're fat. We're stupid. ... We're whores. ... We're alcoholics," Dow, a sophomore on the 1996 team, said today. "We got to a point where it was no longer worth the scholarships. It was no longer worth playing volleyball."
Dow said the 15 women had endured name-calling and berating, and were not allowed to shower or eat during road trips between Florida and Tennessee.
"It absolutely brought down morale," she said. "We could have been a lot better than we were." According to the Star-Ledger, Hermann attended a meeting with the players and the Tennessee athletic director to address the letter and then left, saying, "I choose not to coach you guys."
A senior Rutgers University official told ABC News today that Hermann, realizing her new job could be on the line, had "been making calls" to key leaders and opinion makers with the message, "The Ledger is lying."
In her statement, Hermann called the allegations by the former student athletes "heartbreaking."
"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. ... Over the years, I have tried to learn from each mistake, including the lessons I learned as a young coach. I have become a stronger leader, administrator and educator as a result."
Just before e-mailing the statement, Hermann answered questions from four reporters invited to speak with her by conference call. ABC News was excluded from that call.
In his written comments, the president of Rutgers said the university chose to focus on Hermann's complete career and not just the complaints against her made by the Tennessee students 16 years ago.
"Since the announcement of her selection, some media reports have focused on complaints about aspects of her early career," Barchi said. "Looking at Julie's entire record of accomplishment, which is stellar, we remain confident that we have selected an individual who will work in the best interests of all of our student athletes, our athletics teams and the university."
Barchi said that Hermann underwent a "rigorous" vetting process.
According to the Star-Ledger, Hermann remained at the University of Tennessee in a different position for a short period of time after her players confronted her. She eventually left to become an assistant to the athletic director at the University of Louisville -- a post she held until she was selected as the Rutgers athletic director.
In April, Rutgers fired then athletic chief Tim Pernetti after an ESPN report revealed that basketball coach Mike Rice shoved, kicked and berated players with racial and sexual slurs. Rice was also shown the door.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said over the weekend that he wanted to gather more information about Hermann's tenure at Tennessee and the accusations made by her former players.
Citing Hermann's responses in the Star-Ledger, one Christie source told ABC News, "Her answers were hard to buy. It's hard to see how she weathers this storm."