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Rutgers Athletics: Julie has RU moving in the right direction....and here's why

She's been a lightning rod over issues that she created and that she addressed. But Julie Hermann may ultimately be the best thing that ever happened to Rutgers athletics.

Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports

I came across an art print that had the saying, "We tend to seek happiness when happiness is actually a choice."  It struck me that the same could be said for success, that given the choice, we would seek to be successful.

So, why has Rutgers had so little real on-field success over the years?  Have we actually chosen to be bad or, at best, mediocre?  Coaches and athletes don't go out to lose.  As Bill Parcells said, "There is winning and there is misery."  And for a lot of us over the years as Rutgers fans, it's been kinda miserable.

A recent Forbes article by Jason Belzer expresses the idea that RU no longer is "choosing" failure.  The article, Why the Rutgers Scarlet Knights are Proving that Greatness Is a Choice, points out that Rutgers, under Julie Hermann over the last two years, is doing things differently now and that positive changes in the Athletic Department are underway.

The Julie Hermann Factor

Now, for many Scarlet fans, the only thing they see with Julie Hermann are the verbal gaffes, the cloud surrounding her hire, and the lack - until a month ago - of any concrete ideas for improving facilities.  Fundraising is up, but some would say it's because of higher seat gift requirements...but that's another story.

If you've read my stuff and my comments on OTB since her hire, I've pretty much been a defender of  Hermann.  And I said just recently that I felt she was the most qualified athletic director we've ever had.  Her credentials were outstanding; her comments maybe not always.

But it's what's gone on behind the scenes to date that may tell the ultimate tale of whether Julie Hermann is/will be a success at Rutgers.  And that's what Belzer's piece in Forbes addresses.  Belzer, who teaches organizational behavior and sports law at Rutgers, spent three hours interviewing her and he came away with the sense that her strategy and approach is precisely what Rutgers needs.

"I've had the opportunity to write over a dozen similar articles exploring topics of organizational behavior and leadership in college athletics over the last three years.....[M]ost of my articles have focused on departments that were already over the proverbial hump. I always wanted to explore an organization that was smack in the middle of trying to change, and I couldn't think of a better one than my Rutgers....[N]o one was ever willing to go deep and explore what was really driving the decisions. That's exactly what I set out to do with my article."

Change as a Choice

Now, change is not easy.  It is a very hard process, and sometimes it gets ugly and painful.  And sometimes it requires surgery.  In the article, Hermann said, "Staff chemistry is critical to our success... you can't have people rowing in the wrong direction and expect to get anywhere."  And therein lies an example of the surgery.  Immediately after the Quick Lane Bowl last December, athletics spokesman Jason Baum resigned unexpectedly and without explanation, although the press had their own thoughts on why he left. For most of the Rutgers sports community, Baum's departure rose up as a minor media dust storm but died just as quickly.  According to Belzer,

"If an organization is going to be successful, then a key task for its leaders is getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off and the right people in the right seats," said Belzer. "Only then can you figure out where to point the bus. Just because you have someone who is competent at their job (i.e Jason Baum) doesn't mean that they (1) fit the culture of the organization and (2) even if they do fit, their skillset may not be what is necessary for the organization to excel at that particular moment."

The media harped a bit on Hermann's style of leadership in apparently getting rid of naysayers.  Belzer, though, feels such decisions were exactly the opposite.  "Of course, the key distinction between mediocre leaders and great leaders are ones that are willing to hire people that will challenge them, that won't just say "yes", but push back. I think it will become apparent very quickly whether Julie has done that once the really big decisions will need to be made."

I've always believed that change in and of itself is neither good nor bad; it is just different.  And Rutgers has had change, often turning out to be bad.  Look at coaching in football and basketball.  Since Frank Burns was fired after the 1983 season (with an exemplary 78-43-1 record!) football has had five coaches over the next 32 years, with three of them recording losing records and on board for just 5-6 years.  Men's basketball was even worse; since RU grad Bob Wenzel took the Knights to the NCAA in 1990-91, Rutgers has gone through four coaches (before Jordan) who averaged just four years and a 57-64 record on the sidelines.  Belzer wrote in his piece, though moreso for the overall organization but applicable to coaching,  "....the Scarlet Knights were stuck in what renowned management scientist Jim Collins refers to as the "Doom Loop", an organization that desperately wants to change, but lacks the internal discipline to stay the path and build sustained momentum, constantly undermining their own efforts until eventually they end up right back where they started."

What was Einstein's comment about the definition of insanity?

Rutgers has changed athletic directors, too, over the years.  Fred Gruninger retired in 1998 after 25 years at the helm.  He was followed by Bob Mulcahy (1998-2008), Tim Pernetti (2008-2013), and then Hermann.  In the first two cases, there was a scandal or at least the perception of one that forced the change. But despite the changes in leadership, whether for a specific sport or at the top spot, Rutgers was still Rutgers.

Belzer: "Once you study enough organizations, it's pretty easy to recognize the telltale signs of dysfunction. The biggest problem that Rutgers of old had was that they were always trying to put Band-aids on broken bones. Instead of trying to figure out why a coach wasn't having success, they would just fire the coach and hire a new one who would make the same mistakes. Instead of self-reflection, they would point fingers and blame outside circumstances - lack of fan support, not enough money, unfair competition....for Rutgers there was always an excuse.  Yet Julie is different, she makes people uncomfortable. That's why people don't like her. She has no problems saying, 'No, we're the problem; it's us. Unless we are willing to take the blame and change our ways, we won't be successful.' "

Belzer continued on that line of thought. "Many organizations get stuck in this cycle of self-sabotage where they make the same bad decisions over and over, often because they churn through leadership and thus can never learn from their past mistakes. These organizations often have an inability to come to terms with the reality of their current situation."  Julie seems to be running counter to that. The subsidies and financial issues were there under Mulcahy (who, to a large degree, helped to create the issue with football's expansion) and Pernetti.  But there was no clear plan to reduce it.  Tim went ahead with announcing RAC renovations without money in hand, just as Mulcahy did with the stadium.  "The danger lies not in the outright disregard of clear and unassailable facts, but rather that they are blinded by archaic organizational processes that are no longer necessary or effective in their current operating environment. If the leaders of those organizations are unable to recognize such conditions - or worse yet choose to outright ignore them - it can have catastrophic consequences."

Belzer feels that Hermann has made the paradigm shift with Rutgers by changing the nature of the conversation internally.  "Julie understands that Rutgers' is a unique operating environment with many different voices and opinions about what the direction of the athletics department should be. Not understanding the power and influence those voices have is also one of the reasons why her predecessors had less then glamorous exits from their own tenure at Rutgers. Seeking consensus, even if it means she might be exposing herself, is something she is willing to do. She knows it's going to be an uphill climb at Rutgers, but the only way you build consensus is by making people know their viewpoint is truly valued."

So, what does it mean?

The greatest media market in the world sits right up the Turnpike.  Alumni abound in the New Jersey-New York market.  Can it make a difference for Rutgers?  The Big Ten invitation was at least partially based on those two points.  Rutgers needs to capitalize on it.  Over the last few years, it seemed, though, that having the media so close was more a detriment than a help.  And whether it was a coach behaving badly or an AD saying the wrong thing, the media was all over it and Rutgers suffered.  But lately, as has been written, Rutgers may just be "America's Team".  And being where we are hasn't hurt.  Julie knows that, and Belzer felt that from their conversation. "Being so close to NYC means when there's a college-related story to be told, the media gravitates to Rutgers. Years and years of that happening have put the university at the center of the media's eye and thus we become the standard for which every other university is compared to. The minute Rutgers does anything even remotely controversial, the media world descends. That being said, Julie also knows that it can be a blessing in disguise. If Rutgers can do great things, the whole world will know."