When then University of South Carolina athletics director Eric Hyman sought to stabilize his compliance staff in the middle of a NCAA investigation in late 2010, he wanted someone with experience.
Hyman found Judy Van Horn, who was used to walking into the middle of trouble.
Michigan States football program was just getting over a NCAA probe when she landed in East Lansing in 1997. One of the investigations into Michigans Fab Five basketball team began soon after she arrived in Ann Arbor in 2001.
So the soft-spoken Van Horn was not fazed when an NCAA investigator was based on USCs campus examining allegations that boosters gave athletes discounted rent and helped pay for recruiting trips.
As senior associate athletics director, Van Horn sped USCs responses to the NCAA, built a good rapport with investigators and provided expertise.
That paved the way for the school to receive NCAA sanctions no worse than those the Gamecocks imposed on themselves a rarity as college sports governing body has stiffened penalties.
We got that result because of Judy Van Horn, said Hyman, who began his new job as Texas A&Ms athletics director in August. Judy was a Rock of Gibraltar.
Van Horn has become the highest-ranking woman in the USC athletics department with the departure of chief operating officer Marcy Girton, who joined Hyman at Texas A&M.
But Van Horn is known most for being a velvet hammer something built from her experiences of working at home to help her family while raising three children and weathering more than 20 years in college athletics compliance.
Theres a firm softness about Judy, Hyman said. She doesnt rant or rave. You think you can take advantage of her. You cant.
Van Horn came to USC to expand her work in athletics that started by happenstance as an administrative assistant at Central Michigan.
The 54-year-old oversees NCAA, SEC, university and department policies. She also supervises mens and womens tennis and volleyball.
But compliance remains at the forefront. Van Horn wants to educate and stay ahead of problems, such as hiring a firm to monitor social media use by athletes.
We are very mindful of the fact that we are viewed as the front porch of the university, she said. We need to do right by the rest of our colleagues.
IT WAS HOUSEKEEPING
When Van Horn starting working in college athletics in the early 1990s, compliance was the job of an administrative assistant someone who could gather and file reports on academic eligibility and financial aid the NCAA required.
It was primarily housekeeping, Van Horn said. There was a focus on pushing paper, getting information from coaches who did you call, how many calls did you make, how many off-campus visits.
Van Horn was that administrative assistant at her alma mater, Central Michigan, who was given compliance responsibilities.
Its not that the Midland, Mich., native was seeking a career in athletics.
She was not involved in organized sports after running for a track club in junior high. Van Horn spent a decade after college as a stay-at-home mom who sold homemade crafts and stationery before getting a job in real estate.
Van Horn joined the Central Michigan athletics department in part because the school needed her skills as an IBM systems administrator. She was hired part-time.
I remember being asked about my goals, Van Horn said. I said, I had dreams but I dont know if I am ready to share them. My dream was to be very successful and have a great job. Why be the administrative assistant, if I can be the boss.
An avid reader who liked statistics and contract law classes in college, she became fascinated about the NCAA rules even when she took her children to the park.
While they played at the playground, I would be reading the NCAA manual and developed expertise, she said. I thought maybe I could help the university.
After an audit found no problems with the womens sports she oversaw, she was given responsibility over all teams and eventually became the first-full time athletics compliance employee in the Mid-American Conference. She earned a masters degree in her new career, sports administration.
I felt like I had some measure of responsibility for the university and wanted to do my very best to do right, she said.
Van Horn became the second-in-command at Michigan States compliance as the Spartans were trying to fix problems after a NCAA investigation of their football program. The womens track and wrestling teams also fell under NCAA scrutiny soon after on infractions that happened before she arrived.
In East Lansing, she learned to stop pushing paper and take a mile-high view in preventing problems. That meant identifying trends and speaking regularly to coaches and athletes about rules.
The rule of thumb is that you hire good coaches, good staff and you trust that they are doing a good job and you verify, she said.
She would become compliance director at Michigan State before taking the same job at Michigan when the third and final probe of the players from the Fab Five basketball team started. Van Horn was handling the fallout from problems long before current players arrived on campus.
I learned you need to deal with issues as they arise, she said.
Van Horn became a leader in her field. She was president of the National Association for Athletics Compliance in 2008-09 and won the groups most prestigious honor, the Frank Kara Leadership Award, in 2010.
But Van Horn was among those reprimanded after an NCAA investigation into practice violations by the Michigan football team. She and another member of the compliance office were chided for failing to go to then-football coach Rich Rodriguez directly after not getting some forms from the team for more than a year, according to published reports.
That did not prevent Hyman from hiring her.
When we asked people who brings the experience and savviness to the table, her name always came up, and she was highly respected, he said. They said she was cool, calm and collected.
Hyman had said he wanted compliance staffers who had been through investigations. USCs new compliance director, Chris Rogers, oversaw compliance over Ohio States football team that also fell under a NCAA probe.
Going through those controversies provide lessons.
When the case is over, it doesnt mean your commitment changes, she said. It doesnt mean you can relax and not continue to have a high level of diligence. Nothing stays the same forever.
BETTER DO AS SHE TELLS YOU
Van Horn agreed to come to USC in the fall of 2010, three months after her reprimand at Michigan was made public. When she started work in January 2011, the NCAA investigation was in full swing in Columbia.
The examination of the allegations over deep discounts given athletes to stay at the Whitney Hotel was finishing. Work on charges that a booster gave some recruits improper benefits was just starting.
Despite having other duties, she spent her first months working on the probe, which included dealing with requests from a NCAA investigator assigned to the case.
She attended weekly status-update meetings with lawyers and other athletics officials.
Hyman offered Van Horn resources. She was able elevate an intern into a full-time staffer and add Rogers.
Erics early communications to me were that he wanted to know the truth, she said. He was interested in being fully cooperative. He felt it was always better to deal with the facts up front.
Hyman said she instantly gave credibility to USCs efforts.
When the NCAA issued sanctions in April, the Gamecocks were hit with penalties they recommended losing six football scholarships over two years; paying $18,500 in fines instead of vacating victories for using ineligible players; and receiving three years of probation.
This has been one of the best cases I have seen from a process standpoint, Britton Banowsky, chairman of the NCAA infractions committee, said at the time. In this case, it was obvious to the committee that the university wanted to get to the truth.
He added South Carolina wanted to ask all the hard questions of all the right people and, in some cases, they even went beyond what the NCAA staff was doing.
Now Van Horn and members of her staff and the athletics departments faculty representative, Zach Kelehear, meet monthly with USC president Harris Pastides to discuss compliance issues. She also had senior compliance staff members share more of their knowledge with the department to close the experience gap.
Van Horn has won respect in the USC athletics department.
One of our coaches said shes like a grandmother who puts her arm around your neck, Hyman said, and she squeezes it tighter and tighter to get her point across and you better do as she tells you.