Editor’s note: Before we dive into this diatribe, I want to point out one positive: While we were away on our, er, hiatus, the Tennessee football program secured eight — EIGHT!!! — verbal commitments for next year’s recruiting class. Of course we’re not around for the positive news, but I want to point that out before I absolutely shred our AD. So, Go Vols! Now, onto the bloodshed.
It’s Life 101 — try to be successful at everything you do, and when you fail, either spin that frustrating time into a positive or keep your plight as quiet as you can. Taking steps beforehand to ensure that you’re suffering in silence when things don’t work out rather than becoming a public portrait of Fail will save you a lot of frustration.
People actually get paid to help you accomplish this. They’re called Public Relations departments. The University of Tennessee may need to invest in a better one.
As if the athletic department hasn’t done enough on its own to draw laughter from rivals and ridicule from national media recently, it seems UT has a bunch of bumbling fools in high positions who are helping sabotage the school they work for and providing a public platform to keep shedding UT in a negative light. As a fan, it’s maddening. As a former media member, it’s baffling.
The latest in a long [far too long; we'll get to that in a moment...] line of public relations nightmares is the complete botching of the athletic director hire. If you are a Tennessee fan and you haven’t been following the proceedings, consider yourself lucky. If you don’t want to be angry at our beloved institution, I suggest you stop reading now. It’s going to get ugly …
- The timeline begins in early June when, much to the delight of many Tennessee fans, former UT athletic director Mike Hamilton announced his resignation, giving UT a “clean slate” heading into its appearance before the NCAA Committee of Infractions. Rather than fire Hamilton as many fans had hoped and expected he’d do, clueless UT chancellor Jimmy Cheek — at least publicly — said that Hamilton’s departure was a surprise. Rather than a clean break from the university as most resignations are, UT came out of the mess owing Hamilton $1,335,000 — yet another buyout. “I did not try and talk him out of it,” said Cheek, adding that he was pleased with Hamilton’s job performance. That, in itself, was embarrassing, not to mention owing the man who crippled our athletic department more than $1 million. “I almost passed out when I read that,” one UT employee said.
- So, what happened after that? Well, nothing, really, which brings us to our next embarrassing point. Knoxville News Sentinel John Adams was on the front end of this concern when he noted that even though Hamilton had been a lightning rod for criticism for myriad reasons, Cheek genuinely was caught by surprise with the resignation. As a result, he had no short list of candidates for Hamilton’s replacement.
- As a result, the school went out and paid six figures for the Atlanta-based Parker Executive Search Firm to sift through a national field of candidates. While I would normally call a search firm the biggest waste of money imaginable, I’ve already noted UT’s long-standing tradition of paying folks long after they are no longer members of the athletic department [Phillip Fulmer is still drawing a check, and he was fired nearly three years ago …] Just what has done for Parker to earn its money? Well, the search for Hamilton successor has gone nearly two months while an athletic department with one of the largest budgets in the nation waits for who will be running it. Not only that, but the women’s athletic department is going to be absorbed, and the new athletic director will oversee both.
- “Well, at least that last point you made means we’ll get a high-level name who’ll want to come because we can offer a lot more money, right?” You’d think that, but thus far, UT has struck out with two major candidates — and the worst of it is it has been made public by a leak [or several] within the athletic department. Therefore, Tennessee has looked just flat-out incompetent twice now. First of all, UT was all set to hire Georgia Tech athletic director Dan Radakovich a couple of weeks ago. The week prior to when his hire was going to be made public [according to a leak in the athletic department, most likely David Blackburn, who is a candidate himself] GT was cited for its lack of cooperation in an NCAA investigation and vacated its 2009 ACC Championship. How in the world does a SEARCH FIRM not find that out? Even if they were aware of the NCAA investigation but just not the lack of cooperation by the AD, why would they advise UT to go after somebody with a tainted reputation given the athletic department’s still up-in-the-air status with its own NCAA investigation? It doesn’t make sense.
- So, just when you thought this magic show of an athletic director search cannot get any worse, it does. On Tuesday night, it leaked that UT had interviewed LSU athletic director Joe Alleva over the weekend at his summer home in Durham, N.C. Several media outlets — most notably Volquest.com — reported that Alleva was going to be announced as the Vols’ new athletic director at a news conference on Wednesday. Not only is this a man who was criticized for his handling of the Duke lacrosse scandal while he was AD there, he also is overseeing an athletic department at LSU that has seen a rapid decline in its basketball and baseball programs on his watch. Also, the NCAA is looking into alleged recruiting violations there. Really, Parker Search Firm? Really? These are the two candidates you discovered? Why are we paying you again?
- But wait, it gets even more embarrassing for UT: Alleva TURNED UT DOWN. Basically after all but accepting the job, Alleva was wooed to stay at LSU and given a more lucrative financial package.
Listen, I realize this kind of stuff happens everywhere. Schools don’t always get their top choices to replace coaches or administrators. That’s nothing new. But for it to be played out in a public forum is just a breach of internal security. How does stuff like that get out? Why does everybody in the athletic department know and why does it get leaked to media outlets? Why can’t UT conduct a nice, quiet search, interviewing candidates, hashing out a list and then covering all its bases on a hire before it becomes public knowledge? This kind of stuff is kept under wraps at other places, but it never is at UT. How many basketball coaches reportedly turned down UT before Hamilton settled on Cuonzo Martin? Remember Will Muschamp and Troy Calhoun among others publicly saying “thanks but no thanks” to the Vols before Derek Dooley was hired?
I’m not knocking our coaches. I’m a big supporter of Dooley and Martin. I think they’ll be fine coaches, even though they aren’t the sexiest of hires. But, let’s face it, Tennessee fans: UT is not a very desirable place to be right now [unless you’re baseball coach Dave Serrano]. While the NCAA penalties likely won’t be terrible in football, they’re still looming. Basketball is probably going to get hit hard. The football roster is being rebuilt from scratch, as is the basketball roster. Heck, we haven’t won a women’s basketball national championship in three years — a drought by their standards. The baseball program has sucked. Football is having the worst time selling season tickets. Top-level recruits don’t find UT as attractive as they used to.
While it’s always great [for me] to be a Tennessee Vol, others lately aren’t feeling that way. Since we know our plight is going to be broadcast nationally and laughed at heartily, why can’t stuff be handled better internally so it doesn’t get out publicly?
If this was the first time, it would be different. But the athletic director fiasco is just the latest and greatest. This goes back even before Fulmer was fired.
During the tumultuous 2008 season that ultimately led to Fulmer’s demise, the head coach did not take proper measures to hide his disapproval of newly hired offensive coordinator Dave Clawson, doing everything but openly blaming the man he hand-picked to be David Cutcliffe’s successor for the losing season. Then, when Fulmer was fired, it was handled terribly — coming two games before the season was over. Fulmer didn’t handle it properly either, crying and finger-pointing and failing to leave the university with the class many UT fans thought he carried through much of his career.
Then came the Kiffin Year that included NCAA slaps on the wrist, scolding from SEC commissioner Mike Slive, numerous secondary violations and ultimately a full-fledged NCAA investigation. Hamilton routinely stood by Kiffin, who routinely looked like an idiot and further sullied the university’s reputation. For every rules breach, Hamilton not only looked dumb for hiring him, but for supporting him. The athletic department took so many PR hits during that time, it virtually became a laughingstock. After Kiffin mercifully left, we’ve already discussed the botched hiring process of Dooley and the names that leaked who turned down the Vols.
Finally [and I feel I'm leaving so much stuff out even though I've written 1,600 words] there was Hamilton’s sabotaging of the NCAA tournament this year by openly discussing Bruce Pearl’s shaky job status the day before Tennessee got walloped by Michigan. Hamilton and Cheek had steadfastly stood by Pearl through his tearful apology for lying to the NCAA and failed to fire the wildly successful and popular basketball coach after he committed another secondary infraction mere days after that tearful apology. The entire season rife with media taking potshots at Pearl and the basketball program played out, including Pearl’s SEC-imposed suspension, and the day before the season’s culmination, Hamilton goes public that Pearl may not survive the fallout. It was ludicrous.
Everything that has been handled from within the athletic department during the past three years has been handled the wrong way. To paraphrase something my uncle used to say, “Everything Tennessee touches lately has turned to (crap.)” And I’m sick of it.
So, pardon me if I’m a little perturbed by this athletic director search. I’m sick of being laughed at. We’ve sucked so badly on the field that we don’t need any help when it comes to looking bad. Maybe we should hire a support staff who sheds a positive light on things or hire some administrators who can actually get things done in the first place.
For a change.