It’s easy to forget just how angry University of Tennessee sports fans were back in 2005, when Athletic Director Mike Hamilton fired basketball coach Buzz Peterson. Former Vols Peyton Manning and Todd Helton voiced their support for the embattled Peterson, as did women’s basketball coach Pat Summit and Peterson’s former coach at the University of North Carolina, Dean Smith. The refrain was “one more year,” even though Peterson’s most experienced team had just finished with a 14-17 record and had, for the fourth year in a row, missed the NCAA tournament. Based on radio call-in shows and comments on the Internet, it seemed like most fans wanted Hamilton fired instead of Peterson. News Sentinel sports editor John Adams wrote a column suggesting that Hamilton’s job might depend on who he picked as Peterson’s successor.
Four years later, Hamilton’s selection of Bruce Pearl looks like it was a brilliant move. Pearl’s not only revitalized men’s basketball at UT, he’s also become a folk hero. He’s elevated the perennially second-rate program so much that this season—the team finished 21-13 and made it to the NCAA tournament for the fourth year in a row but lost in the first round—can be considered a disappointment. Pearl’s already built a legend not just with a fast-paced offense and full-court defense but with his outsized personality—his courtside intensity, his orange blazer, and the night he painted himself orange and cheered Summit’s Lady Vols from the student section at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Firing Peterson was the first major public decision Hamilton faced after he was named athletic director in 2003. Since then he’s fired and replaced two more major head coaches, in baseball and football. He has, in effect, recreated the department in his own image and caught UT sports up with the 21st century. So far the results have been positive; Pearl has been an even bigger success than anticipated, enough that he easily overshadows the dismal start for second-year baseball coach Todd Raleigh.
Then there’s Lane Kiffin.
In October, Hamilton fired Phillip Fulmer after 17 years as head football coach and replaced him with the 33-year-old Kiffin. Kiffin’s only previous head-coaching experience was a season and a half with the Oakland Raiders, during which the team went 5-15. Fulmer’s firing was controversial enough, especially since it was announced before the season was even over. That an unproven upstart from California was hired to replace the coach of the 1998 national championship team was even more surprising.
Most fans were clearly fed up after Fulmer’s second losing season in four years in 2008. But Kiffin came out of nowhere. He was picked over more experienced coaches, like Texas Tech’s Mike Leach and North Carolina’s Butch Davis. His youth and lack of experience make him something of a blank slate; commentators and fans have felt free to make extreme predictions, both optimistic and pessimistic. Memphis Commercial-Appeal columnist Ron Higgins wrote before the hire that the move “would be an admission that Tennessee is a second-rate program.”
Since his arrival in Knoxville, Kiffin seems to have gone out of his way to court trouble. In February, he accused Florida head coach Urban Meyer of a recruiting violation, earning himself a reprimand from the Southeastern Conference. Last month, ESPN.com’s Chris Low reported that Kiffin had told a recruit he’d end up pumping gas the rest of his life if he signed with South Carolina over Tennessee. (Kiffin has denied making the comment.)
But Kiffin’s also signed a top-10 recruiting class for 2009, a remarkable feat for a first-year coach in one of the most competitive regions of the country, and he’s injected a brash, youthful energy that Fulmer never mustered into the program. His off-season performance so far has both raised expectations and put a bull’s-eye on his back.
It may have also made Hamilton a target. Kiffin’s hiring could turn out to be the pivotal move in Hamilton’s career. If Kiffin wins, he and his coaching staff get the credit. If he doesn’t win, much of the blame will be directed right at the man who hired him.
The Athletics Director with an MBA
Mike Hamilton doesn’t fit the old model of an SEC athletic director. Athletic directors used to be ex-football players and ex-coaches, hard-nosed men like Georgia’s Vince Dooley and Doug Dickey, Hamilton’s predecessor at UT. During the 1990s, as college football turned into a billion-dollar business, those ex-players and ex-coaches were replaced by directors with business and management backgrounds.
Dickey was a quarterback for Florida and head football coach at Florida and Tennessee before joining UT’s athletic department. The 45-year-old Hamilton has an MBA from Clemson and has spent almost his entire career in college fund-raising and sports administration; he worked at a bank and as director of the Wake Forest booster club before he joined the UT athletic department as a fund-raiser in 1992. His office is decorated with sports memorabilia—most of it reflects the university’s accomplishments, like conference championships and the football team’s 1998 Fiesta Bowl win, rather than personal achievement—and scattered legal and financial documents.
When he describes his pragmatic approach to running the department, it sounds like a business seminar: “Given the fact that there are winners and losers in every athletic event, you’re not going to win them all, all the time,” he says. “What you’re trying to do is put the methodology in place, put the people in place, that you’re going to have much more success than failure.”
Jim Haslam II, the founder of Pilot Travel Centers, who played football at UT and is a former member of the university’s Board of Trustees, says the evolution of an athletic director’s job description since the 1970s has been “dramatic.”
“Back then they were retired or still actively coaching, mainly in football, some in basketball or baseball,” Haslam says. “They were coaches who had gotten into athletics administration. Now very few are coaches. They grew up as athletics administrators. Most of them, like Mike, have never, to the best of my knowledge, been involved in coaching. Now you have to be fund-raiser, chief financial officer, vice president of marketing, vice president of strategic planning, and chief compliance officer.... I don’t think in the ’70s and ’80s athletic directors were involved in fund-raising.”
With his background, Hamilton doesn’t relish the spotlight. He reveals little about his personal life to the press. He recognizes that when he’s in the news, the stories tend to be provocative. “In the grand scheme of things, I want to let the coaches coach and let the student-athletes play and not be as prevalent in the news,” he says. “That’s really what you prefer. But this is a big job with lots of moving parts, so sometimes you’re going to have things that aren’t going to go your way.”
He describes his decision to fire Peterson as an especially tough moment of public scrutiny. “I made the decision to make a change with someone I was fond of personally and had a good relationship with,” he says. “So couple that with the public display of support and that makes it tougher, particularly when you’re dealing with good people, and Buzz Peterson was, and is, a good person. That makes it complex as well. But I’m a firm believer that leaders sometimes have to make landscape-altering decisions if you’re going to lead. And I accepted this job on the premise that I was always going to try to do what I thought was and is in the best interest of our institution. In the end I know I’ve been hired to do the job as athletic director, so sometimes you have to make decisions that aren’t comfortable. And that’s what we did, because we thought it was in the best interest of the institution.”
If Hamilton sounds like a politician, that’s because he is.
“It’s 100 percent a political position,” says Tony Basilio, host of The Edge sports talk show on WVLZ 1180 AM. “I can’t underscore that enough. There’s no way to emphasize that enough.”
Hamilton’s ultimately responsible for the program’s relationship with a host of interest groups with varying influence: recruits, their parents, fans, students, alumni, donors, the Board of Trustees, the university administration, state legislators, and the SEC and NCAA administrations. Basilio says Hamilton’s been especially effective reaching out to former players and coaches.
“Think for a moment about the different constituencies that a football coach, or for that matter an athletic director, has to deal with, which we all are responsible to,” Hamilton says. “And all have some different ideas about how the goals are to be accomplished. The key word is balance—how to strike a sense of balance among all those different constituent groups and achieve the ultimate goals that you have for your program.”
At the same time Hamilton’s tried to maintain that political balance, though, he’s been aggressive as an administrator. He’s overseen extensive construction projects, from a new soccer stadium, a new aquatic center, and the new Pratt Pavilion basketball complex to renovation of Thompson-Boling Arena and a five-stage overhaul of Neyland Stadium that’s still in progress. Donations to the athletics department increased more than 50 percent between 2003 and 2007, and the department’s budget increased from $59 million to $79 million in the same period.
“When he came on as athletic director, he’d been the principal fund-raiser for the athletic department,” Haslam says. “So he brought remarkable strength as a fund-raiser at a critical time for the university, when they were embarking on a $1 billion fund-raising campaign. The next thing he brings his financial acumen.”
But most important for his public profile are the major coaching changes he’s made. (In addition to Kiffin, Pearl, and Raleigh, Hamilton also hired tennis coach Sam Winterbottom.) Pearl and Kiffin, especially, have been unusual personalities for UT. Peterson was universally admired as an all-around decent human being, despite his teams’ poor performances; Pearl is a larger-than-life character, on the court and off, respected for his competitive fire more than for being a nice guy. Fulmer and his predecessor, Johnny Majors, were both former UT football players who favored a blue-collar, conservative approach to the game; Kiffin directed a record-breaking pass-happy offense as an assistant coach at the University of Southern California.
Those coaching picks may seem at odds with Hamilton’s reserve and management style, but they do reflect a certain boldness in the way he’s made these changes.
“He’s been his own guy,” Basilio says. “I know when he made the change with the football coach, that was a huge move. It’s a potentially perilous move for a younger A.D. to make, if it doesn’t work out. He made that move, not in a unilateral sense, but he made it in an independent way. I’m still shocked that he did that.... You can always leave the guy in there and let yourself be politically insulated.”
Fans have been generally optimistic, based on Internet forums and radio calls. They’re aware of Kiffin’s short résumé, though, and seem ready to pounce on Hamilton if the football team doesn’t improve, and quickly.
An even bigger risk for Hamilton than the fans is the political support of big-money boosters, some of whom never wanted Fulmer fired. As Basilio told Metro Pulse in an interview in December, a small but influential group of boosters are waiting for a worst-case scenario. “These are people who have sort of a trauma bond with Coach Fulmer,” Basilio said then. “And many of them are actually cheering for Kiffin to fail, believing that Fulmer might one day be reinstalled.”
Hamilton’s willing to wait through an adjustment period for Kiffin’s small flashes of off-the-field controversy. Kiffin’s initial distractions were largely forgotten, at least locally, when Bryce Brown of Wichita, Kan., one of the top running back recruits in the country, committed to Tennessee last month. Brown’s the highest-rated recruit to ever sign with the Vols, and his late commitment significantly improved an already impressive signing class.
“We want our athletic program to be in the press,” Hamilton says. “We want to be in the press for positive reasons, obviously. But we want people to be talking about Tennessee athletics. What everybody has focused on in relation to Coach Kiffin is that one moment in time over the course of a couple of days when a lot of national notoriety was gained. But I can tell you, having been around him for three months, there’s a lot more substance to him than people realize. I look forward to the time when his personality and who he is becomes more in view, because I think they’ll see an individual who’s got a lot of the tools that will help us achieve the success we ought to have.”
But Hamilton may not have the same kind of luxury when it comes to wins and losses this fall.
“To this point he’s been a very good athletic director,” Basilio says. “But just like with a very good coach, stick around for a few weeks or months or years. If Kiffin doesn’t get it right, everyone’s going to be asking him, ‘Why did you fire a Hall of Fame coach?’”