When picking a replacement for former University of Tennessee Athletics Director Mike Hamilton, it might be wise to figure out why he ultimately failed in the job. I asked the question a few weeks back: How can the man who presided over the destruction of UT’s football and men’s basketball programs still have a job?
But Hamilton had successes in fund-raising and facilities building and he did hit one home run in bringing Bruce Pearl to campus. (Even with the fiasco in Pearl’s demise, he demonstrated that UT could be a basketball school, the community would support it, and it gives hope for the future that another great coach can revive the program.)
I wrote a column at the time he was hired urging that Hamilton be promoted from the UT staff into the job. I still think it was a good decision at the time.
Hamilton’s mistakes all seem to me to have a common cause.
He gave Phil Fulmer a multi-year contract, for no discernible reason, the year before Fulmer was fired.
He let Lane Kiffin run about violating NCAA rules at will without calling his hand.
Pearl invited players to his house, knowing it was an NCAA violation. It led to his lying to investigators.
In all these cases, the coaches showed a lack of respect—or fear—of their boss. The highly paid coaches at the university have been calling the shots during Hamilton’s tenure. The tail has been wagging the dog. It’s called a lack of institutional control, and the institutional control is vested in the Athletics Department director.
Former Athletics Director Doug Dickey had his problems but no one ever thought he was intimidated by his coaches or even the big boosters. He ruled with an iron hand and the NCAA knew it. If Dickey told them he had handled a problem, they tended to believe him.
Kiffin went around with a “secondary violation” rule-breaking swagger, insulting other coaches, having rap singers refer to “talking sh*t like Lane Kiffin”—and the idea was perpetrated that this attitude made him popular with potential recruits who liked his style. What kind of message did that send to the NCAA about UT’s program? The staff also included Ed Orgeron, noted bad boy. It’s like Kiffin, Orgeron, and Hamilton sent up a giant red flag to the NCAA daring them to catch them. And of course they did.
If you set out to create a reputation as bad boys, don’t be surprised if you achieve it.
There are various skill sets that might be worth looking for in selecting an AD. Managerial ability, business experience, marketing savvy. But I would suggest the most important quality in the next AD be a strong personality who is not intimidated by highly paid coaches or meddling boosters.
This problem is not limited to UT, of course. There are other schools with multi-million-dollar football coaches and ADs that let them call the shots. But if you look at Jeremy Foley at Florida, a school known for big-name big-salaried coaches, no one doubts that he is in charge of a department that leads the SEC in championships in all sports. And he’s done it since 1992.
You can hire good marketing people. You can hire good accountants. But the leadership qualities necessary to preside over famous well-paid egos has to be there.
Too often today the athletics director is merely a shock absorber—caught between pleasing big boosters and stroking the ego of a famous coach. Keeping things smoothed out, keeping the fans happy, it isn’t so much an administrative job as a juggling act.
Given the volatility of the fan base, the boosters, sports blogs, talk radio, and the varied coaching staff personalities, there needs to be a calm authoritative center that commands respect—and, yes, fear. A UT coach should learn from recent history, but should they forget to walk the straight and narrow, there needs to be a firm hand to remind them.
UT coaches “talkin’ sh*t,” hurling insults, and lying should never again be an issue.
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