The sudden retirement of Lady Vols Sports Information Director Debby Jennings was announced last week in a terse, three-paragraph press release that shocked fans of the women’s program, many of whom were already suspicious that the consolidation of men’s and women’s departments would mean second-class treatment for the Lady Vols. They feared that Jennings’ retirement was not voluntary.
A May 18 letter to University of Tennessee Chancellor Jimmy Cheek from Jennings’ attorney, David Burkhalter, will likely confirm the worst fears of Lady Vols fans. Burkhalter’s letter says that on May 15, UT Athletics Director Dave Hart called Jennings into his office, accused her of insubordination, and gave her three and a half hours to decide whether to retire or be fired.
The letter says Hart wanted her decision before he took off on a public relations jaunt at the end of the day with the Big Orange Caravan. When she returned to her office, it says, Jennings found that her computer had been removed and her e-mail files deleted.
A media source who has covered Tennessee athletics for years says that former Coach Pat Summit was “emotionally distraught,” when she heard of Jennings’ forced retirement. “They didn’t even have the decency to notify her, until after the fact. Nobody would have screwed with Pat if she were still coach; Debby would still be here. This is such a shame—the women’s department was so well run. Now it looks like they’re being sucked into the vortex of incompetence on the men’s side.”
Another document obtained by Metro Pulse—a letter from Jennings to Hart dated Jan. 11—says Hart had started pressuring Jennings to retire last December, with Summitt still at the helm. Jennings, who is a 57-year-old cancer survivor, politely declined, saying in her letter that she needed to keep working and to keep her health insurance, at least until she is 62, and that she suspects that the pressure to retire came because she expressed disapproval of discrimination “toward me and others.”
She also said in her letter to Hart that she had discussed Hart’s ultimatum with Summitt:
“She told me I had her full support and that she didn’t want me to resign. Further, you obviously don’t know me. As a woman of character, I would never voluntarily quit as long as Pat Summitt is associated with the Lady Vol basketball team. I would not abandon her.”
As Pat Summitt’s right arm for 35 years, Jennings directed a media relations department that won more than 400 awards. In 1995, she won the first Mel Greenberg Award for lifelong contributions to women’s basketball. In 2002, she received the College Sports Information of Directors of America Trailblazer Award and became the second woman inducted into the CoSIDA Hall of Fame. She was inducted into the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame in 2009, and the Tennessee Sports Writers Association Hall of Fame in 2010.
Her “retirement” came at the end of a difficult season that started last August when the iconic Summitt rocked the sports firmament by announcing that she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, and intended to keep coaching for as long as possible. It ended with Summitt’s retirement last month. In between, as tributes poured in from everyone from the president of the United States to coaches and players of opposing teams—many of whom donned Alzheimer’s Association purple and raised money to fight the disease—Jennings devised a plan to help Summitt deal with the demands of the media and a fan base accustomed to unparalleled access to the beloved coach.
Concurrent with Summitt’s health issues were tensions brought on by the Women’s Athletics Department’s absorption into the men’s department, a process that began before Hart arrived last year. (The move resulted in job losses in both departments but allows Hart to claim a savings of more than $1 million annually.) The new regime imposed restrictions on Summitt’s long-standing open-door policy for fans and the media, and those concerned with gender equity noted that just one of the eight executive-level positions in the combined athletics department is held by a woman, the bare minimum mandated by NCAA regulations.
Burkhalter’s letter to Cheek gave UT officials 10 days to avoid litigation in language that goes far beyond the usual legal boilerplate:
“After 35 years of loyal, excellent and award-winning service to the University of Tennessee, this treatment is unconscionable. Further, as an alumnus of UT holding two degrees, the treatment afforded to Debby makes me sick. Faced with this ultimatum, Debby had no choice but to ‘retire.’ Her duties were thereafter taken over by a younger male.
“As you know, her forced retirement follows an approximate two-year period during which Debby had been quietly complaining of gender and age discrimination and hoping that this would be rectified behind the scenes. Her complaints, however, only resulted in increased hostility, harassment, curtailment of responsibilities, isolation and other forms of retaliation by the men placed over her.”
Burkhalter wrote that Hart’s December ultimatum that she must retire by the end of the school year “shocked Debby beyond belief and she replied that she would not abandon her coach, Pat Summitt.… She later learned that same day Mr. Hart made the same ‘request’ to (men’s SID) Bud Ford.”
“Most recently, on March 16, 2012,” Burkhalter wrote, “Debby protested other discriminatory action by Mr. Hart regarding a colleague. I am sure you are aware of this.”
“I have advised Debby that she has the basis to pursue a discrimination/retaliation case against U.T., but… Debby has instructed me to first see if this unfortunate matter can be resolved on an amicable basis.… If we fail to hear from you [within 10 days], we will proceed forward without further notice,” Burkhalter’s letter said.
Jennings’ relationship with UT women’s athletics and Pat Summitt began in the mid-’70s when she was a student sports reporter with The Daily Beacon. She worked on both the men’s and the women’s side in the early days of her career, and much as Summitt is known for her “coaching tree” of former players and assistants now thriving in the profession, Jennings has launched scores of student interns and assistants into media relations careers of their own.
Burkhalter’s letter says that Hart’s May 15 actions “made her feel as if she was being treated as a common criminal.”
At 3:28 p.m. on May 16, Jimmy Stanton, UT’s Associate Athletics Director, Communications, hit the send button on a bland, three-paragraph press release announcing Jennings’ retirement. The third paragraph quoted Hart:
“She has been a part of our eight national championships in women’s basketball, and we wish her well.”
The retirement announcement was met with confusion, suspicion, and anger from fans and boosters, some of whom started letter-writing campaigns and petition drives. Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins, Pat Summitt’s biographer and author of best-selling biographies of Lance Armstrong and Dean Smith, took to Twitter:
“The forced retirement of #Ladyvols Debby Jennings is a dirty rotten piece of business. Office politics wins over professionalism.”
Award-winning ESPN columnist Mechelle Voepel: “It’s sad and alarming to see someone who has given her entire adult life to her alma mater be cut loose. Those of us who’ve seen Tennessee so long at the apex of women’s athletics never imagined this would happen there.”
Women’s basketball pioneer Mel Greenberg, a former Philadelphia Inquirer sportswriter who founded the first weekly women’s college poll (eventually taken over by AP), and for whom one of the awards Jennings won is named, now covers the sport in a blog called Women’s Hoops Guru. He said in a telephone interview that when he was forced into retirement due to downsizing in the newsroom, he nevertheless left with much fanfare.
“I got a farewell party and a military salute, not a three-paragraph kiss-off. But she’ll land on her feet because she’s Debby, and I’ll tell you what she’s got—she’s got legacy—the 70-something people she mentored. I don’t think a single one of them ever messed up.”
Cheek, Hart, and Stanton did not return requests for comment by press time.