UT’s most successful men’s athletic team over the past half-century didn’t perform at Neyland Stadium or Thompson-Boling Arena. Its home venue was Tom Black Track, and its successes spanned the globe.
Since Chuck Rohe became the men’s track and field coach in 1963, UT has won 25 SEC outdoor championships (plus 18 more indoors). NCAA championships followed under each of Rohe’s three illustrious successors—Stan Huntsman (in 1974), Doug Brown (in 1991), and Bill Webb (in 2001).
Four former Vols have gone on to become Olympic gold medalists—Sam Graddy and Justin Gatlin in the sprints, Aries Merritt in the hurdles, and Tim Mack in the pole vault. And several others have become Olympians.
When Webb retired in 2009 after some slippage in the program, then-Director of Athletics Mike Hamilton turned to UT’s women’s track and field coach J.J. Clark to head a combined men’s and women’s program. That may sound like a scrimping move, but it reflects a national trend toward such a combination.
Clark’s stellar record during his seven preceding seasons as the women’s coach certainly seemed to justify his choice. His teams had won two NCAA indoor championships in 2005 and 2009, claimed three SEC championships and finished runner-up in three other years. In addition to his many outstanding UT performers, especially in the middle distances, he also coached his sister Joetta Clark Diggs, a four-time Olympian in the 800 meters, and his wife Jearl Miles Clark, who made three Olympic teams in the same event.
However, after Clark assumed the combined helm, the women’s team began to decline, and the men’s team went from bad to worse.
The Lady Vols slipped to fifth-place finishes in the SEC from 2011 through 2013, and this past season for the first time in Clark’s tenure failed to score a single point at the NCAA outdoor championship meet.
The men’s team dropped from eighth in the SEC in 2009 to 10th in 2010 and 2012, then tied for 11th in 2013. A stellar freshman sprinter, Dentarius Locke, had given them a temporary boost in 2011, but he then transferred to Florida State where he finished second in the 100 meters in the NCAA meet and also qualified for the finals in last month’s national championship meet. Meanwhile, the Vols didn’t score a single point in an individual running event at the 2013 SEC meet, and only a cadre of pole vaulters and shot putters kept them from getting whitewashed.
Along with athletes transferring out and a dearth of top recruits, there was also turmoil in the coaching ranks. After the 2011 season, Clark dismissed longtime distance-running coach George Watts and sprint coach Norbert Elliot. Locke was quoted as saying at that time, “I didn’t come here to be part of a rebuilding process, and the worst part here is that the coaches just don’t get along.”
When former UT distance runners held a big reunion in the fall of 2012, in part to commemorate an NCAA cross-country championship, Clark was pointedly not invited to the gathering. A big part of the reason was the presence of Watts, who is now head coach at East Tennessee State and had been either a teammate in the 1970s and then a coach to most of those assembled. “We’ve lost patience with the program, and unless there’s a change at the top it’s not going to get much support from what used to be a loyal base of alumni,” says one of them.
He and others believe the program has the resources it needs to be successful once again in terms of the maximum allowable scholarships and outdoor facilities, although the lack of an indoor track or even practice space for field events is a detriment. Bigger, though, is the loss of a culture of success that can beget more success in terms of attracting top athletes. With the departure last month of throwing events coach John Frazier for a post at UCLA, only unpaid volunteer pole vault coach Russ Johnson is anything like a magnet.
The sun had scarcely risen on the morning following Tennessee’s disastrous football loss to Vanderbilt last fall when Director of Athletics Dave Hart announced the firing of Derek Dooley as football coach. But two months have passed since the end of the most recent in a succession of disastrous track seasons, and there’s been nary a peep from Hart.
With all due respect to Clark for his past accomplishments, it’s plainly time for a coaching change to get UT back on track.