Look to Mt. Hambone

When considering coaches, he's the decider

Sports

by Tony Basilo He's known by his friends in Brevard, N. Car., as Hambone. Mike Hamilton has made some serious bones in his first four years at the helm of UT's sporting empire. These days the once-neophyte, fledgling assistant director (AD) is carrying an ever heavier stick on the hill. Hitting home runs like Bruce Pearl tend to do that for you.

Last year the football Vols staged a quality recovery after the 5-6 record of '05, but Hamilton is rather vague in quantifying his expectations for the upcoming season.

â“I don't put expectations as it relates to wins and losses,â” Hamilton says, â“I talk a lot about winning it and chasing it. In a sense we were there last year when we had two games where we were leading by 10 points in the fourth quarter get away in Florida and LSU. If you win one of the two, you're right there. I think we're in the mix for Atlanta and win another championship. This league is tough, but I believe we have every piece of the puzzle in place to do that. I believe that our coaching staff and players are capable of getting it done this year.â”

Hamilton maintains he's serious about expecting championships from his football team, which makes this year a seemingly pivotal one for Philip Fulmer and Company.

â“In terms of long-term evaluations, our winning percentage historically at Tennessee is somewhere around 75 percent,â” he says, â“that translates into 9 out of 12 on a season to season basis. Sometimes you'll win more, sometimes less. I want us to be in the mix, hunting for an SEC championship. That's what I judge. Are we in the mix? Or have we fallen back from that? I think right now, we're in the mix.â”

The mix is fine, but sooner or later, the recipe has to yield a championship or it could be Filet o' Fulmer. On receiving the AD appointment at UT, Hamilton said that he expected to get to the SEC title game three out of 10 years in football and win it twice in that stretch. Believe it or not, he's not backing down on the expectations: â“I believe it is reasonable to expect us to play for the SEC title three or four times every 10 years and win a couple. I think those are expectations that we can and should meet at the University of Tennessee given our history along with the resources and fan support,â” Hamilton says.

Tennessee will open a new chapter in basketball with a newly refurbished Thompson-Boling Arena that will feature black seats, loge seating, luxury boxes and improved concourse amenities. A multi-million dollar, state of the art basketball practice facility is also being erected next to the arenaâ"$37 million worth of renovations in all. Not bad for a program that couldn't even sell popcorn during the Buzz Peterson era.

â“For me in particular, personally, the growth of our men's program in the last 24 months has been gratifying because we have a great institution and fans that are deserving of having the kind of success that we are experiencing,â” Hamilton says. â“I will be surprised if we don't have tremendous success with our basketball ticket sales.â”

Bruce Pearl recently agreed to a $1.3 million contract that was below market value when you consider that Billy Gillespie at Kentucky makes over $2 million while Billy Donovan at Florida is about to make somewhere around $3.5 million per year. Hamilton eschews that Bruce may feel low-balled. â“I don't think so. Coach Donovan's obviously won a couple of back-to-back national championships while Kentucky was hiring a coach from a program (Texas A&M) that had been in the Sweet 16.

â“Bruce and I have a great relationship and we had a conversation where I asked him if this was a business relationship or a partnership? We've decided it's a partnership. That said, we're going to work together toward moving him up the ladder. He did go from averaging $800,000 when he got the job to now averaging $1.7 million in his new deal. That's commitment and response by us.â”

While he doesn't dispel outright the perception that Pearl wasn't as handsomely rewarded with his latest deal because of considerations for Pat Summitt, Hamilton said the seeming tie in compensation for Pat and Bruce is a complicated one. â“Two issues here: Bruce Pearl is going to be paid based on the men's marketing and as the success of our program continues to escalate. Hopefully, there will be a Final Four appearance in there and hopefully there will be a national championship in there.

â“Pat Summitt is a separate item in this sense. I believe that Pat Summitt deserves to be the highest paid women's basketball coach in the country. I think as fans and as media members and frankly even as a university, we've tied those things too closely together. They don't need to be tied together. Sure there are similar elements in there. But the reality is that they are two separate items ultimately.â”

What's not complicated is that UT has to seize the day in a wide open SEC. Failure to do so might place Phillip next to Buzz and Rod on Mt. Hambone.

Tune in and talk sports with Tony Basilio weekdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on ESPN Radio WVLZ 1180 AM.   Visit www.tonybasilio.com for more information.

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