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VOL. 132 | NO. 20 | Friday, January 27, 2017

Slow Pace of AD Hire Typical of How UT Works

BY DAVID CLIMER, Nashville Sports Correspondent

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About the University of Tennessee’s athletics director search: What’s your hurry? It only took a little over five months after Dave Hart’s retirement announcement to start the process of hiring a search firm and finalizing a committee that will oversee the selection process. The last thing you want to do is rush things, right?

Dave Hart

This is how they do business at UT. They observe a six-month (at least) waiting period on any key hire. Decision-makers in Knoxville can never be accused of having a quick trigger finger.

Contrast this with the manner in which Alabama went about things. In Tuscaloosa, they announced Bill Battle’s retirement one night and named Greg Byrne, the athletics director at Arizona, as Battle’s replacement the next morning.

Granted, those in leadership positions at Alabama knew Battle was ready to step away from the AD position and into a supporting role. But the quick turnaround is noteworthy when compared to the way they’ve handled things at UT.

The Big Orange is never in a big hurry. It took 12 years for Tennessee to beat Florida in football. Using that as context, I guess the process of hiring an athletics director is right on schedule.

Part of the delay is due to a change at chancellor. Beverly Davenport was announced as Jimmy Cheek’s successor in mid-December. Davenport has made it pretty clear she wants the naming of a new athletics director, who will report directly to her, to come on her watch. She doesn’t officially take office at UT until Feb. 15.

Even with those complications, there’s no reason for it to take this long between Hart’s announcement and the hiring of his successor. 

The delay is typical of the manner in which key decisions are made at UT. University leadership is lacking. The board of trustees is out of touch. Everybody seems to focus on the small stuff while failing to see the big picture.

Maybe they think the athletics department can run itself. Perhaps somebody in power believes UT should follow the Vanderbilt model of 2003. That’s when then-chancellor Gordon Gee eliminated the position of athletics director at his school and rolled the athletics department into the department of student life and university affairs.

Vanderbilt held that line with no athletics director until 2013 when David Williams was named to that position.

Once upon a time, UT had stability and strong guidance at the top of its athletics program. Over a 40-year period, the Vols had two athletics directors – Bob Woodruff and Doug Dickey. Whoever succeeds Hart will be the third AD since Dickey retired in 2003.

It’s a sign of the times, at least at UT. The university system is on its sixth president since 1999. 

Eventually, the powers that be at UT will get around to hiring an athletics director. Those that defend the cumbersome process note that Hart is under contract through June 30. But here’s the counterpoint: A lame duck athletics director can do very little of consequence. Hart is doing nothing more than keeping the chair warm for whomever is hired to replace him.

And make no mistake: There is work to be done. Butch Jones is in the process of retooling his coaching staff in preparation for a crossroads season. It would have helped to have someone in the administration offering counsel while Jones was making those changes.

The women’s basketball program continues to meander under Holly Warlick. Rick Barnes needs to start recruiting at a higher level with the men’s basketball program. Dave Serrano may be facing a make/break year as baseball coach. Some other sports are not playing up to expectations.

It wasn’t so very long ago that UT was considered the top all-around athletics program in the SEC, winning conference championships in a variety of sports. That’s no longer the case.  

UT is spending more money on sports than ever, but the results don’t show it. The Vols aren’t getting enough bang for their bucks.

It all comes back to leadership and commitment. While Hart did some very good things in terms of getting finances in order, he let other things slide. His decision to go from “Lady Vols” to “Vols” for all women’s teams except basketball made no sense.

Hart’s day is done. It’s time for a fresh start. Why drag this out any longer?

The prudent thing would have been to hold a brief reception for Hart on the day his retirement was announced and then have an attorney drive 90 miles down I-75 and stick a contract under the nose of David Blackburn, currently the athletics director at UT Chattanooga. 

Why hire a search firm and name a search committee when a UT graduate and former Vols administrator is doing great things at a school in the same university system?

And then there is Phillip Fulmer. 

Hiring your former football coach as athletics director is no longer considered the way to do business. Even so, no one could question Fulmer’s love of the school. If he were surrounded with those who understand the big business of intercollegiate athletics, he could succeed.

There are other possibilities. I would have a conversation with Charles Davis, a former UT football player who has had a successful career in TV. He is smart and charismatic. And he loves his alma mater.

While you’re at it, check in with Todd Stewart at Western Kentucky. Stewart, who once worked in the sports information office at UT, continues to make savvy hires for the Hilltoppers. 

He understands how the game is played.

Ultimately, of course, the success or failure of UT’s next athletics director will hinge on the football program. While across-the-board success is nice, it is football that pays the bills. This is the SEC. With the exception of Kentucky and perhaps Vanderbilt, an athletics director is only as good as the football program he oversees.

With that in mind, it would be nice if UT could hire its next athletics director before the football season starts.

Reach David Climer at dclimer1018@yahoo.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer.

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