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VOL. 132 | NO. 194 | Friday, September 29, 2017

New AD Fixing Hart’s Errors – Is Jones Next?

David Climer, Nashville Sports Correspondent

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University of Tennessee Vice Chancellor and Director of Athletics John Currie has his eye on coaches hired by his predecessor, Dave Hart, including Butch Jones, Holly Warlick and Rick Barnes. (Kyle Zedaker/Tennessee Athletics)

What does John Currie’s decision to reinstitute the name “Lady Vols” for all women’s sports at the University of Tennessee have to do with Butch Jones?

Bear with me:

What if Currie is intent on doing a Donald Trump? Explanation: One of the biggest criticisms (or points of approval, depending on your political leanings) of President Trump is that he seems hell-bent on undoing the accomplishments of the Obama administration – repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, undercut environmental protections, etc.

By reinstituting the Lady Vols brand for all women’s sports at UT, Currie overrode one of the most noteworthy moves by the previous athletics director, Dave Hart. Was that a one-time move or is Currie intent on undoing more of Hart’s handiwork?

It remains to be seen how Currie really feels about Hart’s three biggest hires – Jones (football), Rick Barnes (men’s basketball) and Holly Warlick (women’s basketball). But it’s no secret that most athletics directors have far more loyalty to coaches they hire than coaches they inherit.

If nothing else, those three coaches now should realize Currie isn’t afraid to make change. He could’ve avoided the Lady Vols issue. But he chose to erase Hart’s mistake.

With that in mind, Jones, Barnes and Warlick are under the microscope. And for good reason. Each has flaws.

For all his highly ranked recruiting classes, Jones has failed to compete for the championship of the SEC Eastern Division. Player development and game strategy have been lacking on his watch. The last-second collapse at Florida elevated criticism of Jones.

Barnes inherited a mess after Donnie Tyndall’s abrupt firing and has failed to take the Vols to postseason play in his two seasons, where he is just 14-22 against SEC competition. His recruiting is suspect. Expectations for the upcoming season are not very high.

Warlick made the Elite Eight in three of her five seasons but her 2016 Lady Vols team was eliminated in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The overall trend of the program seems to be pointing downward. She will depend heavily on a strong freshman class this season.

Currie does not appear to be the kind of athletics director who will make rash decisions. As much of a no-brainer as the Lady Vols decision was, he took plenty of time and talked to many, many people before making the call. I expect far more evaluation before he determines where he stands with Jones, Barnes and Warlick.

Where Jones is concerned, the best thing to do is let the season play out. Yes, the failure at Florida left a mark and the 17-13 squeaker over four-touchdown underdog UMass made things even worse, but what if UT beats Georgia?

The SEC East is so muddled that it’s possible if not downright likely that a team with two SEC losses will still win the division.

Currie realizes that sometimes fans can’t see the forest for the trees. Remember, Jones posted back-to-back nine-win seasons in 2015 and ’16. You don’t make a radical change just for the sake of change. If you can’t significantly upgrade at head coach, you’re better off sticking with what you have.

As for Currie’s decision on reinstating the name “Lady Vols” for all women’s teams at UT, it was the right move even if it required no heavy lifting. I still haven’t heard or read a reasonable, thoughtful explanation for why Hart felt the need to limit the reference to Lady Vols to only the women’s basketball program.

Apparently, Currie didn’t understand Hart’s logic, either. In making his announcement, Currie struck a defiant tone and said: “We will not allow the Lady Vol brand to disappear from our athletics department or university.”

Hart’s decision to phase out the term “Lady Vols,” which was announced in November 2014, was met with anger in many circles and ambivalence in others. I’ve talked to only a handful of UT fans who praised the move. The masses either opposed it or didn’t really care.

From this point forward, all women’s intercollegiate sports on campus will use the name Lady Vols. Although the so-called “Power T” logo will remain in place for all men’s and women’s teams, the old Lady Vols logo also will be displayed.

With that matter out of the way, Currie can get down to more difficult decisions and moves. There is much work to be done to get the UT athletics program back to the across-the-board level of success it once enjoyed.

One of Currie’s pet projects is the next step of the Neyland Stadium Master Plan for the renovation and modernization of the school’s historic football home.

In an open letter to UT fans posted on the athletics department website, Currie noted that the renovations will include “significant upgrades to our grassroots fan amenities” as well as “upgrading the exterior finish to better align with recent campus aesthetic upgrades.”

Unlike continuing the stadium renovation, Currie’s decision on the Lady Vols matter didn’t cost anything. To the contrary, he can expect an uptick in the renewed sale of Lady Vols merchandise this fall and winter. It won’t be a big boost to the budget, but every little bit helps.

Looking back, it’s difficult to understand why Hart picked this fight. He should have left well enough alone. Nationally, the name “Lady Vols” is a brand, mainly due to the success of the women’s basketball program under Pat Summitt. Why mess with that?

At one point, Hart suggested the move was in response to UT’s switch from Adidas to Nike as its apparel partner. Hart once referenced a brand audit by Nike that stated the Lady Vols name and logo would be inconsistent with the university’s “One Tennessee” theme.

But correspondence from Nike that was obtained through open-records laws showed that striking the name “Lady Vols” was only a suggestion by the shoe and apparel manufacturer, not an edict.

Part of the blame for the foolish move lies with Jimmy Cheek, who was university chancellor at the time. He rubber-stamped Hart’s decision. It wasn’t the first time Cheek lost his way when it came to the athletics program.

From a distance, it appears that Hart simply decided he did not want the term “Lady Vols” affiliated with the UT sports brand. When it came to the historical significance of the women’s basketball program, he grudgingly gave ground, mostly out of deference to Summitt.

What Hart failed to understand is that other women’s sports had enjoyed periods of great success under that heading.

Let’s be clear: Hart did a number of very good things as UT’s athletics director. For one thing, he got finances back in line and restocked the reserve fund. For another, he fired Derek Dooley. But the whole Lady Vols fiasco was an unnecessary mess.

Hart came off as tone deaf. His focus was on marketing and branding, not tradition and values.

Currie fixed that when he reinstituted the Lady Vols name and brand. But that was the easy part. If Currie is going to achieve his stated mission of getting all sports at UT competing for conference championships, he’ll have to make some harder, tougher decisions.

And deciding the future of Butch Jones is becoming a hard, tough decision.

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

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