Tennessee Launches Its Historic First National Search for an Athletic Director

Mark HancockContributor IIIJune 8, 2011

The Hordes of Fans at Neyland Stadium are embarking on a search for a new leader for their athletics programs in Big Orange Country
The Hordes of Fans at Neyland Stadium are embarking on a search for a new leader for their athletics programs in Big Orange CountryGrant Halverson/Getty Images

General Robert Reese Neyland's statue was unveiled last fall in the venerable, century-old stadium that bears his name on the banks of the Tennessee River in Knoxville on the University's campus. That unveiling set in motion a whirlwind of events which resulted in the resignation of one of Neyland's few successors at UT as its Athletics Director.

Mike Hamilton went to Clemson and worked at Wake Forest under nationally acclaimed Ron Wellman before coming to The Hill, and was the best fundraiser UT ever had. He added to what were already very impressive athletic facilities, spending lots of the money he raised. In his nearly two decades on campus, he was accepted as a loyal Vol, unlike his predecessor in the job, Doug Dickey, who had been the school's football coach in the 1960's before returning to be AD in the 1980's—much to the chagrin of many Vol alumni, who always viewed him as a Florida Gator. Much of that angst was due to the fact that he left UT under bad circumstances to return to his alma mater in the 1970's.

Hamilton, who has adopted children from Africa and taken mission trips there, is a genuinely dedicated Christian. A plethora of NCAA violations by coaches under his authority led to his downfall. He obviously was able to negotiate a great "resignation" package for himself of $1.3 million over three years, plus bonuses and other perks, before the hammer might have fallen on him for lack of control over football coach Lane Kiffin and basketball coach Bruce Pearl, making his exit less lucrative after the facts are bared and the punishment meted out, as Hamilton might have well been named as an administrator who ran an out-of-control department.

While Hamilton was a prolific fundraiser, his handling of his top coaches was controversial. He fired longtime football coach Phillip Fulmer and replaced him with the impetuous Kiffin, and then hurriedly hired Derek Dooley to replace him. The jury is still out on how all that will work out for Tennessee. He stood behind Pearl, the gem of his hires as AD, perhaps showing the misguided loyalty that was key to his downfall.

UT-Knoxville Chancellor Jimmy Cheek, a Texas native who has held administrative positions at Texas A&M and Florida, has only been on campus for a couple of years. The UT Board of Trustees ended the longstanding chain of command that had the Knoxville Athletics Director reporting directly to the President, and now has that position reporting to the campus Chancellor instead. This dubious move was long sought by the faculty, even though the school Presidents are the ones that control the Southeastern Conference, which has won the last five national championships in football. Further, that sport drives all revenue nationally and accounts for the bulk of UT's $100 annual budget.

Loyalty was always the quality held highest by General Neyland. It was part of his military background instilled in him at West Point and as General Douglas MacArthur's most trusted aide in both war and peace. Hamilton displayed loyalty to the school that gave him his most prominent professional position by leaving with grace and on his terms while he could.

Tennessee now embarks on its first broad and national search for a replacement in Hamilton's position. Neyland stayed on as Athletics Director until his death in 1962. He was then replaced by Bob Woodruff, who had played for the General at Tennessee and was Dickey's head coach at Florida, after UT fired for the first time another of Neyland's proteges, Bowden Wyatt, who had succeeded Neyland as both Head Football Coach and Athletics Director. Woodruff handpicked Dickey as his successor, and it was Dickey who hired Hamilton, who was his successor. Thus, the string tracing the lineage of this position all the way back to the founder of Tennessee's football dynasty and the 100,000-seat stadium that bears his name must now be broken.

With over $11 million of donor money being spent to pay off fired coaches and administrators in Hamilton's tenure, including him, the focus needs to be on finding a capable administrator who can rebuild the football and men's basketball programs to their former glory and championship success. The SEC is the nation's preeminent conference as well as its most competitive. Although UT raises more money and has more donors than any other school, it gets no tax money at all and is self-sufficient and in the black. However, the Vols haven't won the SEC Championship in football in 13 years, and despite Pearl's recent success, they haven't won the SEC Men's Basketball Tournament in 32 years.

There has been a revolving door of Presidents at UT of late. Andy Holt adroitly led the institution in its period of greatest growth in the 1960's. He was succeeded by Ed Boling, his trusted VP, for the 1970's. Following a short interlude in which former Tennessee Governor and now Senator Lamar Alexander was President, Boling's top VP, Joe Johnson, was called into service twice as President. Since then, there have been a number of failed Presidencies and scandals associated with them from illicit sex on the part of Wade Gilley to misappropriated funds by John Shumaker to alcohol problems that the wife of John Petersen had. The last two Presidents who were hired, including Petersen, were only elected by the barest of margins—one vote—by the UT Board of Trustees. Beginning the job with opposition from nearly half of your Trustees is not exactly a ringing vote of confidence in your own aptitude.

Dr. Joe DiPietro, who has held the UT Presidency for the past several months, has mostly been out of sight and appears to be content to let Cheek, the Chancellor, run athletics in Knoxville the way he sees fit. Cheek was formerly DiPietro's boss at Florida. Both have an agriculture background in academics. Whether they are up to the task in finding the right man for the job, a man who knows the Tennessee traditions and will honor them, is unknown. They will be judged more as administrators than anything else by this hire, due to its high profile nature. With new Governor Bill Haslam, the son of Tennessee's most influential donor, Pilot Oil baron Jim Haslam, looking over their shoulders, and with Governor Haslam getting ready to make his first appointments to the UT Board of Trustees, DiPietro and Cheek had better find the right guy to be Tennessee's next Athletics Director. It might very well be the most important decision they make, and their own jobs may depend on their selection.