AD Mike Hamilton should be held accountable for Tennessee mess
Bruce Pearl and Lane Kiffin broke the rules, but Mike Hamilton hired them
A proud athletic department has turned into a shameful one under Hamilton
Hamilton couldn't resist making flashy hires, but he didn't bother managing
On Wednesday Tennessee released its 26-page Notice of Allegations from the NCAA, which outlines 11 major violations previously reported by the media over the past year. Basketball coach Bruce Pearl is accused of unethical conduct, failure to promote an atmosphere of compliance and failure to monitor his assistants. Former football coach Lane Kiffin is also accused of failure to promote an atmosphere of compliance and failure to monitor his assistants.
At no point, however, does the document mention the man who should ultimately be held responsible for fielding two such dysfunctional, rule-breaking programs; the man who hired both coaches, then stood back and let them make a mockery of the NCAA rule book. Somehow, athletic director Mike Hamilton has escaped the NCAA's wrath despite his two most high-profile employees' complete disregard for the most basic tenets of compliance.
This process will drag on for at least another six to nine months, with the university responding to the allegations and then meeting before the Committee on Infractions, which will ultimately issue its penalties. We can already predict how most of it will play out. Pearl, who committed the cardinal sin of lying to NCAA investigators over hosting a recruit (current Ohio State freshman Aaron Craft) in his home, is a dead man walking. He will either resign after this season or wait until the final verdict, at which point the school will have no choice but to fire him. (A deadly "show-cause" penalty is inevitable.) Kiffin has already fled to USC, where he may eventually be hit with his own penalties, but where he will likely remain gainfully employed due to his exemplary behavior there.
But what of Hamilton? Under his watch, one of the nation's proudest athletic programs has deteriorated into one of its most shameful. Will Tennessee chancellor Jimmy Cheek go along with the illusion that the football mess can be blamed entirely on that mercenary scoundrel Kiffin, and that reducing Pearl's salary last fall was an adequate show of force? Or, will he do the right thing: recognize that Hamilton was ultimately Pearl's and Kiffin's greatest enabler; that Hamilton's department is a textbook example of the risks of allowing splashy head coaches the freedom to act as their own freewheeling autocrats; and that ultimately Hamilton and his whole department should be replaced and rebuilt?
Maybe I'm being too harsh. After all, Tennessee is far from the only offender on the NCAA's radar these days. Just last year the Committee on Infractions took a hammer to USC following its own dual-sport scandal. Connecticut basketball learned its fate Tuesday. North Carolina football will be next on the chopping block. And investigators are reportedly continuing to sniff around Auburn's football recruiting tactics. Rarely does the NCAA come down specifically on the athletic director, possibly because of his or her lack of direct involvement in the case or possibly because many ADs play an active role in the governance of college athletics. Just last November, amid the NCAA's investigation, Hamilton was named to the executive committee of the Division I-A Athletic Directors Association. He's clearly respected by his peers.
But Hamilton, who succeeded former Vols football coach Doug Dickey in the AD's chair in 2003, represents a common dichotomy among modern-day athletic directors: He's a businessman first, manager second. His background before his current gig was primarily in fundraising and marketing, which can be both a blessing and a curse. Under his watch, Tennessee has more than doubled its fundraising revenue, struck lucrative licensing and endorsement deals and undergone massive facilities upgrades. But when it comes to hiring coaches, the marketer in Hamilton couldn't resist a flashy sell like Pearl, the boisterous showman who once bodypainted himself at a Vols women's game. For five years, it could not have worked out better, as Pearl led the long-dormant men's program to unprecedented heights (two Sweet 16's and an Elite 8).
But that's all about to come crashing down. It's clear in the report that Tennessee exerted almost no oversight of Pearl and his staff as they continually flouted NCAA recruiting rules. Despite Pearl committing at least one confessed and clearly fireable offense, Hamilton's hands are tied until the process plays out due to the risk of a wrongful termination suit. (In 2004, Ohio State fired coach Jim O'Brien after he admitted to giving money to a recruit; despite the NCAA eventually confirming this violation, O'Brien won a $2.4 million court ruling.) In the meantime, to show his displeasure, Hamilton tore up Pearl's contract and docked his salary by a combined $1.5 million over the next five years.
SEC commissioner Mike Slive apparently felt that wasn't harsh enough. He stepped in and suspended Pearl for the Vols' first eight conference games this season. And apparently Pearl didn't learn his lesson, because on Sept. 14 -- just four days after sobbing at a press conference during which he apologized for his conduct -- he and assistant coach Tony Jones made impermissible contact with recruit Jordan Adams in a visit to Oak Hill Academy, according to the NCAA's letter.
For the most part, the football violations aren't as serious as the basketball violations, but many in Knoxville undoubtedly view them as karma for terminal archenemy Kiffin. His staff made 16 impermissible calls to recruits in the week before his January 2010 departure. He allowed an intern to accompany him on a recruiting trip despite being told explicitly that he couldn't. And then there's the whole business about assistant coach David Reaves' involvement in dispatching recruiting "hostesses" to two prospects' South Carolina high school. (Most of that section of the report was redacted.)
While current coach Derek Dooley will feel the brunt of any sanctions, there is precedent to suggest the punishments may follow Kiffin to Los Angeles, too. In 2002, the NCAA banned then-Washington coach Rick Neuheisel from off-campus recruiting for a year due to violations committed at his previous job, Colorado. And former Indiana basketball coach Kelvin Sampson was restricted from making phone calls to recruits (which he subsequently violated) due to infractions at Oklahoma.
But while it's convenient revisionist history in Tennessee to place all the blame on Kiffin, he didn't arrive in Knoxville by accident. It was Hamilton who deemed it a brilliant idea to hand the keys to a high-profile SEC program to a 33-year-old first-time college head coach. It was Hamilton who boasted of inventing a "new model" for coaching hires by allowing Kiffin to bring in his father, Monte, as defensive coordinator and paying both of them head-coaching salaries. And it was Hamilton who stood quietly in the background while Kiffin purposely brought "attention" to the program by publicly accusing a rival coach of cheating and willfully committing other secondary violations. Only after Kiffin abruptly bolted town did Hamilton condemn any of it.
Hamilton released a statement Wednesday downplaying the significance of Wednesday's letter. "Receipt of the NCAA's Notice of Allegations by the University of Tennessee is another step in bringing this matter to a conclusion," he said. "Our institution has operated in complete cooperation with the NCAA since April 2009 as they have pursued their investigation."
Nobody doubts that. But what of the unspoken cooperation Hamilton, and in turn his department, played in these violations?
With today's heightened awareness of NCAA enforcement issues, the guiding principal should be more oversight and more diligence when it comes to monitoring high-profile programs. Hamilton seems to have taken the opposite approach: raise the money to go out and hire big-name coaches, then hand them the keys to drive as fast as they want. And like an unfortunate car accident, this should be a cautionary tale to athletic directors everywhere that head coaches, like all employees, need to be actively managed.