Tennessee Athletics: The Names Change But The Mess Remains

Is Trae Golden just a small part of a huge problem at Tennessee? - US PRESSWIRE

Normally I avoid other schools and their problems, but this problem warrants a hard look at it and the culture behind it. It could be signaling even deeper issues and have an effect on their competitive stance in not just women's basketball, but athletics in general.

August 2011 brought a dark day to not only Tennessee women's basketball, but to the sports world in general when it was revealed that Pat Summitt was a victim of early onset dementia, a precursor to Alzheimer's disease. Everyone in the world of sport, and I do mean everyone, was caught dealing with emotions that ran the entire gamut of sadness and despair as opponents and fans were crushed with the news. Summitt is not only the winningest college basketball coach in history, she is the standard by which all women's coaches measure their success; not only in winning, but in perseverance. Summitt was present at the birth of women's college basketball, and there she remained until she was hastily removed by the University of Tennessee. Unfortunately, that's just a small part of the story.

Summitt had planned to remain with the team for at least the balance of the season, and then to make whatever decision she needed to after consulting with her doctors. With Holly Warlick taking on the brunt of the coaching duties, yet still running the team herself, Summitt could possibly have remained in her position, but athletics director Dave Hart either made her feel like she was not wanted or that it would be in her best interests to step down. She stated as much in an affidavit that she provided to Debby Jennings attorneys in her lawsuit against Tennessee.

"This was very surprising to me and very hurtful, as that was a decision I would have liked to have made on my own at the end of the season after consulting with my doctors, colleagues and friends and not be told this by Mr. Hart," Summitt said in the affidavit. "I felt this was wrong."

That plan was changed and Summitt was given a title of Head Coach Emeritus (more or less a brush off in my opinion). Summitt later said that Dave Hart had told her that she had misinterpreted his statements to her. However, nothing was changed, and she was told that Warlick would be named head coach, but that she (Summitt) could still travel with the team . Summitt later claimed that retiring was entirely her decision, yet she continued to support the Lady Vols media director's lawsuit when Jennings decided she wanted to pursue a case against Tennessee. Jennings, a 35 year employee of Tennessee and one of the staff members that had been with Summitt since her first day as coach, was fired by Dave Hart for "insubordination" surrounding her unwavering support of Summitt at the time.

The strange part of all this was that the incident that started the whole thing was Hart's insistence to have all Tennessee sports promote one logo, the "Power T." Hart later recinded this directive in a public interview and claimed he never wanted to make the change at all. Summitt noted all of this in her affidavit which was included in Jennings' lawsuit.

UT has become a hotbed of legal activity in the last 5-7 years. First when longtime football coach Phil Fulmer was relieved of his duties, and his contract had to be bought out; then the Tennessee basketball program fell under a taint with the problems of Bruce Pearl's tenure. Pearl's players came under fire from what was either a botched robbery, or one of the wildest ride-alongs in the history of college athletics. Then, Pearl himself was caught up in his own nightmare which ended up taking down the entire Tennessee basketball program.

As if that was not enough misery, Tennessee football had their own difficulties. Lane Kiffin, the man that Tennessee tabbed to become the next great SEC Football coach, pulls his Man of The Year/ OK, I'm Outta Here routine and buries Tennessee under a mountain of NCAA hassles and paperwork. This forces Tennessee into the ill-advised hire of Derek Dooley, SEC bred son of Georgia's Vince Dooley, perhaps the Bulldogs' favorite coach ever. Popular at the time, Dooley had a pedigree that suited the position, but lacked the experience and it caught up with him sooner, rather than later.

All of these activities occurred under Tennessee Athletics Director Mike Hamilton. It should be noted that Hamilton was the last Tennessee athletics director to serve as a "Men's Only" AD. Prior to the hiring of Dave Hart in 2011, Hamilton split the director's duties with his women's counterpart Joan Cronan, who served in the position since 1983. When Hart was hired away from Alabama, the positions were combined in the myriad of changes that occurred as Summitt was, in a backhanded way, "forced out".

The last of these changes took place recently as Heather Mason, an associate strength coach, was fired by Holly Warlick, citing job performance. It cannot be a coincidence that Mason is one of three women at the university who sued them and their management staff in the athletics department:

Mason, Associate Director of Sports Medicine for women's basketball Jenny Moshak, and former associate strength and conditioning coach Collin Schlosser sued the university last October for discrimination and retaliation. The suit alleges they performed tasks similar to employees who held analogous positions for men's athletic teams, but that they received less pay because of their gender or because of their association with women's teams.-

ESPN May 2, 2013

These problems are likely to add to the current flock of incidents now being brought to light after UT point guard Trae Golden was sent packing for plagiarism, and then Jenny Wright was subsequently fired from Tennessee when it became apparent that she had performed less than admirably in her position.

Wright has been the Director of Student Legal Affairs at Tennessee for 4 years, and it is now being alleged that she was sexually involved with multiple student-athletes. This is not, however, the first time that athletes at Tennessee have been front and center of a scandal that could reach the NCAA and possibly even legal ramifications, as there are now indications of possible academic violations and masking of academic impropriety of basketball players.

In 2000 Tennessee was the target of an ESPN "Outside The Lines" special in which Linda Bensel-Myers, who was at that time a UT English professor, alleged wide ranging issues with academic integrity inside the UT football program, going so far as to point out that UT student-athletes were anywhere from two to ten times more likely to receive a grade change form the academics department than the average student attending UT. At that time, Doug Dickey was the AD which to me, would indicate that a pattern exists for Tennessee in which the athletics department exists outside the guidelines and directives for the rest of the University.

What does this mean for Tennessee athletics? Well, conclusions are hard to draw, but one problem dogging UT right now is the downturn in donations. In 2012, the Tennessee Athletics program was down 25% in athletics donations as a whole. That would not by itself signal a problem, however, combined with the plagiarism clams, Wright's dismissal, and the current state of affairs inside the women's athletics programs, it does suggest a pattern of poor management which can be tracked all the way back to the above mentioned reporting by ESPN.

Some may dismiss all of this, especially the UT faithful who will look at it as some unfortunate incidents that have simply happened at some inopportune times over the years. However, when you look at the fact that three different athletic directors, two different university presidents, and several coaches in all sports now including women's basketball are involved, you have to wonder if this is more than coincidence.

Is this all NCAA-investigation worthy? I do not personally know. I know it raises questions in my own mind about their institutional control -- lawsuits, scandals, academics attacking athletics over grade changing issues -- all smacks of some kind of an overall aura of lawlessness. It reaches into just about every major athletics program at the school. If the NCAA were to launch a new investigation, what new information would be uncovered? After seeing what is already in view, I have to wonder.

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