Tennessee’s top sprinter has asked to leave and the program seemingly won’t let him.
A pair of its experienced coaches don’t appear to have been seeking an exit, but it did show them both the door.
An interesting week for the UT track program was capped off Friday with the announcement from director J.J. Clark that men’s cross country coach George Watts and assistant Norbert Elliott will not return in 2011 after a second consecutive disappointing season.
The two coaches combined for 33 years of experience with the Vols, and their departure followed public statements from rising redshirt sophomore Dentarius Locke that hinted at discord behind the scenes for the proud program.
Watts and Elliott did not return requests for comment through their school email accounts, and contract information was not available. School spokesman Eric Trainer said Watts and Elliott would remain on the payroll until Sept. 30 unless they take a position elsewhere.
“I did not reach this decision easily, but I felt it was necessary to make some changes to our coaching staff,” Clark said in a university statement. “Our focus and expectation will continue to be about restoring the Tennessee men’s track and field program to a championship level.”
The Vols, a team that has brought home 43 conference title trophies in its history and won a national championship indoors as recently as 2002, haven’t been competing at that level much lately. Their last SEC crown came in 2007 during the outdoor season, and they didn’t come close to threatening this past year while finishing eighth at the conference meet — more than 100 points behind champion Arkansas.
UT’s brightest spot was Locke, the lone representative at the NCAA Outdoor Championships and the conference’s Freshman Runner of the Year. According to the Tampa Tribune, the first-team All-American in the 200 meters met with school officials on June 24 seeking his release from the program, only to be denied and offer some scathing comments about the direction of the track team.
“The program is changing here, and it’s not the way it was when I signed,” Locke told the paper. “I didn’t come here to be a part of a rebuilding process. And the worst part is, the coaches here just don’t get along.
“I have one coach telling me one workout to do, and another coach will tell me something totally different.”
Locke didn’t mention any specific coaches by name, but if the changes he alluded to a week ago included the staff, it’s now official.
Watts logged 26 years at UT, most recently serving as the men’s outdoor track and field associate head coach in addition to his role with cross country. An All-American at UT in both cross country and indoor track as an athlete, Watts oversaw a program that had 33 All-America honors and 21 SEC titles during his tenure.
Elliott, who just wrapped up his seventh season at UT, was in charge of men’s sprinters and hurdlers.
“I’d like to thank George Watts and Norbert Elliott for their service to the University of Tennessee,” UT senior associate athletics director Chris Fuller said in a statement. “Decisions that impact coaching personnel are never easy, and this one was especially difficult.”