Mike Strange: No avoiding disconnect in track

Mike Strange

These are trying times to be an ex-Vol. Whatever happened to the good ole days?

That's a question that has been asked lately by former University of Tennessee athletes from football, baseball, basketball and, now, track and field.

Track's wound is the freshest. That's one reason the response I'm hearing from old Vols has a harsher tone than the other sports.

The other reason is that track's woes are more complicated.

It's not just that the UT men's program has faded from prominence during a three-year span.

It's not just that George Watts, a popular assistant coach with deep roots at UT, was fired last week along with another assistant, Norbert Elliott.

There's more going on than that.

Two years ago UT decided to merge its men's and women's programs. Bill Webb, the men's coach, had retired, creating another opportunity for the separate men's and women's athletic departments to move toward unification.

"The culture of the men's program and the women's program were wildly different,'' said Chris Fuller, the senior associate athletic director with oversight of track.

"One wasn't necessarily right and one wrong, it was the meshing of two really different cultures. I thought this was going to be a challenge for whoever takes it on.''

Watts, a former Vol runner and veteran men's assistant coach, wanted to take it on. He had the overwhelming support of the men's alumni.

J.J. Clark, head coach of the Lady Vols the previous seven years, got the nod. He became UT's first Director of Track and Field.

Clark's coaching credentials are impeccable. He has developed numerous Olympians and NCAA champions. The Lady Vols have won two NCAA indoor titles on his watch.

Another complication, Clark and Watts have the same coaching expertise, the middle distances, distances and cross country.

Because of Watts' significance to the men's program, UT wanted to make it work. He was given the title of associate head coach.

As we learned last week, it didn't work, for whatever reasons.

When I polled a bunch of ex-UT football players last month, they expressed universal support that second-year coach Derrick Dooley has the Vols headed back in the right direction.

The basketball community was stung by Bruce Pearl's ouster but the early reviews on Cuonzo Martin are generally hopeful.

The baseball folks are convinced Dave Serrano will rescue that program from foul territory.

The track alumni, meanwhile, are disillusioned if not outright angry.

Most of them opposed the merger in the first place.

"I thought it was relatively doomed from the get-go,'' said Patrick Gildea, a distance runner 2001-03. "In no way, shape or form did it really bring the programs together.''

They're upset that Watts was dumped. And some of them, at least, don't think Clark has given the men's program its due.

Clark begs to differ. He said the male and female athletes on the current squads get along fine. Furthermore, he will be taking on Watts' old coaching duties with the men's middle-distance runners.

"I will be giving my attention equally to both programs to achieve the ultimate goal,'' he said.

I've been around the UT track scene for a long time, though not as much in recent years. Prior to the merger, friction between the men's and women's coaches was at times apparent.

"We rooted for the women,'' said Gildea, "but there was a disconnect.''

Clark is clearly an accomplished coach. I believe him to be a good man. For UT's sake, I hope he ultimately proves skilled as a unifier.

"My goal,'' he said, "is to bring about a change from where we are, to make sure these young men and women graduate and also have a great chance to be national and SEC champs.

"And I can only imagine I would get support from our alumni in achieving these efforts.''

We'll see in time. Fuller said the alumni discontent is "a definite concern," just as it was for football during the turbulent two years that led to Dooley's arrival.

"I understand what those guys are going through,'' Fuller said. "Coach Watts touched a lot of lives.

"But J.J. has a clean slate now to pull the program together the way we think he can.''

It isn't going to be a sprint. It's going to be a long-distance haul. Throw in some hurdles, too.

And at this raw moment, the track is uphill.

Mike Strange may be reached at strangem@knoxnews.com. Follow him at http://twitter.com/strangemike44 and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/strange.

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Comments » 23

VolunteerLifer writes:

This is ridiculous. There should be separate men's and women's track head coaches. One head coach for the two programs is a silly pipe dream.

gr82bavolalum writes:

I sincerely wish Coach Clark the best. I'm proud of this program and want to see it excel again. He's been put in a very tough spot. Yes, he has clean slate but only because the administration has erased so much of what so many people had worked so hard to build. Hopefully, we'll soon have a clean slate in the administration of the Athletic Department, too.

LordWebb writes:

"And I can only imagine I would get support from our alumni in achieving these efforts."

What is JJ smoking? The alumni will never support him.

Jediphysics writes:

If you think men's and women's track are having trouble merging, just wait until our men's and women's athletics departments merge. Let's face it; our women's programs are impeccable. No one can deny our success and commitment to future success. On the men's side, well, we all know that's a different story. How will women's sports get proper attention in this new system? I just don't see it... or, put another way, no matter how '21st century' we are, can you see a woman, other than Joan Cronan, being named UT athletic director? Not likely to see that in my lifetime, and I'm in my mid-30's...

LordWebb writes:

in response to VolunteerLifer:

This is ridiculous. There should be separate men's and women's track head coaches. One head coach for the two programs is a silly pipe dream.

The sad part is its not a pipe dream. Many successful programs are combined. Just look at teams like Oregon and Texas A&M. The problem is just that at UT the program is run by Clark, who is completely clueless. If a halfway competent coach was in charge it would probably work out fine.

616cm writes:

It starts above Clark. There is obviously something terribly wrong with the entire administration from the top down. They need to bring in an AD who, above all else wants to win, but also knows how to hire coaches who manage themselves and their teams well. Right now there is no body in the administration that fits the bill. Texas A&M and Oregon are combined programs who win, but do so largely by being excellent in select event areas; distances in Oregon, and sprints at A&M. A&M started winning with former UT coach Vince Anderson coaching the sprints. I'd like to see UT atop the depth charts once again. I don't know the answer to this, but are there any championship level teams who are all around teams with combined programs, solid on the track and the field? Might be worth studying their programs for insight.

VolzsFan writes:

all but 1 other major program have divided men's and woman's athletic programs. They make it work. Tenn will with new leadership. Most men's and woman's track programs are set the same way as UT is now, together with one person over both. They make it work. UT has not because of past leadership and not the model. We know who that weak leader is...Nice job Hamilton. You had the greatest coaches in UT history in their sport on campus at the same time and one of the best in Webb and you found a way to break that and make UT sports a national laughingstock. You could not have ruined UT sports any better than if that was your mandate. And some in the fan base and media where behind him all the way. Now all of you can watch the chickens come home to roost.

markintopton writes:

Candy coated article.

OrangePride writes:

Said it before, and I will say it again: One person in charge of both programs is a BAD idea. The sooner UT realizes that, the sooner they will be on the mend. Second, I'm not convinced JJ Clark is the right person for either post, never mind both posts. JMO, but the results have been beyond disappointing and both programs are in disarray on and off the track. Now, the veteran players find it necessary to write public letters of outrage....that is going to hurt donations AND RECRUITING big time as we move down the road. So UT....ya really think ya go a winner here? Think again. Let's hope JC gets her teeth into this ... and soon.

Noogaorange writes:

in response to FrenchQuarterVol:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Please fire Cheek. It should be clear to everyone that's it's time for a change.

Classof72 writes:

The track program isn't a problem, it's a symptom of a pervasive problem above the level of AD. It's doubtful that the Ga. Tech AD will want to buy into this mess unless he can be confident the needed authority and support will be his. Gov. Haslam and the trustees need to assert themselves now for the sake of UTK and Vol athletics.

AncientVol writes:

This article fails to tell us exactly why Watts and Elloitt were fired, unless the integration concept was the only reason for it. Also, the remarks about friction and different "cultures" between women and men teams is very vague. Why was there friction? What caused it?

FormerTrackVol writes:

JJ has given no reason why they were fired.

The friction between mens and womens teams were largely caused by JJ. When I came to UT, I was so pumped to have JJ Clark around (even though I knew he wouldn't be coaching me). He was part of a family of legends but, quickly, I figured out he didn't care about the men's team and only acknowledged us when the Lady Vols placed higher than the Vols.

83Vol writes:

Men and women on the UT T&F team certainly got along well in the past. Many of us on the men's team, including me, married Lady Vols! What in the world did Clark do to cause friction.

AMEDDVOL writes:

This article fails to mention that Watts himself has trained many olympic athletes such as Fam, Tony Cosey, and Tony Parilla. He also trained Todd Williams for a while. In fact, because of Watts Williams was a brief assistant coach in 2003 for the cross country team. Watts has had an athlete in pretty much every recent olympics since 1988. That's impecable credentials!

Foot writes:

I don't understand the logic behind combining programs. Separate track and field programs have been very successful at Tennessee for years. Just because other schools are doing it doesn't mean UT has to follow suit. 
     I wonder how people would feel if a couple of years ago, (before Bruce Pearl's problems) the basketball program was combined and Bruce Pearl was made Director with Pat Summit answering to him. Then, when it didn't work out coach Summit was let go. Would loyalty be an issue? How about a successful record for 25 plus years? What if coach Pearl never attended the women's practices? What if he didn't even know the players names? 
     This scenario is not too much different than what has happened to the Track and Field program. 
     George Watts is a good man and a fine coach. Maybe I am old fashioned but I still believe loyalty counts for something. As a former UT track team member who until recently still felt a strong connection to UT track and field, I am saddened by the recent decisions made by the powers that be. Unfortunately, I and no doubt many other track and field alumni have lost the one remaining member of our family who made us believe that UT track and field alumni truly were Vols for Life. 
    Lastly, UT was a special place as an athlete in the 80's and 90's (my experience) when there seemed to be a family atmosphere and loyalty mattered especially if a home grown was as competent as a hired gun. I feel like our athletic department has sold it's soul to the devil by firing our own and replacing them with free agents with no ties to UT. Sure you can generate a little excitement and may even win a few more games, but it won't last. Someone else will come along and make a better offer and the hired gun will leave town and likely leave a mess when he or she goes. That is not the way to build a program for long term success. 
     UT used to be the 'city upon a hill' in which other universities modeled their athletic programs after. I am afraid we have given in to the pressure and greed and just trying to keep up with the Jones'.

Just my observations.

VolNExile writes:

in response to simmsagain:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)


616cm writes:

What The Foot describes in regards to the family atmosphere that fostered "Vols for Life" was a deciding factor in my choosing to compete for UT over the offers from other powerhouses around the country. There are still some folks in the AD who emphasize or at least allow those values, and to them I am grateful. Those with whom I'm close know that I lost a lot of my allegience to UT after the merger. I am also grateful to the UT for which I competed for giving me every opportunity to succeed and grow, but now it seems to be an environment built for the administrators and not the athletes.

Theo writes:

in response to simmsagain:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

What an odd person you must be. Does the sixteen refer to your IQ?
Women's sports has much more to fear from the combining of the departments than the beloved, pampered football program.

TommyJack writes:

in response to simmsagain:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Sounds like Castor needs a double dose of his own oil.

Noclevername writes:

Have no fear JJ will soon run the women's team into the ground as well and be fired. As soon as his blue Channel Price graduates and he has no more distance athlete's. Once Annie Alexander finishes this season as well there'll be no points from throws. And there's currently no sprints except for Ellen and she's also done next year, and there wont be sprints because of JJ's genius hire of Seagrave who has never coached a day in her life so why would anyone want to come train with her? My bet is within two years the program is dead at the whole staff will be fired.

VolNExile writes:

in response to simmsagain:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Nothing PC anywhere on this thread. I support the women's sports, and I support the men's.

You seem to think that it's a zero-sum game. That means that someone has to lose in order for someone else to win. I disagree.

They combined the track programs to save money. Nothing PC there; just the usual mentality that's destroying American business these days, aka don't worry about the consequences, just show on your resume that you saved some money somewhere. I'm not a Mike Hamilton basher, but I will put this one on him.

GODDESS writes:

in response to simmsagain:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Wow, what a moron you are. There just aren't enough words to describe your inane comments. "Politically correct lesbian hacks and the gay men who support them"? What the he** is that about? Why on earth would you even bring that into the discussion? You are just ridiculous.

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