It is with shock and sadness that we Tennessee track & field alumni write this letter today, not only in support of our coaches George Watts and Norbert Elliott but also to call attention to the challenges facing our men's and women's track and cross-country program, a program that merged two years ago, with J.J. Clark as its Director of Track & Field.
This past Friday, we learned that Norbert and George were removed from their coaching positions at UT. Norbert Elliott, Tennessee's sprints and hurdles coach, had been on staff for seven years, coaching athletes who earned 27 All-America certificates. George Watts' tenure with the program spanned 26 years, first as an All-America in cross-country and indoor track while he was a student-athlete at UT, and then holding positions as equipment manager, assistant coach, head cross-country coach, and associate head track & field coach. During his long and successful career, George coached 10 cross-country All-Americans, 33 track & field All-Americans, and 4 Olympians, yet he still managed to make every freshman walk-on feel as though he was an equal member of the team.
George's dedication to his athletes and loyalty to the University are unparalleled, because he knows how to build teams, even in a ruggedly individual sport like track and cross-country. George believed, though, that UT's teams were far larger than just the guys competing at any given time instead, George saw the "team" as one that included current runners and all alumni. At track meets and alumni gatherings with all generation, George bridged the gap between the new guys with the old, introducing runners former and current to each other in order to keep UT's rich tradition alive. Because of George, a former UT track athlete can now stay in touch with a fellow alumnus who graduated in 2010 the same way he could call up another who graduated in 1968. It is difficult to imagine that the large body of UT men's track alumni will ever again be so connected.
It goes without saying, then, that the loss of George Watts, as well as Norbert Elliott, is deeply upsetting to us, the UT track alumni. But our concerns go deeper: we would like to see the men's and women's programs unmerged, returning to the days of separate programs, each with its own head coach.
Please understand that we are all tremendous supporters of Tennessee women's track & field. The success of the women's program continues to be vitally important to us. But coaching a joint program and building alumni relations for a joint program is possible only if the director enjoys coaching and spending time with both teams equally well. That is not the case at UT, where J.J. Clark spends the majority of his time and energy on the women's program, which has seen tremendous success. The men's program, meanwhile, gets few scholarships and little attention, and struggles to reclaim its national prominence.