Unifying a fractured fan base and rebuilding trust with University of Tennessee supporters should be a priority in hiring the next athletic director, boosters agreed.
His announcement comes days before the university and its former coaches head to a meeting before the NCAA's Committee on Infractions in Indianapolis to face allegations of 12 major rules violations. Those charges have created a rift in a fan base split over the firing of the most successful basketball coach in school history and the tarnishing of the program's image.
And while donors said they respect Hamilton, his prowess for fundraising and his improvements to the athletics facilities on campus, some said they see this as a "fresh start."
"I know the divisiveness was really difficult for (Hamilton), as it would be for any of us. I think that was the ultimate driver," said Larry Pratt, president of a Washington, D.C.-area mortgage company and a donor whose namesake is Pratt Pavilion. "Looking forward, it was probably a strategic move to have it done prior to the NCAA hearings, so it helps us all focus on getting the university headed in the right direction, because we've had a number of distractions over the last many months."
Chancellor Jimmy Cheek said Tuesday afternoon that he will consult a close group of advisors made up of representatives of campus constituents - faculty, athletics and others - as he embarks on his first-ever athletics director search.
Cheek arrived in February 2009 and has had reign over athletics only since last summer, when the board of trustees moved the department under his purview. Before then, the athletics director reported to the president of the UT system.
UT system President Joe DiPietro was hired in October and also has little athletic department experience.
"Who knows, maybe that will help," quipped trustee George Cates. "I'm not sure that's a negative at all."
Cheek expects to have a replacement in six to eight weeks.
Jim Murphy, vice chair of the board of trustees, said the chancellor has a tough task in replacing Hamilton.
"(Hamilton's) an outstanding guy and he's done a lot of good things for the university, so obviously we're going to have to work hard to find somebody to replace him," Murphy said. "Ultimately he's got to hire someone he can work with."
Building support for the university will be "one of the major objectives of the athletic director," Cheek said.
While Pratt insisted on finding "the best person for the job" and suggested that person will most likely come from outside the university's network, others were convinced of the value of finding a leader with UT ties.
"Being not only a booster, but a letterman, we need Tennessee people to run Tennessee," said Cleveland businessman Mark Smith, a significant donor to the athletic programs.
Smith, echoing sentiments of many fans, pointed to former football coach Phillip Fulmer as a potential replacement.
"A lot of people I've talked to - a lot of people - would love to see him come back and run the athletic department," Smith said.
Cheek declined to talk about Fulmer or any other potential candidates and said he does not yet have a list of prospects for the vacancy.
Joe Weller, former president of Nestle USA who returned to East Tennessee in his retirement to be close to his family and the university, also wants someone with Tennessee connections in the top office.
"I think Tennessee is a pretty tight-knit family, and the fan base is pretty tight," he said, "and it's difficult for an outsider in terms of understanding how important sports are to fans here."
Megan Boehnke can be reached at 86-342-6432.