When Mike Hamilton “resigned” as Tennessee’s athletic director three weeks ago, he said it was too soon to talk about his legacy.
“In the end, it will be up to the media to talk about my legacy,” he said. “Not now, not next week, but down the road.”
Three weeks down the road is far enough for me, especially since his resignation becomes effective in just two more days. Then, he really goes on UT’s payroll, thanks to a $1.3 million payoff he will receive for resigning.
The financially fond farewell — like all the bountiful buyouts negotiated during Hamilton’s generous tenure as athletic director — will be part of his legacy. The payoffs to fired coaches were so substantial, fans were left wondering if he was running an athletic department or administering a lottery.
Time could soften such sarcasm. In another 20 years, when our dollar has even less value, the millions doled out to failed coaches won’t seem as outrageous. By then, you also might be able to look beyond the mistakes of the last two years and better focus on Hamilton’s body of work over eight years.
It wasn’t a succession of train wrecks, any more than Jimmy Carter’s four-year presidency was one long Iran Hostage Crisis. It just seems that way now. More than 30 years later, most historians will concede that even Carter had a couple of good days in the Oval Office.
Hamilton had his moments, too. They’re just quite forgettable amidst all that has gone wrong recently. Since those mishaps have been sufficiently highlighted, a broader view might be worthwhile two days before the Hamilton era ends.
Money is a good place to start. Hamilton didn’t just make money for the coaches he fired. He also kept UT’s athletic department in the black — no small feat, the majority of college athletic directors would tell you.
That’s more noteworthy than the improvement of athletic department facilities, as obvious as they might be.
What SEC school’s facilities haven’t improved over the last eight years? Bigger, better athletic facilities are popping up wherever you look on the college landscape, not just in a conference with a long-term television deal as lucrative as the SEC’s. An athletic director can take only so much credit for that.
As much as Hamilton was lauded for fund-raising, you might wonder if his efforts were misplaced. Since UT’s big boosters are so willing to give and Hamilton was so willing to receive, why didn’t the Vols throw money at the best coaches in the country?
Alabama is paying football coach Nick Saban about $6 million a year, and he’s still a bargain. Kentucky just upped basketball coach John Calipari’s salary to more than $4 million a year. Money doesn’t guarantee success, but it improves your percentages. Hamilton spent less and gambled more.
Most of his hired hands at least proved they could coach. Bruce Pearl’s record speaks for itself in basketball. The 2009 football team over-achieved in Lane Kiffin’s one season at UT. Last year, Derek Dooley won six regular-season games with the least talented team in recent school history.
Hamilton’s firings, though sometimes clumsily handled, were better than his hires. He was justified in firing coaches Phillip Fulmer (football), Buzz Peterson (basketball) and Rod Delmonico (baseball).
You might argue that Fulmer should have been fired after losing six games in 2005 with a team full of future NFL players. The program was clearly in decline by then. But you can’t fault Hamilton, who had been in his position for fewer than three years and hardly had the power base to remove a coach of Fulmer’s stature.
Firing Fulmer wasn’t Hamilton’s best move. Hiring Pearl was. The unhappy ending doesn’t change that.
Suppose you were told six years ago the Vols would hire a basketball coach who would lead them to six consecutive NCAA tournaments before being fired for NCAA violations. Anyone with an appreciation for UT’s up-and-down basketball history would have jumped at the proposal.
The Fulmer firing and Pearl hiring are part of Hamilton’s legacy now. So are the well documented errors in judgment that led to his resignation.
Time can improve one’s legacy. But it can’t turn Jimmy Carter into Abe Lincoln.
John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at http://twitter.com/johnadamskns.