If you’re sitting in University of Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton’s office right now – it’s the one with armed guards at the door with a desk surrounded by bulletproof glass – you’re trying hard not to multi-task.
It’s difficult making phone calls to find your next men’s basketball coach while you’re busy updating your resume.
There hasn’t been an athletic director in recent Southeastern Conference history whose first two major hires were so ignorant of recruiting rules that they practically screamed, “NCAA investigators, c’mon down!”
Hamilton, who became athletic director in 2003, has to wonder how his Camelot became cheat-a-lot in the last two years, how anything positive accomplished was wiped out by a pair of hires gone wrong.
In March 2005, Hamilton hired Bruce Pearl, affable, fast-talking Wisconsin-Milwaukee head coach. All is beautiful when Pearl finally got the Vols to the Sweet 16 in ’06-’07, and then to the Elite Eight last March.
But a few months later, Pearl lied to NCAA investigators about two blatant recruiting violations.
In November 2008, Hamilton fired long-time football coach Phillip Fulmer, and correctly based it on what most coaching firings are decided – struggling on the field equals loss of faith in program by big-money boosters and season-ticket holders equaling less fans in the stands.
But Hamilton compounded the controversy of firing Fulmer by hiring Lane Kiffin, who had never accomplished anything of consequence as a head coach on any level of football. Hamilton then rubberstamped Kiffin’s salary spending spree on a coaching staff that cost $5.625 million annually.
Return on investment? A 7-6 record and Kiffin’s escape out the side door to become USC’s head coach, one step ahead of the NCAA gumshoes compiling a list of possible violations.
Then comes the stuff with Pearl, who is basically Kiffin with a personality. And only because of that, because he’s a likable guy, because he actually acknowledges those around him as human beings with valid feelings and thoughts – unlike Kiffin – was Pearl allowed to coach this season before being fired.
That was a huge mistake by Hamilton, one which should cost him his job.
Pearl’s press conference in September, in which he tearfully admitted lying to the NCAA, should have been to announce his resignation.
Four days later after Pearl’s crocodile tears, he committed another NCAA recruiting violation on a bump rule. That was Hamilton’s second chance to fire Pearl.
Instead, the Vols’ program was left twisting in the wind all season. Players had to answer questions about Pearl’s future from the start of the year until last Friday’s season-ending 30-point loss to Michigan in the Vols’ one-and-done NCAA tournament appearance.
Just this month, Pearl apparently committed another NCAA violation of the player pass list at the last home game against Kentucky.
ESPN.com cited sources saying Hamilton’s referral to “a number of more recent non-NCAA-related incidents” in his Monday statement announcing Bruce’s firing targeted a violation of the Vols’ substance abuse policy by senior forward Brian Williams. He missed the last two regular-season games at South Carolina and at home against Kentucky due to what team officials said was a bad back.
For all the wailing about Pearl being axed, the bottom line is that a 51-year-old man who has been a head coach or an assistant for 30 years, someone who obviously knows the ins and outs of every NCAA rule, lied to the NCAA. And then kept right on breaking rules.
Granted, being an athletic director is a lot harder than it looks. You’re constantly gladhandling boosters for more donations while negotiating almost daily with your head coaches from every sport wanting to spend a little more money for this and that.
And then there’s the Catch-22 of having a successful head football and basketball coaches, who are well-versed in Economics 101. Winning in those sports, especially football, makes the money that funds the entire athletic program.
When coaches like those have the power of being the cash cow of what essentially is a multi-million dollar business, they tend to think they are the CEO, not the athletic director.
They become bulletproof, they feel like they don’t have to answer to anybody, their athletic director and maybe even the school president.
When you think about it, if Mike Hamilton gets fired before or after the Vols’ eventual hearing before the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions on June 10-11, it might be the best thing that ever happened to him.
It would extend his life expectancy and he won’t have to ever again feel like he has to take a shower after having a serious conversation with a head football or basketball coach.