This wouldn't have happened if Pat Summitt were healthy.
That was my first thought when Debby Jennings was forced to retire last week as the University of Tennessee's associate athletic director for media relations. My second thought: UT will regret this.
That was before I knew Jennings was considering legal action. Or before UT had responded by saying what a dreadful team player she has been under the new regime.
It was about the time I reminded myself what a wonderful job UT first-year athletic director Dave Hart did of managing a more high-profile issue with Lady Vols athletics.
Hart stood by patiently as Summitt coached her 38th and final basketball season while dealing with early onset dementia. He handled the aftermath just as deftly. When Summitt stepped down as coach last month, he promoted her longtime assistant, Holly Warlick. Summitt then moved into the position of head coach emeritus.
Tradition and continuity were maintained in a championship program. Warlick was rewarded for her role in that success and also for her leadership during a taxing 2011-12 season. Summitt was given a place in the program she built and maintained for almost four decades.
Hart seemingly put a lot of thought into that. But he didn't put enough thought into ousting Jennings from the athletic department.
I appreciate some of what Hart is trying to do. He is overseeing the final stages of the merger between the UT men's and women's athletic departments while reducing expenses as well. He's attempting to implement change. Lots of change.
Jennings apparently wasn't on board with that. Maybe she had done things her way for so long she wasn't receptive to orders from UT's new wave of administrators. And maybe she felt the women's athletic department was far too superior to the men's to benefit from a merger,
Why wouldn't she feel that way? The Lady Vols have won eight national championships in women's basketball.
A memo from one UT administrator to another, citing Jennings' criticism of the department, quoted her as saying: "You have to understand that the men here are against women's athletics. This is because we've been successful, we've done it right, and we've never embarrassed the University. We have never given this University a black eye the way that men's sports here have."
In the same memo, which the News Sentinel obtained through a open records request, Jennings was quoted as questioning the competence of Desiree Reed-Francois as an administrator for men's basketball when coach Bruce Pearl was fired for his involvement in NCAA rules violations.
"What in the world is (Reed-Francois) doing?" Jennings was quoted as saying. "How could she not know about what was going on with what Bruce Pearl was doing? I can guarantee that would never happen on the women's side."
Such criticism obviously didn't ingratiate her to administrators charged with making the merger work.
By ridding itself of an in-house critic, UT will save $93,296 a year in salary. You can only guess how much it will lose in public perception.
It wasn't just that Jennings was forced out after 35 years on the job. It was the abrupt, cold manner in which she was treated.
Last week, Jennings received an ultimatum from Hart that she had less than four hours to decide on whether she wanted her reason for termination to be retirement or "fired for subordination," according to a letter Jennings' attorney, David Burkhalter, sent UT chancellor Jimmy Cheek.
Also, when Jennings returned to her office after meeting with Hart, her computer had been confiscated and she felt as though she was being treated as a "common criminal," Burkhalter wrote in the same letter.
Veterans of Corporate America might say, "What's the big deal?" The protocol is right out of the corporate handbook.
But many of the fans who support UT don't see it as a corporation. They see it as Big Orange Nation. They see it as family. In fact, that's how UT leaders often portray it.
Jennings, 57, has been a part of the Lady Vols family for 35 years, Summitt worked with her longer than she did Warlick or former women's athletic director Joan Cronan.
Jennings wasn't just another media relations person. She was a historian for the most famous coach and program in women's basketball. She also was Summitt's liaison to a media audience that extended far behind Knoxville.
Because Jennings did her job so well and for so long, her dismissal will create a negative buzz within the national media, who remember that when they couldn't get to Summitt, they could get to Jennings. They also might remember that Jennings kept working when she was battling cancer.
Maybe it wasn't easy assimilating Jennings into a newly merged department. But UT would have had to make a greater effort if Summitt hadn't become ill.
No way Summitt would have allowed this to happen if she had been fully healthy and aware. Most UT fans realize that.
So they won't view this as a forced resignation of a media relations employee. They will see it as kicking Summitt when she was down.