Mike Strange talks about the state of Tennessee's track program
At the NCAA outdoor track and field championships last month, sophomore Tyler Porter cleared a bar to tie for seventh place in the men’s pole vault.
That was the highlight for the University of Tennessee at the national championship. The only highlight.
Porter earned 0.75 points for the Vols. The Lady Vols didn’t score, just as they didn’t score at the NCAA indoor championships in March.
“I don’t think anyone is happy with where we are,’’ UT athletic director Dave Hart told the News Sentinel.
“I know J.J.’s not content from his desk, or I’m not from my desk, or the fan base.’’
J.J. is J.J. Clark, the director of a combined men’s and women’s program the past four years. Before that, he was a coach of a Lady Vols program that won NCAA indoor titles in 2005 and 2009.
The current swoon is not indicative of Clark’s career. He has won five SEC cross country titles (two at Florida, three at UT) and three SEC indoor titles with the Lady Vols. He has also coached his wife Jearl and sisters Joetta and Hazel on U.S. Olympic teams.
“Look at my record,’’ Clark said Wednesday. “We graduate student-athletes and we win championships. That’s my record.’’
The Lady Vols had a tough year — hit hard by graduation losses — but were competitive in 2012.
However, the men’s team, a perennial SEC contender and a top-five NCAA outdoor team as recently as 2007, has languished since the programs were merged in 2009.
The decline actually began that spring in coach Bill Webb’s final season as men’s coach before retiring. A couple of weeks later, Clark was named director of the joint program.
But on his watch, the Vols have scored a combined 8.75 points at four NCAA outdoor meets and have finished ninth, eighth, 10th and, most recently, 11th at the SEC outdoor meet.
Those results would likely get a football coach fired. Tolerance is greater for non-revenue sports like track that don’t have to fill a stadium.
Hart’s mission statement is “comprehensive excellence.” He remains confident Clark is the coach to make it happen. Clark earns $245,000 a year to oversee track and field and cross country.
“If I didn’t have confidence in any of our coaches,’’ Hart said, “they wouldn’t be sitting in that chair.’’
Hart, who is winding down his second year as athletic director, says combining the men’s and women’s teams was the right call, even though it happened before he arrived. He has since merged men’s and women’s swimming.
Clark declined to be specific as to why getting the men’s program going again has been more difficult than anticipated.
“We were in a transition phase all across the board,’’ he said. “When there’s change, you have to go back, sweep it clean and start over.
“It’s probably not appropriate to go into great detail. I’m not going to tell you I have all the answers. I do know that some things just don’t need to be said. That’s best for all involved.’’
The clean sweep involved firing men’s assistants George Watts and Norbert Elliott one year into the process. It wasn’t a popular move with alumni from a men’s prograDm that won its third NCAA outdoor title in 2001.
“I’m certainly attentive to the fan base,’’ Hart said, “but I would never allow the fan base to make a decision.’’
Clark said some alumni have been supportive, while others have remained distant.
“I’ve learned you do things your way and you’ll be successful,’’ he said. “Sometimes people may be resistant here and there but do it your way and things turn out fine.’’
He believes the stage is set for both the men and women to see substantial progress next season.
“We’re at the point where we’re ready to go to work,’’ he said. “That’s a good spot, getting everybody on board, understanding what’s tolerated and what’s not tolerated.
“We are at that point right now.’’
Most of UT’s scorers at the 2013 SEC meet were young and have development potential. Incoming recruits include Felecia Majors, the Virginia state Gatorade athlete of the year, and Florida sprint champion Jerimy Strainge.
Clark just hired throws coach John Newell from Michigan State to replace John Frazier, who left for UCLA. Newell will earn a salary of $78,000, according to UT. Clark said a new men’s sprints coach with a national reputation will be announced soon, as will several other signees.
“The idea is we have to move forward,’’ Clark said. “I have a record that indicates that’s going to happen.’’