Commentary

Tennessee's troubles point to Hamilton

Volunteers AD should answer for transgressions of past and present coaches

Originally Published: February 23, 2011
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Nineteen minutes after acknowledging on Twitter on Wednesday that the NCAA notice of allegations against his two most visible programs had been made public, Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton attempted to change the subject.

Lane Kiffin
AP Photo/Wade PayneThe ill-fated Tennessee tenure of Lane Kiffin, shown here with AD Mike Hamilton, resulted in NCAA allegations that the current USC coach "failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance."

He re-tweeted the news that the Volunteers tennis team moved up from third to second in the final indoor rankings.

Well, let's hear a rousing rendition of "Rocky Top" for that one, Mike! Nothing better to rally the fan base than some tennis glory! How about a parade? You all are fond of naming streets on campus after athletic heroes; why not one for tennis coach Sam Winterbotham?

Obviously, Mike, you won't be naming a street for basketball coach Bruce Pearl anytime soon -- not with the allegations of unethical conduct and illegal recruiting officially filed by the NCAA enforcement department. And there will never be one named for former football coach Lane Kiffin, who also was charged by the NCAA for failure to promote an atmosphere of compliance, failure to monitor the activities of his staff and impermissible contact with recruits.

Just as clearly, there will never be a Mike Hamilton Avenue in Knoxville. And by the time this Big Orange dual-sport disaster of a case is finalized, there shouldn't even be a Mike Hamilton name plate on the door of the athletic director's office.

It's bad when the football program is charged with major violations. It's bad when the men's basketball program is charged with major violations.

When they both get charged at the same time? It's really bad. Fireable offense bad.

If I were the president at Tennessee, the man in charge of an athletic department that has hemorrhaged credibility at an alarming rate in recent years would need a Committee on Infractions miracle to keep his job. Nothing short of an exoneration of both programs would be enough to spare Hamilton -- and chances of that happening are even smaller than the chances that Tennessee plays in the next BCS championship game.

Since taking over in 2003, Hamilton has done what athletic directors do these days: tapped into the reservoir of passionate Tennessee boosters and built a lot of very nice facilities. That's a significant thing. But during that time the football program has become a dysfunctional, mediocre embarrassment. And Pearl, the guy Hamilton always proudly pointed to as his best hire, has let him down dramatically.

Let's start with basketball, which was the primary focal point of the NCAA investigation.

Tennessee was proud of its self-imposed sanctions last September, which included docking Pearl $1.5 million in pay after he lied to NCAA investigators and attempted to orchestrate a cover-up of an impermissible visit to the coach's home with the family of prospective recruit Aaron Craft. That was a lot of money, and a lot of shame for Pearl. He was so distraught he cried in a Sept. 10 news conference to discuss the whole thing.

It was a bravura performance. Pearl was so chastened by this humiliating event that he allegedly went out and broke another NCAA rule four days later, according to the notice of allegations. To quote the report:

"It is alleged that on or about September 14, 2010, head men's basketball coach Bruce Pearl and associate men's basketball coach Tony Jones made an in-person, off-campus contact with prospective student-athlete Jordan Adams (Lawrenceville, Georgia) during Adams' junior year in high school. Specifically, Pearl and Jones visited Adams at Oak Hill Academy, where they had a two- to three-minute conversation with Adams prior to the start of Adams' basketball practice."

Three-minute "bumps" of prospects are not uncommon in college basketball -- but they are also against the rules. And if you just sat in front of a wall of television cameras and cried your way through an apology four days earlier, even a bump shows astonishing disregard for those rules. That's Kelvin Sampson-level arrogance.

[+] EnlargeBruce Pearl
AP Photo/Wade PayneBruce Pearl, right, and assistant Tony Jones were both alleged to have committed violations in the NCAA's report.

Given that, Tennessee had ample reason to terminate or at least suspend the successful and popular Pearl before the season even started, but chose not to. Instead, it was up to the Southeastern Conference to step in and deliver the most tangible punishment to date, an eight-game suspension of Pearl from league play.

Something tells me the NCAA will be ready and waiting to exact its own pound of Pearl flesh when this case reaches its conclusion.

Then there is football, the true pride and joy of Tennessee fans. Except they've had very little to be proud of or enjoy over the past several years.

Hamilton pushed out longtime coach Phil Fulmer in 2008 -- a difficult move that probably needed to happen, given the declining returns in Fulmer's final seasons. But if you're going to force out a national champion and loyal Tennessee son, the next hire had better be a home run.

Instead, Hamilton introduced the double-play grounder that was Lane Kiffin.

That will go down as one of the worst one-year experiences in SEC history. Kiffin insulted and infuriated most of the conference -- prominently including commissioner Mike Slive, a normally circumspect man who could not conceal his disdain of the bratty first-year college head coach. Kiffin oversaw a 7-6 season sullied by several secondary NCAA violations, then jilted Tennessee in January for the head-coaching job at USC. He literally left behind near-riots in the Knoxville streets.

And now Kiffin's final gift to the Vols has been delivered in the form of alleged major rules violations. They don't measure up to what Pearl is accused of in scope and severity, but the NCAA made sure it got Kiffin's name into the report.

Hamilton hired Derek Dooley, off a losing career record at Louisiana Tech, to replace Kiffin. Dooley added another losing season to his ledger in 2010, going 6-7. He's a class guy who may well turn around the Tennessee program, but first he needs to figure out how to get 11 men on the field. (See: LSU game.)

So that's the Hamilton scorecard as it stands today: two marquee programs facing allegations of major violations; a football team in flux; a basketball coach who never should have been allowed to coach this year.

Mike Hamilton can't even claim national treasure Pat Summitt, since Tennessee has separate departments for men's and women's athletics. At least there's the tennis team.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

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