Lessons learned from Hamilton's tenure
Well, it's about time.
Mike Hamilton resigned Tuesday as the men's athletic director at Tennessee. He stepped down a solid three months after he should have, when the NCAA notice of allegations was made public and his department was charged with violations in both men's basketball and football. And he stepped down nearly nine months after he reasonably could have, when basketball coach Bruce Pearl cried and said he lied and it was obvious that the Volunteers were in serious trouble.
But Pearl held onto his job until March, and Hamilton until June, and Tennessee was not helped by the sustained employment of either man. The basketball team had a disappointing season and an ignominious March. The athletic department is still a cleanup in progress.
So yeah, it's about time. But does Hamilton's departure come in enough time to really help Tennessee's case when it faces the NCAA Committee on Infractions on Saturday in Indianapolis?
Over the years, the COI has shown a preference for schools to be proactive in terms of cleaning up their own messes. Self-imposed sanctions and divorces from culpable and responsible parties tend to lessen penalties. (USC must still be wondering whether it might have been slightly less demolished by the COI if it had gotten rid of its embarrassment of an AD, Mike Garrett, before its 2010 hearing.)
But Hamilton's resignation feels less like the outcome of a conviction to do the right thing than a rush-job coat of paint on a shabby house just hours before you're showing it to a suspicious buyer. A more diligent homeowner would have done the repair work well before now.
Now, it must be noted that everyone at Tennessee said this was Hamilton's own decision. He said as much in a classy and composed statement Tuesday, and even people behind the scenes say this was his call.
The belief is that it would be better for his own career for him to get out before a potential hammering from the COI, while also helping the school present a stronger case. That's why he went to Chancellor Jimmy Cheek last week and proposed his resignation, and Cheek accepted it.
"I'm sorry to see Mike Hamilton leave," Cheek said at the news conference, and the school reportedly will monetize its regret by paying Hamilton more than $1.3 million over three years.
I'm guessing that will not be the tone Cheek chooses in front of the committee this weekend. By then, the spin is likely to be that Tennessee has fearlessly and steadfastly rid itself of everyone associated with the alleged violations
The COI can decide for itself how resolute (and rapid) the Vols have been in rectifying their issues.
Regardless of how that plays out, here are the larger lessons from the Hamilton resignation:
• The cost of major violations is high these days. Look at USC, where victories were vacated and a title stripped and jobs lost. Look at Tennessee, where a popular basketball coach had to go, and so did his boss. And look at Ohio State, where an iconic football coach resigned last week and AD Gene Smith must be more nervous than ever right now. Hamilton and Smith have a lot in common, particularly their entrenched defenses of indefensible coaches.
NCAA membership has asked for stricter penalties for cheaters. A side effect of that is the pressure on schools to not tolerate their own rule breakers, or those who enable rule breakers. Administrators are in as much jeopardy as coaches.
The oft-criticized system just might be working.
• Modern athletic directors often see fundraising and facilities as their most important chores, but they're wrong. It's still finding the right coaches. An indoor practice facility will not make or break an AD, but coaching hires will.
Hamilton was a fundraising-and-facility-building champion at Tennessee. He was notably less successful when it came to hiring coaches, and it ultimately cost him his job.
Pearl was the hire Hamilton bragged about repeatedly, and with good reason -- until the coach nuked him by lying to the NCAA. (And really, there's the other object lesson from the past several days: from Knoxville to Columbus to Congress, relatively small lies can lead to big trouble.) Hamilton also made the dubious decision to hire football coach Lane Kiffin, whose own NCAA violations will be part of the hearing Saturday. And Tennessee just fired baseball coach Todd Raleigh in May.
As The (Nashville) Tennessean reported in late May, all the coach firings during Hamilton's eight-year run have cost the school more than $9 million in buyouts.
That number jumps into eight figures with what the school reportedly will pay to buy out Mike Hamilton himself.
The money is one thing, but the timing is another. This could have, and should have, happened months earlier.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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