Commentary

A bittersweet promotion for James

Loyal assistant takes over UT-Martin after coach is suddenly forced to resign

Originally Published: July 23, 2009
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

He has the ultimate résumé stat-stuffer.

He discovered the hidden gem, the kid no one else had heard of, the one who took a small school out of anonymity and into the NIT, and went from high school dropout to NBA draft pick in the process.

What Jason James doesn't have is experience.

But the man credited with discovering Lester Hudson while an assistant coach now is getting that in droves.

Jason James
Photo courtesy of UTM SportsAt 31, James is one of the three youngest coaches in Division I.

In June, long after most universities had settled their coaching searches, James was thrown into the head-coaching cauldron, tabbed to lead Tennessee-Martin.

Like most assistants, James spent years preparing for his slide to the first seat on the bench. But nothing prepared him for the moment when it finally happened.

James, 31, got his first shot only after UT-Martin forced head coach Bret Campbell, who only months earlier had led the Skyhawks to their most successful season in program history, to resign.

"It's been surprising," James said. "Obviously, you don't anticipate anything like this; for it to happen so fast, it catches you by surprise."

But James has taken some of the sting out of the surprise for the Skyhawks.

An assistant at UT-Martin for seven years, James not only brought Hudson's prodigious talents to campus, but also helped recruit the rest of the roster.

To outsiders, that stability might seem the logical reason to name James as Campbell's successor.

Turns out, that was simply a bonus.

"I felt like Jason simply had earned the opportunity," UTM athletic director Phil Dane said. "He's showed tremendous loyalty here, and I thought he deserved to have that loyalty returned. And I can tell you, sometimes you can get some flack for not doing a search, but I haven't received one single phone call of criticism. That tells you how much people really think about him."

People thought a great deal about Campbell, too. The coach resurrected the Skyhawks from moribund to mid-major player. That's no small feat. UT-Martin ranks 284th among the 343 Division I schools in revenue spending, barely above the level of a Division II program.

But with Hudson, the two-time conference player of the year, on the court, UT-Martin captured its first Ohio Valley Conference regular-season crown and first postseason bid as a Division I program. The Skyhawks finished 22-10 this past season.

And then it was abruptly over.

An internal audit revealed Campbell had directly cashed university checks for his summer camps. That deviated from university policy that requires all university checks to first go into the school's coffers.

Over three years, Campbell cashed checks in excess of $21,000.

The catch? No one at the university believed Campbell was embezzling funds or doing anything untoward with the money. Of that $21,000, Campbell accounted for all but $3,000 (he already has paid back the difference). He parceled out the money to pay his camp counselors and officials.

"I never for a minute thought he was doing this for personal gain," Dane said. "But there was a process in place, and he was aware of that and he went around that in order to pay his camp people in cash, the way they wanted."

It is common practice for coaches to pay their camp staffs immediately -- or risk losing staff that isn't interested in waiting for the three to four weeks UT-Martin says it would have taken to process payment.

But because Campbell failed to follow university policy, Dane asked for his resignation.

"It wasn't like I was out buying flat-screen TVs," said Campbell, who is out on the recruiting trail trying to clear his name, salvage his reputation and hopefully get back into the game. "Yet it's being portrayed that way. Nothing I did was a fireable offense."

[+] EnlargeBrett Campbell
AP Photo/Dave MartinCampbell didn't agree with his forced resignation, but he did encourage James to seize the opportunity created by it.

The university disagreed.

"As the supervisor, it was my decision, but it has since been made clear to me that as this moved up the food chain, there would have been no other choice. You can do a lot of things wrong in state government and not get fired, but if you leave a paper trail, there aren't a lot of options," Dane said.

Into that mess walked James. He said he was conflicted -- he was brought to UT-Martin by Campbell and credits his former boss with helping jump-start his career. But James asked for and received Campbell's blessing to take the head job, and met with Dane, explaining that despite the circumstances, he could work for the athletic director with a clear and open mind.

"It was very difficult for me," James said. "But when I knew coach Campbell was behind me, that made it easier."

Now for the hard part: keeping UT-Martin on the uptick.

There is no Lester Hudson waiting in the wings, nor is anyone foolish enough to think that sort of player comes along with any frequency. Hudson averaged 27.3 points per game this past season, ranking behind only Davidson's Stephen Curry among Division I players.

The 6-foot-2 guard was drafted by the Boston Celtics in the second round of June's NBA draft -- and being able to say an NBA draft pick has come through your program helps. Being able to say you've been to the postseason and won a league title helps even more.

But James is too smart to think his school's path to continued growth will be paved by rolling out the Skyhawks' accolades.

Finding Hudson, whom James knew since the player was a high school sophomore in Memphis, revealed more than an undiscovered gem. It showed UT-Martin's road to success.

"We have to dig up every rock, look behind every tree to find players who may have been overlooked," James said. "That's what we've been based on and where we're going to continue to find our success -- finding the kids nobody else has found."

It's a skill the new UT-Martin coach has plenty of experience with.

Dana O'Neil | email

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