Monday, April 11, 2011

Bruce is Not the Only One to Blame

When I was young, I loved Magic Johnson. I wasn’t a Lakers fan or the son of a Lakers fan. No one in my family went to Michigan State, and no one played basketball. My parents didn’t even watch the NBA. But for my birthday, my primary school friend Kyle gave me “Magic Johnson’s Double Jam”. It was a bedroom basketball goal with two nets, a timer, and a scoreboard. The goal of the game was to score more baskets in your net than your opponent, and Magic would tell you how great you were. It was as fun as it sounds.

As the third child with two older sisters, I spent most of my time by myself. My basketball goal became my path to NBA glory as I alternated between being Magic and Michael Jordan (the goals were yellow and red). I took countless game winning shots while my game clock counted down the seconds over and over and over. Magic’s smiling face watched from his spot on the backboard.

When the news broke that Magic was HIV positive, I tried to find a way to hold his image together. The idea he could have contracted this disease by running around on his wife was unthinkable. In my immaturity, I wanted him to be the victim of a tragic mistake, and I told my dad it must of have been from a blood transfusion. I had no idea what a transfusion was, but I had heard while watching the ESPY’s that this happened to tennis great Arthur Ashe and it seemed like a plausible way out of losing my hero. Heavy-hearted, my dad put his hand on my shoulder and said,

“Mark, he was cheating on his wife.”

On March 21, I had that same feeling. Bruce Pearl, who turned a football obsessed community into basketball junkies, was fired. He lied over a petty violation, committed more petty violations, and is now gone. After six years of the most inspiring and exciting athletics at Tennessee in decades, he’s gone. My wife and I sat scouring blogs and articles to find any way to make this a bad decision and make Pearl a victim. But despite UT’s pathetic display in handling the situation, it didn’t change Pearl’s mistakes. He was, just like Magic, guilty.

However, Pearl’s situation differs from Magic in that there is another individual with guilt written all over his face.

University of Tennessee Men’s Athletic Director Mike Hamilton

When a team struggles, look to the coach. But when the entire athletic department becomes a dumpster fire, look a little further up the food chain.

Mike Hamilton, by all accounts, is a fine and upstanding individual. He is an active member in the community and contributes a tremendous amount of time and resources to charitable work. This, however, makes you a good neighbor. Not a good AD.

Since taking over as AD in 2003, Hamilton has watched his football program (the pride of the university) collapse, the baseball team fall to the bottom of the conference, and his basketball coach show questionable ethics. All three programs are under NCAA investigation. All three coaches were Hamilton hires. A manager at Starbucks doesn’t get that many chances.

Starting with 1988, Tennessee football had won eight games or more fourteen years consecutively. They have failed to reach eight wins four times under Hamilton’s watch. During those same fourteen years, UT baseball was SEC tournament champions three times. Want to take a guess how many they have won with Hamilton?

To top it all, he also has the debacle of the last six months hanging over his head. ESPN radio host Doug Gotlieb described the Pearl punishment/firing as “mind-numbingly stupid”.

ESPN’s Pat Forde wrote, “If I were the president at Tennessee, the man in charge of an athletic department that has hemorraghed credibility at an alarming rate in recent years would need a Committee on Infractions miracle to keep his job.”

In response to Committee on Infractions chair Tom Yeager’s statement that firing Pearl would not necessarily equate to a less severe penalty, ESPN’s Andy Katz wrote, “...why go through a charade of a season? The school essentially left him and his staff hanging by terminating his contract.”

Sports Illustrated’s Stewart Mandel added, “Under his watch, one of the nation’s proudest athletics programs has deteriorated into one of its most shameful.”

Tennessee Chancellor Jimmy Cheek should have statements like these tapped to his bathroom mirror.

I don’t ever want to be one who advocates for a man to lose his job, regardless of the context. However, I can’t see how this series of disasters can continue. The home of General Neyland, Peyton Manning, and Pat Summit is being called shameful. The home of the first black quarterback in the SEC has become a place that sends “hostesses” to flirt (or worse) with recruits. The home of the “Ernie and Bernie Show” is now among the long list of universities who were caught trying to cheat. Can you imagine what Reggie White would have thought of Lane Kiffin?

It’s unrealistic to think Hamilton or any athletic director could have complete control over his programs. However, if attitude reflects leadership, then what does this debacle say of Hamilton?

In an act of desperation, Hamilton replaced Pearl with Missouri State’s Cuonzo Martin, who “is among the most promising coaches in the game.”

Translation: “I just hired someone you all have never heard of hoping there’ll be no expectations to disappoint.” Way to shoot for the stars, Mike.

Our heroes fall. That’s life. The Greek Tragedy archetype exists for a reason, and the story of Pearl at Tennessee fits the bill. The difference, though, is the downfall at UT was completely avoidable. His post on this Facebook page was heartbreaking.

“These were the best years of my life.”

Read Pat Forde’s article from 2008, describing Pearl’s rise to Tennessee. He was the anti-Lane Kiffin. He trudged his way to Knoxville by working with smaller schools for years, waiting for his turn at the top. Tennessee was everything he could have hoped for.

Pearl made dumb mistakes, though, and he should pay the price for them. However, he shouldn’t be trapped paying the debt of the entire department. This only made him a scapegoat.

Place blame where it’s due, Chancellor Cheek. Not where it’s easiest.

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