Mike Hamilton's Legacy: The Parallel Tracks

Revolutions have a way of running their course, and the nature of the pendulum is to eventually swing back the other way.  So while Tennessee's athletic department remains in the midst of turmoil and is headed to Indianapolis to plead its case this weekend, the man who started it all by giving the people the head of Phillip Fulmer offered up his own today, just two years and seven months later.

Even if this is Tennessee's Thermidorian Reaction, it's noteworthy that so much has happened in those two years and seven months that being the man in charge when a legend was forced to resign may not be the lasting image we have of Mike Hamilton, but is instead merely one of several options.

I remember reading a story in Hamilton's first year on the job in which he was asked to describe his most difficult moment.  And he referred to the consecutive losses the football team suffered to Auburn and Georgia during the 2003 season, which created a sky-is-falling mentality before the Vols, five overtimes later, saved the day in Tuscaloosa.

Those were the days, right?  When the biggest problem our athletic department faced was the football team losing two games in a row.

Eight years later the sky is still falling.  It's only debris now, and the meeting in Indianapolis will determine how much longer we're going to get hit.  On the field the Vols started climbing out of rock bottom in November of last season, and the basketball team made the change it had to make in March, making sure it wasn't responsible for any further damage.  But today the man who oversaw it all met his end, in hopes of offering Tennessee a new and better beginning.

What is an athletic director's primary responsibility at a major institution?  It's an important question for Jimmy Cheek and whoever is on his search committee - and here's hoping it's a very strong and influential committee - but also of interest in weighing Hamilton's overall tenure in Knoxville.

Winning

An athletic program is always going to be defined by wins and losses, but the AD can't directly impact the action on fall Saturdays or winter weekends.  Getting wins and losses right starts with hiring the right people; whoever the new person is, they'll inherit a football coach in his second year, a brand new basketball coach, and a baseball coach likely to be hired in the interim.  So both a calendar and our hopes would suggest the new guy/gal won't be hiring anyone anytime soon.

(By the way, how does Cuonzo Martin feel today?  Did he just get straight up lied to about who his boss was going to be, or is there information out there we don't have?  The job was going to be difficult when he took it, and has only gotten more so since then.  I will say that the strongest impressions Cuonzo has given so far - character, toughness, no-nonsenseness - are exactly the qualities a person would need in this situation.  Before we even talk about being successful again, just surviving these first few years as head coach would be a noteworthy accomplishment.  If he's equal to the task at hand, he's going to be a tremendous basketball coach.)

To judge Mike Hamilton on wins and losses is an exercise that probably won't work to his advantage with most fans.  For starters, there was never much of a real chance the most important program on campus was going to exceed its accomplishments under the previous athletic director.  Under Doug Dickey's watch, the football program went 168-49-4 (.760) from 1985-2002, winning five SEC Championships and the 1998 National Championship.  Hamilton's tenure ends with the Vols at 62-41 (.601) with only a pair of Eastern Division titles to claim.  When he took office, I'm sure Mike Hamilton didn't envision leaving without getting to congratulate a team in the locker room of the Georgia Dome.

Still, Hamilton did what the masses wanted, pulling the trigger on Fulmer in 2008.  Are there at least a few Tennessee fans out there who called for Phillip's head but have since put on the hindsight glasses, and are using that move as additional dirt on Hamilton's grave today?  Probably.  Was moving on from Fulmer in November 2008 the right decision?  Yes.  Will we always look at it that way?  Ask me when Derek Dooley leaves...so, you know, not anytime soon.  Please.

If it's impressive that Hamilton won't be primarily remembered as the guy who fired Fulmer, it's even more so that he can't be summed up by the Lane Kiffin experiment either.  Hamilton gambled on the boy wonder, and we were all with him for each of his 407 days on the job.  But whatever worst case scenario Hamilton envisioned when he was considering Kiffin for the job, it probably didn't include the impressive quartet of 7-6 record, most of your top recruits leave the program, NCAA investigation, and an exodus to USC after one season.

Hamilton made the move he had to make with Fulmer and took a chance on a young guy to change the direction of the program.  Years later, Hamilton is going to be the guy who fired a legend and let the snake loose in the garden.  It won't be fair, but it will be how it works.

In the same way, years later Hamilton probably won't get remembered as the guy who struck gold with Bruce Pearl, but will get remembered as the guy who hired the basketball coach who lied to the NCAA.

What happened to Tennessee Basketball under Hamilton's watch was extraordinary.  Not only was it the best story of the previous decade, but it was enough to keep Hamilton employed even after Kiffin's departure.  The fact that the basketball program - largely mishandled and/or neglected under the previous administration - was strong enough to keep the new administration afloat in a time of extreme turmoil in football was incredibly impressive.  And all of that before the Vols made their first Elite Eight last March.

Mike Hamilton hired Bruce Pearl, and thus should get some percentage of credit for the wins that happened under his watch; Tennessee's Elite Eight appearance and 2008 SEC Championship are the wins-and-losses highlight of Hamilton's tenure.  But years from now, we're still going to look at Bruce Pearl with stars in our eyes...and we're still going to see Hamilton through the lens of basketball violations.  Not fair.  How it works.

Since the Lady Vols are under a separate administration, all the other winning on campus is secondary to football and basketball.  And while programs like swimming that were successful before Mike Hamilton have continued to be successful, and the tennis team in particular has become a national threat, the fall of the baseball program under Hamilton's care - firing Rod Delmonico and hiring Todd Raleigh, who was the biggest wins-and-losses disaster on campus - trumps the influence of all other secondary sports.

Under Mike Hamilton, football hit new lows and basketball hit new heights.  An AD can only hire and monitor...but wins and losses will always be king in Knoxville.

Money

It's interesting to note that in VolQuest's timeline of Hamilton's tenure, they point out that one of the reasons he was promoted to athletic director was his prowess as a fundraiser.  And without a doubt, the most positive pieces of Hamilton's legacy involve financial and structural successes.

As college athletics continues to expand, Tennessee and the SEC have been very much along for the ride.  The Vols continue to be among the nation's leaders in attendance and profit despite the football team falling off in the last few years, and while the fact that General Neyland is brought to you by Pilot on the back of the Jumbotron raises a few eyebrows, it also is just part of the grand scheme that raised millions of dollars for the university under Hamilton's watch.

The ongoing updates at Neyland Stadium are one thing - more luxury suites, a statue of General Neyland (sponsor free!), better concourses, etc.  But it's Thompson-Boling Arena that really shines thanks to Hamilton's care (with an assist, of course, to Bruce Pearl).  If you haven't been to a game in the last four years, you wouldn't recognize the place.  The orange (and empty) seats, the terrible mini-jumbotrons awkwardly placed in the upper deck, and the absence of a practice facility have been replaced by the presence of a first-rate basketball arena that could go toe-to-toe with any in the nation.

In continually difficult economic times and with teams that will still struggle to replicate their greatest success, the next athletic director will have a challenge keeping the money coming in to fund Tennessee's programs the way Hamilton has.  In this way, above all others, Hamilton was successful.

But finances aren't as important as winning and losing; they are in many ways dependant on how much you do of the one and how little of the other.  Even someone as strong in this department as Mike Hamilton probably hopes their greatest success or most memorable contribution came in another area.

And of course, there's one other major area an athletic director must pay attention to.

Trouble

And we've got plenty of it.

The last two and a half years have been good for pageviews but bad for almost everything else.  Tennessee has had a worse combination of excitement and victory than any other program in America in the last two and a half years, with even the Elite Eight quickly fading from the front of our minds, more recently just an item on a timeline.

And it's not just the matters that will be discussed in Indianapolis.  The football and basketball teams have run afoul of the law plenty of times during Hamilton's watch - again, not directly Hamilton's fault, but all part of the black marks on the program during a time when there wasn't enough winning to cover them up.

This is the national perception of Mike Hamilton.  ESPN's bottom line earlier today simply mentioned that Hamilton hired Lane Kiffin and Bruce Pearl, who are at the heart of the NCAA investigation.  Both Tennessee and Mike Hamilton hope they will remain there, alone, this weekend.

But if it goes bad for Tennessee this weekend - postseason bans in the short term, or extremely heavy recruiting sanctions that can be blamed for future failures in the long term - then Hamilton's legacy will become more and more about this part of the story. 

The sooner Tennessee returns to real success - especially in football - the better for all involved, including Hamilton.  If the NCAA drops the hammer and both Dooley and Cuonzo are unable to survive its impact - not an impossible scenario - then as poorly as some may view Hamilton's tenure now, it can still get a lot worse.

Or maybe Dooley is the right guy.  And if he ever gets the title to prove it, it should be remembered that it was Mike Hamilton who took yet another chance, this time on a guy from Louisiana Tech.

Legacy

Win games, make money, stay out of trouble.  The first one is most important, but must be done without crossing the line on the third.  And the first two form a mutually beneficial relationship:  the passion and dollars of the fanbase are the lifeblood of the program.

In today's presser, Hamilton called the recent years of his personal and professional lives, "parallel tracks with little crossover".  While experiencing many positives in his personal life, professsionally Hamilton has had a front row seat on a train struggling just to stay on the tracks and keep moving forward; those more pessismistic than I could call it a train wreck and get away with it.

It's interesting to me that Phillip Fulmer has sometimes made the comparison of family and business when describing the transition from Dickey to Hamilton.  And as Hamilton has found success in Knoxville financially, there has been little crossover in winning or staying out of trouble in football, with trouble now overshadowing our success in basketball.

In his remarks today Hamilton used Jeremiah 29:11:  "For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."   On its own it's a popular verse for obvious reasons.  But put into context, it carries a more difficult truth:  these words are spoken to captives in Babylon, who are told in the previous verse that their stay in exile will last seventy years.  The entire chapter commands them to build houses, plant gardens, marry and have children while in captivity.  Increase, do not decrease.

They are words of encouragement to live - and live well - through past failures and in the midst of unfavorable circumstances.  For Mike Hamilton and for Tennessee, I hope these words ring true.

Go Vols.

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