UT officials implore fans to reserve judgment on athletics

Associated Press • Apr 28, 2011 at 12:09 PM

KNOXVILLE — With the dust settling on Tennessee’s third major coaching turnover in two and a half years, leaders at the university urged fans to be patient with the athletic department and director Mike Hamilton.

“I think it’s been a tough period, but Mike has, I think, hired two outstanding coaches in Derek Dooley and Cuonzo Martin,” UT-Knoxville Chancellor Jimmy Cheek told The Associated Press. “I think both of them, the longer we get to know each of them, the better we’re going to get to like them. We’ve just got to be patient as that unfolds.”

Hamilton continues to hold support from Cheek, his boss, and others despite drawing the ire of many fans in the days leading up to basketball coach Bruce Pearl’s March 21 firing. Droves of fans called for Hamilton to be fired in comments made on radio shows, Websites and in e-mails to university leadership.

Whether they feel better about the athletic department and Hamilton’s leadership a month after Cuonzo Martin was hired to replace Pearl “depends on who you are talking to,” said Jim Murphy, vice chairman of the University of Tennessee board of trustees and member of Tennessee’s athletics board.

But while Murphy acknowledges the fans’ opinions are important, he says they can’t be the basis for personnel decisions.

“It’s very difficult to operate a very complicated business — which the athletic department is — based on trying to read the tea leaves of public opinion,” Murphy said. “My practice has been not to do that.”

E-mails from major donors to Hamilton in the week leading up to Pearl’s firing obtained by The Knoxville News Sentinel showed donors called the athletics director “self-serving” and “inept.”

Cheek noted that of 14 e-mails released to the newspaper, only four of them were negative and said he hadn’t received any e-mails from fans lately about athletics.

“I think the fans are very important to our program, but we’re here to manage the (athletics) programs,” Cheek said. “These are complex decisions we have to make. There’s certainly information that I’m privy to that the rest of the public is not privy to. We have to look at everything.”

Hamilton has said several times since revealing in September that the NCAA was investigating Tennessee’s basketball and football programs that the violations the Vols were facing were the result of a few coaches acting on their own accord.

Tennessee has since been charged with 12 major violations, and Hamilton and other athletics officials will meet with the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions June 10-11. The NCAA won’t punish Tennessee until it’s final report on the matter, expected sometime in the fall.

“It’s not an easy analysis to go through. Obviously the athletic director has made some difficult decisions,” Murphy said. “Some of those decisions have not been popular with some people, but hindsight is always a whole lot clearer.”

Cheek and others continue to be happy with how the athletics department under Hamilton’s leadership is doing academically and financially. The department’s revenue has continued to increase, and the department — which doesn’t receive money from the university — operates in the black while giving money to the university for non-athletics programs.

Graduation rates for athletes have increased to 67 percent, which is six percentage points higher than the graduation rate for non-athletes at Tennessee.

“I think as a team we’re doing well,” said Dan Murphy, chairman of the athletics board.

Cheek also said he is pleased with the way Dooley, who is entering his second season at Tennessee, has lead the Vols football team. Cheek said he anticipated the 2011 season would be another tough one for the football team but thinks Dooley has the Vols on the path to becoming a good program again.

He also thinks Martin will continue to win over fans as he continues to prepare the basketball team for the 2011-12 season.

“Everyone who’s come into contact with him is impressed with him as an individual,” Cheek said. “I think there’s optimism with where the program is headed.”

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