Mike Hamilton knows the critics are out there. He knows Tennessee's two center-piece men's programs have undergone unacceptable chaos.
Yet UT's athletic director has stayed the course, adjusted budgets when needed and never been afraid to make the decision that he deems correct.
And Hamilton will always have UT's budget on his side. In seven years, he has overseen nearly one-quarter of a billion dollars in athletic department upgrades.
Here I spoke with Hamilton about the ongoing NCAA investigation into basketball coach Bruce Pearl, Derek Dooley's progress with UT's football team and just how secure Hamilton feels in his position:
Hooker: You are unveiling the General (Robert) Neyland statue. It isn't all of what you've done to the stadium, but it's the crown jewel.
Mike Hamilton: It is a significant piece of our renovation plan. It's probably something that I'm as excited about as anything we've done since we've been working on renovations. It's magnificent. It's eerily awesome.
I think when our fans see it, they'll be equally impressed. We want to have that space open on game Fridays and game days so folks can go in and have pictures made.
Hooker: I know you have pictures of the renovations and you have a feel, computerized stuff and all that, but when you see how the stadium looks now does it still take your breath away a little bit?
Hamilton: It does because you get to see the finished product. You visualize what it might look like as you are going through the process. This particular renovation this fall was probably the most stunning visually because the exterior was addressed and we've had so many positive comments from both our fans and visiting fans about the beauty of it and how it fits in the campus. There's more work to come and we'll continue to make it one of the finest venues in America to watch college football.
Hooker: Let's talk some basketball. Obviously, there was a disappointing loss earlier this week (to Indianapolis). With all that's going on off the court, do you ever get concerned that could be a distraction to Bruce Pearl and his staff as they continue to prepare day in and day out for their basketball season?
Hamilton: I think the kids have done an amazing job of not being brought into all of this, and Bruce and his staff deserve a lot of credit for that. They separated the issues off the court with the play on the court. As for the coaches themselves, we are in a wait and see mode with the NCAA and we've had periods of that during this whole process.
This started for us in August of 2009 so this was going on when we made a run to the Elite Eight, so is it a total distraction?
Now certainly it took a new twist this summer in the interviews that our coaches went through and the information that was provided that was incorrect. So at this point, I think the best thing that can happen for us is that we go ahead and receive our notice of allegations as soon as possible so that the speculation ends. Speculation in the sense of what is actually there, what is the NCAA actually considering charging us with. That's coming up we anticipate over the next few weeks here in December.
Hooker: How important is it from the basketball teams perspective to at least get that over before conference play (in January) so you have an idea?
Hamilton: Well it's over and it's not over. You're going to get the notice prior to conference play, presumably, but the actual committee on infractions visit and potential associated penalties would not be until later this spring or even the summer, so this is something that we are going to continue to be a part of for probably nine more months.
But right now it's just the uncertainty of what you are going to be charged with that's hanging out there. So there will be some settling to know what that actually looks like, but we'll continue to try to separate the two and not let that affect what the guys are doing and what the coaching staff is doing. Frankly, in between the time we received the notice and the time we visit the committee on infractions there's not a whole lot that can be done by the staff anyway. It's a preparation for that event but beyond that they actually will be focused on practicing and games will be a very nice distraction and a re-centering of their purpose for the staff.
Hooker: We're in such a gray area that you don't really know what's going to happen. The only precedent I can really think of someone misleading the NCAA might be (former Oklahoma State wide receiver) Dez Bryant. He was suspended for a year. I know you are committed to Bruce Pearl, but if there was a penalty like that could you stay committed to Bruce Pearl?
Hamilton: Well I don't want to speculate on what the penalties might be. There are two different ways you can look at that in relation to Dez Bryant. We are sitting here talking about it today but nobody really knows. The committee on infractions is the one that decides.
We can say that the coach should be held to a higher standard than a student athlete and I certainly think that's an argument on one side of the coin. The other side of the coin is that a student athlete is responsible for him or herself as an individual and that penalty directly affects him or herself primarily. A coach suspension for a lengthy period of time has a greater bearing on a number of student athletes and I think that needs to be thought out in the process.
We actually, in deciding the penalties that we were going to levy in advance - and remembering that we didn't need to do anything right now - we decided to go ahead and do what we did, that the concept of the financial penalty which has never been done in the NCAA penalizes him a year of what is his current salary. Then taking a year of off campus recruiting away, which is damaging to our program, we are hopeful that will mitigate what the NCAA might ultimately look at and do.
Hooker: Do you have a plan in place if he is suspended a few games or a season?
Hamilton: We will. There are a lot of different scenarios depending on the issues, if assistant coaches are suspended and those kinds of things. We are always working on contingencies for how that might look, but we've said that Bruce is our coach and we intend for him to be our coach and we'll cross that bridge when we get there.
Hooker: So you could stand by him if he's suspended for a year?
Hamilton: That's my feeling. Yes.
Hooker: Contract wise, where are you guys with that? The latest it was back in your hands, right?
Hamilton: Well, it's actually in the lawyers hands. We gave it Bruce on the 8th of October. He gave it back to us with three or four things he wanted us to take a look at that Chancellor Cheek and I looked at and made some adjustments on. We turned that over to council, so it's in council's hands right now. We anticipate that his council will receive it back sooner rather than later. Remember now, you've dealt with contracts around here for a long time. Even the best of circumstances, the contract review process is one that takes time. This will take time, but it's a sooner rather than later issue, and I do anticipate that we'll have that nailed down in the next several weeks.
Hooker: I've had people say to me, and I seem to agree with it Mike. After what he's done, this isn't the time for bickering back and forth.
Hooker: This is the time to sign a contract and still be happy that you have a job. What do you say to those people?
Hamilton: They are right. They're exactly right. There are some things that very firm, like compensation and bonuses and so forth. Don't misunderstand my statement with him saying, "Hey. Will you look at these three things?" I wouldn't call it a lot of negotiation. Basically, it was just, "Can you look at these three things?" And we looked at a couple things and a couple things we thought were maybe not as fair as they should have been and we made the adjustments.
But obviously the university has a platform right now to say we want you to be our coach but there's not a great negotiation here. This is the contract and we are going to be fair to you. We are just trying to be fair given the circumstances.
Hooker: Let's turn to football. I think Derek Dooley has certainly shown signs that he can be a winning coach in the SEC, but he's not right now. How has that affected giving and revenue, or has it?
Hamilton: We are actually ahead of revenue on ticket sales for the fall. I think you credit the fact that the fans have really shown themselves by coming out for games. We anticipated. We knew that this was a team was probably not going to win an SEC Championship this year, and we budgeted appropriately so we are fine financially at this point, in that regard. The donation side of things is a little more complex answer right now because, frankly, the lion's share of our donations related to annual giving don't come in until December through March. But as I've been out around the state over the last few weeks the returns from our fans related to Derek and his staff have been extremely positive. The showing in Memphis this past Saturday night probably affected opinions this week even more. Think about Tyler Bray as a freshman and those receivers as freshman and the line as freshman and you've got to feel good about the direction of this team offensively. We've got some players on defense and they've had a good recruiting year. When we are budgeting we consider all of these factors into the equation, and we've been conservative in our budget this year relating to this, but at this point we are ahead of budget.
Hooker: Did you have any idea during the interview process that Derek is as funny as he is?
Hamilton: No. I really didn't. I've shared this story with him. I was in Phoenix for the Fiesta Bowl function this summer and Bruce Vandervelde, who was Derek's COO at Louisiana Tech and later became the Athletic Director at LA Tech after Derek left. We were talking one day and he was talking about what a phenomenal person Derek was and what a wonderful wife and person Allison was and how pleased we were going to be and that they were going to get the job done. And he said he's incredibly funny, and I said, "Really?" His personality has really come through more over the last three or four months. He's got a great wit about him and he's incredibly smart. He's a funny guy and I think as his comfort level has grown he's been willing to share a little more of his personality and he's been a pleasure to work with.
Hooker: How concerned should SEC fans be about the state of the SEC? (SEC Commissioner) Mike Slive wanted to clean up the conference but right now at least six programs are having issues with the NCAA and one extremely serious issue with Cam Newton (at Auburn). How concerned should fans be and how concerned are you as athletic directors and SEC administrators with the state of the SEC?
Hamilton: Well, we've been through a pretty good run with minimal NCAA distractions for some time and we seem to be in some sort of different cycle right now and I do believe that's what part of it is. I think you have cycles from time to time and the NCAA has stepped up enforcement, as they should, and I don't think that's a bad thing. I think I've heard Mark Emeritt (of the NCAA) even insinuate that they are going to do more of that. They need to get more enforcement folks on the streets. The fact that our situation has gone on since April of 2009 is bizarre to me. I would have hoped it would have been complete by now. I think that Commissioner Slive has always made a priority on this issue of compliance and as AD's you are absolutely concerned about it. It relates to institutional image. It relates to conference image. It's something that we need to continue to be diligent about.
Hooker: What prompted the NCAA to start cracking down more?
Hamilton: What's going on right now was originally focused towards basketball. They actually sent out a separate group called basketball focus group to go out. There had been enough talk about summer recruiting and AAU recruiting and those kind of things that they designated a specific group to go out and investigate basketball. I can't answer what prompted it other than the national office decided they were going to make it a priority and the presidents that are on the leadership council decided it ought to be a priority and that's where we are.
Hooker: In terms of the NCAA, have they been on campus recently? Are they still investigating either football or basketball?
Hamilton: Again, there isn't really anything different to report than when we had our press conference with the live inquiry. Substantially complete, I believe they've got a few more questions they want to ask. I've been led to believe that those are wrap-up questions and they are in the final phases of writing our letter and we're hopeful that will be complete over the next few weeks.
Hooker: They say time heals all wounds, but that's probably not entirely accurate. Have you and Phillip Fulmer been able to mend your relationship at all at this point?
Hamilton: No, not at this point and that's unfortunate. I would like for that to occur. I do think that time has to be there a little bit. We want him to be back around our program more at the time he feels more comfortable doing that and certainly what he accomplished here was significant. But at this point we've had limited interaction primarily at social functions and that kind of thing, but I look forward to the day where maybe we can have more interaction.
Hooker: Have you reached out to him?
Hamilton: No. Not recently. Again it's been more bumping into each other at social functions and very small talk.
Hooker: I don't know how you can control a coach when he says something that's not true to the NCAA. I don't know how you can control a football coach that decides to go to Southern Cal, but ultimately you're the head guy and a lot of that falls on you. How do you handle the criticism?
Hamilton: What you find out on these jobs is what you know the reality to be versus sometimes what's in the public are two different things. You have to be at peace with who you are as a person. You have to know what your core values are. You have to know that your bosses are completely engaged and understand what's going on and need to be able to lay your head down on the pillow at night. Any of these jobs In the Southeastern Conference where emotions run high where fan attention runs high and opinions run high as a result of that. I had to come to some conclusion along the way a few years ago that I couldn't make everybody happy every day. So what I had to do was try to make the best decisions for the University of Tennessee every day and realize that some days I'm going to be wrong and I have to accept responsibilities for that and learn from that and grow from that and make better decisions down the road. That's how I deal with it. I love what I do. I love the psychology of what I do. I love the ever changing nature of what I do. Certainly there are no days of boredom, I can assure you that. In fact, there are no moments of boredom. It's 24/7, 365. You live with these jobs every day. They are high pressure jobs but my make-up is such that I enjoy that about it.
Hooker: Do you feel confident that this university is behind you?
Hamilton: Oh yeah. They've been phenomenal. Dr. Cheek has been a pleasure to work with and athletics reports to the chancellor now as of July 1st and certainly he's already had the opportunity to go through some tough times related to athletics and he's been a pleasure to work with, nothing short of phenomenal. The President, Dr. Dipietro, understands athletics at a high level. He worked at Illinois. He worked at Florida. He's been around our program for five years. I feel like I know him very well. He's actually my next door neighbor and has been since he's lived in Knoxville. He knows me on a very basic level and I him. That's been great. You find out most about your bosses and they find out most about you during times of adversity. The times that we've been through for the last three months are not the times that we will live through every day going forward. They know a little more about me and I know a little more about them. The support I've felt from them has been phenomenal.
Hooker: Just the finances, how big of an aspect is that in how athletic directors are judged?
Hamilton: I think it depends on who is doing the judging. The fans probably don't care as long as you are winning. That's probably the fans attitude most of the time. But I'm judged significantly on campus by on how we manage the finances. This is a 102 million dollar operation. Fans will say, "Well you've got SEC money." Yeah we do, but we give ten million dollars back to the University of Tennessee. We've got a significant payroll for our coaches. The expenses of running a 100,000 seat stadium and a 20,000 seat arena and on and on and on. We are lucky that we have good executive staff members who understand that we will make budget. In my mind that's a given. Making budget allows us to achieve the kinds of things we need to achieve for our university and for our student athletes and for our coaches and ultimately for our fans. We should never discount what that means in the grand scheme of things. I know sometimes people say 'He's an accountant. He's got an MBA. That's what he cares about, finances. But you know what, I can guarantee you that if we were running deficits, that would be reflected in how we perform. The kind of facilities we build, the kind of coaches we're able to hire - all those things, so it all plays together in the end.