Tennessee defended its athletic program's culture on Tuesday in a rare joint press conference held by all 16 university head coaches. The event comes just two weeks after six unidentified plaintiffs filed a federal lawsuit against the university alleging Title IX violations and a "hostile sexual environment" toward women. The suit also claims the university influenced the system of punishment that favored the athletes. Four of the plaintiffs claim they were sexually assaulted and five of the accused are current or former Tennessee athletes.
The coaches stood in solidarity with one another while insisting outside critical perception does not reflect the entire athletics program.
"The culture here right now is the best its ever been," softball co-coach Karen Weekly said. "The image that's being displayed by our culture is unfair, and that's why we're here today, because we want people to hear the positives."
The coaches declined to address the lawsuit, but did speak about the perceived culture problem at the university and refuted the notion that Tennessee is unsafe for women.
"If I had a daughter, I would not hesitate for one bit about having her come on campus," women's basketball coach Holly Warlick said. "I've been here for 30-something years. We've got to be doing something right or I would have no bought in and said this is a great place."
The coaches showed support for the direction of the athletic department from within, mentioning the fact that they share facilities and engage in proactive growth and development programs while promoting an atmosphere of unity within the coaching ranks.
Football coach Butch Jones made a point to show sympathy for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit while deflecting criticism of a culture problem within his program.
"Everything is about the alleged victims," Jones said. "We take that very, very seriously. We feel for them. We hurt for them. So I think it starts there first and foremost. Also, it's not who we are. We have great players in our football program. We have great individuals in this entire athletic department. We have a very good culture. That's why I said we're going to defend our culture."
Some coaches, like track and field coach Beth Alford-Sullivan, said recruiting was not affected by outside perception, while others like Jones said it has impacted that area of their jobs.
"I do think it's real," Jones said. "Our competitors are using it against us, and that's why we're having a number of unofficial visitors. This past weekend was a great, great visit for us, and we encourage parents and prospective student-athletes to stay the night, get around campus to walk the sidewalk (and) see how you feel."
Chancellor Jimmy Cheek and athletics director Dave Hart were not in attendance for the press conference. Tennessee spokesman Ryan Robinson said Hart was out of town.
"We know that we don't want the stereotype that there's something out there that's not true," men's basketball coach Rick Barnes said. "It's not perfect now and it's never going to be perfect, but the fact is, and I can tell you this — The University of Tennessee's athletic department is as good as I've ever seen anywhere that I've ever been."