It's a big black eye, but...

The hiring and subsequent forced resignation of Tom Collen gives Vandy's athletic department a big black eye. But if there's a silver lining to be found in all this, says BrentVU, it's that Vanderbilt's integrity-- its "most important currency," according to Chancellor Gee-- survives intact.

When Tom Collen was announced on Wednesday as Vanderbilt's next women's basketball coach, it barely caused a ripple in news outlets outside of Nashville and Fort Collins. In most sports sections across the nation it was merely a "news brief", a tidbit. Big deal, another stop on the coaching carousel. 

But now that Collen has been forced to resign due to a bio inaccuracy a la George O'Leary at Notre Dame, it's front page news. National outlets like ESPN, CNN and USA Today have all jumped in to give the flap publicity. 

Unwanted publicity for Vanderbilt, I might add. Well, that's putting it mildly-- it's a public relations nightmare. The last thing the Vandy athletic department needs right now is this kind of notoriety. 

With McGugin taking this kind of publicity hit, it's hard to paint a pretty face on it all, and I don't intend to. But I do hope informed fans will take the time to look past the headlines and understand what occurred and why. 

Loyal fans are questioning, and rightly so, how such a thing could have happened so soon after the O'Leary debacle. The two circumstances, which on the surface seem similar, are really distinctly different. Compared to O'Leary's transgressions-- claiming to have played college football when he hadn't, and to have gained a master's degree when he hadn't-- Tom Collen's look minuscule. 

Collen's bio claimed two master's degrees, when what he had actually earned was a single master's with a double major. No question, it was inaccurate. According to Athletic Director Todd Turner, Vanderbilt caught the discrepancy on Monday and confronted Collen about it. 

Collen's story then was that it was an honest mistake-- that he honestly had thought he had earned two degrees, and that he had never meant to deceive anyone. It delayed the hire by a day, but by the end of Tuesday Turner was satisfied with the explanation. 

Turner and Chancellor Gordon Gee introduced Collen Wednesday afternoon at Memorial Gym with great hoopla and fanfare. The pep band was there. There were balloons, and a number of fans eager to get a look at Collen. The media was also there in force, and having gotten wind of the alleged discrepancy, they were loaded for bear. 

When The Tennessean produced a copy of a 1997 resume that Collen submitted to Colorado State showing Collen had applied for that job under false pretenses, Collen was forced to backtrack. His waffling answers to the media about the situation conflicted with the answers he had given Turner earlier. 

"He reported to the media that his resume had always been accurate, that there was an error maybe in the sports information office somewhere that had contributed to the bio that was published," said Turner in a WNSR radio interview on Thursday. "And that was not what we had been led to believe." 

By Thursday morning the Tennessean had forced Vanderbilt's hand. For Turner, the dilemma was clear-- either (1) stand by your man and go to war with the media, or (2) ask for Collen's resignation and start searching again. Turner chose to do the latter. 

Some have suggested that Turner should have backed Collen-- if he can win games, so the line of reasoning goes, who really cares whether he has one master's or two? But given the vehemence of Joe Biddle's tirade Thursday morning against Vanderbilt, the situation was not likely to blow over in a few days. The Tennessean and WTVF-TV, given their obvious delight in fanning a brouhaha on West End, were not likely to let up. 

It might have been tempting for Turner to stand by Collen and tell the Tennessean and WTVF where to go. The stance could have been, "Coach Collen is our coach. Yes, he made a mistake five years ago. He's apologized for it. We've accepted his apology, and we're moving on. And all of you should do the same." 

But Turner and the University did the right thing. There can be little doubt, now that the facts are out, that letting Collen go was the thing to do. To retain Collen would have been to give Vandy's many critics too big an opening. 

It hurts a little bit to have to acknowledge that The Tennessean was right. Never mind that Joe Biddle probably has more inaccuracies in one daily column than Collen has had in a lifetime. Never mind that another school across the state regularly skirts the NCAA rulebooks, yet the local media strangely never seem too interested in following up. 

And no, a small error on a resume is not a crime on the same level with murder or child abuse. 

It's important to understand that the "dealbreaker", as Turner put it, was not what Collen had put on the resume five years ago. It was about how he attempted to cover his tracks when confronted by the media Wednesday afternoon. It just didn't sit well. It was ultimately an issue of how Collen handled himself under fire, and he failed the first test. 

Vanderbilt must worry about Vanderbilt, not its critics. Vanderbilt has always prided itself on integrity, and many of us are Vanderbilt fans precisely because we like to see things done the right way. There's never any shame in taking the high road. 

(Just last month Chancellor Gee referred to the University of Tennessee's football graduation rates as "criminal". Gee apparently intends to lead an initiative to reform academic abuses in college athletics. Consequently, to paraphrase a well-known proverb-- those who desire to cast stones shouldn't construct their own gymnasiums out of glass.) 

Should the background search have been more thorough? Without question. Once the discrepancy was discovered, shouldn't either Turner or Gee should have moved quickly to eliminate Collen from their search? In retrospect, yes. If not, shouldn't they have anticipated the ensuing media firestorm and have had Collen better prepared to face it? Probably. 

The Notre Dame football program rebounded nicely from its fiasco by luring Stanford's Tyrone Willingham to South Bend-- a blockbuster hire. Vanderbilt can still redeem itself now and control the damage by bringing in a women's hoops coach of a similar caliber. Should the Commodore women's team live up to its promising potential next year, this rather ugly incident will only be remembered as a temporary blip. 

That's not meant to minimize the way many Vanderbilt fans are feeling right now. Go ahead, call it what it is. It's a fiasco, a debacle-- the latest in a long string of embarrassments, a string which began long before Turner's arrival as AD. 

But if there's a small silver lining to be found in all this, it's that Vanderbilt's integrity-- its "most important currency," according to Gee-- survives intact.


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