KNOXVILLE -- Two recent incidents at UT have raised questions about whether future coaching and administrative contracts should include accountability for student athletes who don't meet off-the-field expectations.
Count Gov. Phil Bredesen among those desiring improvement to the University of Tennessee athletic department's local, regional and national image.
"I think it's a realistic matter that UTK is going to continue to have an SEC-oriented sports program over time," Gov. Bredesen, who is the chairman of the UT board of trusees, said last week. "But I think they clearly have some cleaning up to do in the program. I'm hoping that will happen."
In November, two freshman UT football players were dismissed from the program in connection with an alleged attempted robbery with a pellet gun.
Last week, three UT men's basketball players were suspended and one was dismissed from the program after their arrest on myriad misdemeanor weapons, drug and open alcohol container charges.
UT coaching contracts are similar to most major college athletic programs'. Incentives are built in for accomplishments on the playing field and academic performance off the field.
Vols football coach Lane Kiffin receives $40,000 every time his team scores at least a 925 out of 1,000 on the NCAA's annual Academic Progress Report rankings.
Men's basketball coach Bruce Pearl receives $25,000 for a satisfactory APR score, and $15,000 for an academic year with a team cumulative GPA of at least 2.75. For every year the team graduation rate is at least 80 percent, an additional $10,000 is paid.
UT men's athletics director Mike Hamilton's contract includes a page of academic-related bonuses. He can receive up to $100,000 annually for off-the-field achievements of student-athletes -- $50,000 from five specific benchmarks, and a $50,000 discretionary bonus from the UT president for "extraordinary achievement(s)" over those five areas.
Mr. Hamilton said he is not aware of specific language that addresses player conduct as a part of the contract process, and he questions whether such stipulations are possible.
"Everything is on the table when you're getting ready to negotiate -- and 'negotiate' implies exactly what it says," he said.
Traditionally successful, financially backed UT competes with top-level colleges and professional organizations for coaching talent. Multiple sources in the UT administration said adding a punitive financial clause for off-field problems could cause a serious snag -- possibly an irreparable snag -- in the negotiating process.
"I could easily see that being a deal-breaker," one administrator said. "That concept seems like uncharted territory."
UT board of trustees member Jim Hall, of Signal Mountain, said proper conduct of students and athletes is the responsibility of the entire university -- not just the coaches.
The former director of the National Transportation and Safety Board and expert on crisis management and government relations said he "encouraged President (Jan) Simek and Hamilton to have an outside group look at our entire program."
Mr. Hamilton said the recent incidents are not reflective of the standards of Mr. Kiffin and Mr. Pearl.
He said UT student athletes are good young men.
"They're kids that have personality, and they're trying to do the right things in class," he said. "Do they mess up? Absolutely from time to time."
Mr. Hamilton conceded that some incidents -- such as the recent arrests of the football and basketball players -- hurt UT more than typical blemishes.
"That's when it really tarnishes the program's image, and it gives an indication or impression to some that maybe this is how things are here, collectively," he said. "And that's just not the case."
But Mr. Hall said some review is needed.
"Given the attention that's been given to these last two incidents, that that would be an appropriate step," he said.
Mr. Hall said he would want an outside group to examine what UT is doing with all of its students and athletes "to provide the right environment for learning and hopefully also (for) successful competition in the athletic area."
He said he also suggested that the outside group assess the culture and programs at other universities to make recommendations that might benefit UT.
"We need to ensure that we have a proper environment and are doing everything we can to instill the right type of culture and ethics," he said. "When incidents like this happen ... it certainly causes concern with the alumni and parents, as well as students."
Tennessee's governor didn't state a preference when asked if coaching contracts should include language tied to student athlete behavior.
"I don't see what's going on directly affecting the academics of the university, except insofar as it affects the reputation," Gov. Bredesen said. "I think our interim (president) is doing a great job down there, but I think that stuff will get solved, with sports put into the proper context as time goes on."
UT board Vice Chairman Jim Murphy, of Nashville, said one area under review is whether the current drug policy should be strengthened. Although the current policy is touted as one of the toughest in the Southeastern Conference, he said university officials want to explore whether it is effective.
Both recent off-field incidents involving UT football and basketball players allegedly included the presence of marijuana.
Another suggestion is clearer communication with student athletes on the consequences of policy violations.
"Some of them are just not getting the message," Mr. Murphy said.
Mr. Hamilton has said several times that "character evaluation" of prospective student-athletes is the most difficult challenge facing coaches.
Extrapolating a prospect's academic performance from high school to college essentially has become an objective science, but studying character is more of a subjective art that's complicated by several factors, he said.
Coaches and athletic directors often bemoan the NCAA's rule that coaches can visit a recruit's home only one time. Other rules place tight restrictions on when and how coaches contact prospects.
"The question is, do you get all the information you need to make a proper character evaluation?" Mr. Hamilton said. "That's the toughest thing that our coaches have to deal with today, determining 'Is this young man or young woman capable of playing at the highest level and representing at the highest level?'"
Mr. Pearl, whose coaching career began in 1978, said last week's arrest of the four men's basketball players was the first time he'd dealt with a "weapons situation."
"Obviously, there are some cultures that exist that we have to deal with," Pearl said. "Is there a weapons culture that exists or has existed? Is it more or less? This is new on me."
After the alleged attempted robbery with a pellet gun, Mr. Kiffin instituted a new policy that prohibits players from bringing any form of gun to Knoxville.
"No firearms, no BB guns, no fake guns," Mr. Hamilton said. "That (rule) may have transpired since the incident, but that's his deal."
Last week, the department adopted a "zero-tolerance" policy on weapons offenses.
UT also has looked into altering its four-strike drug-testing policy, Mr. Hamilton said. The first failed test results in counseling. The second results in a small participation suspension and further education. The third causes an indefinite suspension and typically an in-house patient program. The fourth is dismissal.
Drug possession doesn't count as a strike in the current policy, but Mr. Hamilton said that could change.
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Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...