Wiedmer: Is Cheek part of UT problem?

Wiedmer: Is Cheek part of UT problem?

July 3rd, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

With the Tennessee athletic department's appearance before the NCAA Committee on Infractions now three weeks in the rearview mirror, an important page has turned in Big Orange Country.

The questions now sound something like this, almost all focused on the same topic:

"When's UT going to hire a new athletic director?"

"Does Heath Shuler really have a chance?"

"Do you think Phillip Fulmer's still in the mix?"

The answers: No idea, yes and maybe.

An Internet story out of Knoxville a couple of days ago focused on four candidates: Georgia Tech athletic director Dan Radakovich, formerly an associate AD at LSU; South Carolina AD Eric Hyman; Oklahoma AD Joe Castiglione; and UT associate AD David Blackburn.

And each of those men would no doubt do a solid to superb job, as would current interim AD and longtime Lady Vols AD Joan Cronan. So might Shuler and Fulmer, as well as my personal favorite, Pat Summitt, though she insists she's not interested. Florida associate AD Mike Hill could also be under consideration, given his long-term ties to broadcasting rights with the Gators.

But will any of those folks want the job enough to embrace UT chancellor Jimmy Cheek as their boss?

Cheek hasn't been around long enough for anyone to get a firm read on him - except, perhaps, Hill - since he didn't arrive from the University of Florida until 2008. But that also means he was on board for Fulmer's messy departure, the unsatisfying hire of Lane Kiffin and, most recently, the Bruce Pearl debacle, which had Cheek's fingerprints all over it.

None of those events is likely to have the likes of Hyman and Castiglione - who each has been honored as national athletic director of the year, Castiglione as recently as 2009 - frantically updating their resumes to get in line.

Moreover, because of all the recent turnover in Volsville, former coaches and ex-AD Mike Hamilton are not likely to give a glowing picture of Cheek, though at least Hamilton has more than $1.3 million reasons to say something nice about the man.

This doesn't mean none of these folks wouldn't take the job anyway. Radakovich knows football coach Derek Dooley from when both worked at LSU. Hyman is said to be unhappy with his financial package at South Carolina, and his wife's displeasure with the way Gamecocks quarterback Stephen Garcia behaved at an athletic department event was said to be a reason for Garcia's latest suspension.

Castiglione would appear to be the best-qualified candidate, and his 13-year reign at Oklahoma might have him itchy for a new challenge. Now 53, he probably would have one more job change in him, and UT is one of the few positions that could be seen as at least a lateral move, if not a tiny step up given the ascending power of the SEC as opposed to the descending clout of the Big 12.

As for Blackburn, he's a loyal foot soldier who's remained unscathed by the Kiffin and Pearl soap operas. If no one sensational outside the school will bite and UT's top brass and top-drawer boosters don't wish to hand the job full-time to Cronan, the school could do worse.

As for Shuler, his weakness (being a politician with no athletic department experience) could also be his strength, since he's managed to be elected three times to Congress from North Carolina, which means he must be pleasing his constituents.

Then there's Fulmer, whose camp has been eerily quiet excepting the first day or two after Hamilton's departure. Is this because they know he's not the guy or because they think he might be?

One final thought on Castiglione. UT's gain could be UT-Chattanooga's loss. Should he take over the Big Orange, the Sooners might reach out to UTC AD Rick Hart for the OU post, since Hart was a trusted and accomplished lieutenant to Castiglione before being hired by the Mocs.

But all of this could hinge on what each of these men and women think of Cheek. And given that, the candidacies of Radakovich (Dooley's favorite) and Blackburn look stronger daily.

It's all enough to make you wonder if Cheek shouldn't have received his own buyout instead of negotiating Hamilton's.