Wiedmer: First Pearl, then boss Hamilton?

Wiedmer: First Pearl, then boss Hamilton?

March 22nd, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports

In this file photo, University of Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton speaks during a meeting of the Rotary Club at the Country Place Restaurant on Shallowford Road.

Mike Hamilton's future as University of Tennessee athletic director is now on the clock.

UT did what most expected it to do Monday. The school fired basketball coach Bruce Pearl for committing NCAA recruiting violations, then lying about them.

Scheduled to meet with the Infractions Committee in less than 90 days, the Volunteers brass apparently decided their hopes for a light sentence would be strengthened by axing the coach who guided them to six NCAA tournaments in six years.

But before Tennessee can begin searching for Pearl's replacement, it must make a decision about its AD, whose current popularity with the Big Orange Nation apparently rates right up there with lawyers, loan sharks, politicians and the NFL labor issue on the contempt meter.

Hamilton's job-approval rating has been shaky with most UT fans ever since he fired Phillip Fulmer as football coach, then watched the man he chose to replace Fulmer - Lane Kiffin - bolt for Southern Cal after 13 months.

Ever since then, Hamilton's popularity has slowly waned. But it fell off a cliff last week when he hinted on a Knoxville radio show that Pearl's job might be in jeopardy less than 48 hours before the Vols were to take the court for their opening NCAA tourney game against Michigan.

Pearl smartly downplayed the damage such remarks may have had on the UT team in that 75-45 loss to the Wolverines. At least one of his coaches, Tony Jones, was less diplomatic.

Referring to Hamilton's remarks, Jones told the Knoxville News Sentinel, "On this particular day, this basketball team was distracted."

In that wake, there's a sense that many UT fans are livid with Hamilton to the point of distraction.

Consider, for instance, that the first post on this newspaper's website after Pearl was fired read: "Now if they will just fire Mike Hamilton."

The second: "Mike Hamilton needs to get packing."

Maybe he does and maybe he doesn't. Hamilton's fans and foes can deliver equally compelling arguments for saving him or sacking him. On the one hand, he's the guy who hired Pearl, a move that has made the Vols a Top 20 program that fills its lavishly renovated arena well enough to post the fifth-best home attendance average in college basketball.

Of more lasting import, Hamilton's dogged determination to take the UT athletics physical plant - Neyland Stadium, Thompson-Boling Arena, the renovated football complex, etc. - to the top of the BCS food chain is impressive work.

But as much as he deserves sky-high marks in those areas, depite Pearl's meteoric fall from grace, his seeming lack of control over his coaches (Kiffin and Pearl foremost) and his clumsy comments regarding Pearl last week overwhelm most of his positives.

Still, whether Hamilton goes or stays is up to UT administrators and high rollers such as Jim Haslam. Yet the need to make that decision both final and public as quickly as possible cannot be ignored.

No coach worth having will come to UT without knowing who his boss is. Moreover, few athletic directors would want to enter a new job with a new basketball coach they had no input in hiring.

So before the Vols can replace Pearl, they must swiftly decide whether they're going to keep or can Hamilton.

After that, the coaching wish list must start with Butler's Brad Stevens. As Louisville coach Rick Pitino said after watching Stevens engineer that Saturday night upset of No. 1 seed Pitt, "If Brad Stevens is the future of our sport, our sport is in good hands."

Maybe Stevens will leave the comfy cocoon of the Indianapolis private school and maybe he won't. But UT must make Stevens say no before moving on.

Not far behind him should come Auburn coach Tony Barbee, Alabama boss Anthony Grant and Missouri coach Mike Anderson, if he hasn't already taken the Arkansas job.

Of the three, Barbee easily is the best with the public, the media and the boosters, but Anderson is the guy who coaches the way Pearl once did - full-court, full-out, for the full 40 minutes. Plus, he could instantly make UT a serious player in Memphis recruiting circles, something the Vols long have lacked.

There are others, of course, including some in the Sweet 16: Marquette's Buzz Williams, VCU's Shaka Smart, Richmond's Chris Mooney and Arizona's Sean Miller.

Texas's Rick Barnes - who seems to be growing stale in the Longhorn State - might also be interested, as might Knoxville native Rick Byrd, whose Belmont teams always impress.

One complaint on the timing: Could UT not have waited until after Monday's Lady Vols tourney game to make this announcement?

Come to think of it, why not just name Pat Summitt the men's AD after the women's tourney? There's not a men's coach anywhere who doesn't respect her, and her hiring would add a touch of integrity and class to the men's athletic department that's been lacking for years.

But whatever UT ultimately decides about its AD post, it must have one under a long contract before it can hire a new basketball coach.

So whether it's Hamilton or his successor, the clock is ticking. Quickly.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.