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Malcolm Turner, shown in 2017, resigned Tuesday as Vanderbilt's athletic directo. / AP File Photo/Charlie Neibergall

As hard as it is to believe, there may be at least one other institution in this country that's as much of a train wreck this week as the Iowa caucuses. Vanderbilt athletics, come on down.

These words are written not only because the men's basketball team is on an SEC-record 26-game losing streak in conference games heading into Wednesday night's visit from LSU. Or because the football team recently finished 1-7 in conference play and 3-9 overall.

Those two facts are reason enough to pity the entire VU athletic department. But as if that's not enough, as of Tuesday afternoon the Commodores were also without an athletic director, Malcolm Turner having resigned to, in his words, "pursue other opportunities."

In case you hadn't yet become familiar with Turner, don't sweat it. He'd been on the job all of one year.

(MORE: Malcolm Turner resigns as Vanderbilt athletic director after 1 year on job)

Not that you can necessarily blame him for leaving the West End, whatever his reasons. Turner's resume is impeccable, from earning a joint JD/MBA degree from Harvard and a business degree from North Carolina, to his four-year run as commissioner of the NBA's G League.

As all-time Commodores basketball great and Scenic City resident Butch Feher noted Tuesday, "Every institution has a culture. I think he was trying to alter some of that. He's a smart guy. But when you do that, you sometimes run into headwinds."

To support that theory, ESPN noted unnamed sources that claimed Vanderbilt's financial approach and spending under Turner, a first-time college athletic director, escalated tension in recent weeks and led to Tuesday's split.

There's also the fact that the school chancellor who hired Turner — Nicholas Zeppos — stepped down in August. He'll be replaced by new chancellor Daniel Diermeier in July. Maybe this was important to Turner and maybe not, but Diermeier's most recent job as provost at the University of Chicago oversaw a Division III athletic department that awards no athletic scholarships. Fair or not, there is nothing in his resume that indicates he's ever had any interest in big-time athletics.

That's not to say he should, especially at a private, academically renowned university such as Vanderbilt. That's really what athletic directors such as Turner are for. But it probably also was fair for Turner to wonder if he'd ever be given the support and resources he knew he would need to compete year in and year out in the cut-throat Southeastern Conference, especially in football and men's basketball.

For as Feher also noted: "At Vanderbilt it's always been academics first and athletics second. That's tough to handle sometimes (for an AD)."

Vanderbilt did make an inspired call in naming Candice Storey Lee — a former VU women's basketball captain and three-time graduate of the university — its interim vice chancellor for athletics and university affairs and interim AD, effective immediately.

In that role she'll become Vandy's first female athletic director and the first African-American woman to head an SEC athletics program.

Having been Vanderbilt's senior woman administrator since 2004, Lee represents everything Vanderbilt wants in an AD, at least in the short term, according to interim chancellor Susan Wente.

"Candice embodies the Vanderbilt Way, which is our commitment to ensuring that student-athletes excel on the field of play, academically and in life," Wente noted in a released statement. "Candice is a trailblazer. Her unparalleled work ethic, energy and vision, and steadfast commitment to the Commodore family, will only build on our momentum."

Exactly what that momentum is can be tough to assess. The men's basketball program did recently receive a $5 million gift. There are plans to renovate the football stadium, though those remain under wraps at this time. Otherwise, the men's basketball program would appear to be in tatters under first-year coach Jerry Stackhouse and the football program not far behind.

There is one shining light, however, and that's Tim Corbin's baseball program. The 58-year-old Corbin has guided the Commodores to four College World Series and is the defending NCAA champ, having also won it all in 2014.

Though he has no problem with Lee, Feher — who'll be recognized as Vanderbilt's "Legend" during the SEC basketball tournament in Nashville in March for his contributions as a member of the "F-Troop," which won the league in 1974 — believes Corbin should be the next AD.

"He's got it going," Feher said. "Maybe he can model the rest of the athletics department after what he's done on the baseball field."

There's an obvious risk, of course. If you take away the coach from the one sport you've become nationally known for and that sport begins to struggle without the others elevating, you're worse off than when you started.

And perhaps Lee, so long with the program and so dynamic in her own right, deserves a chance to prove herself in the nation's most financially successful and competitive athletic conference.

But whatever Vanderbilt does, it needs to do all it can to do it right.

Because while Feher was confining his emotions to the struggles of the men's basketball team only, his words undoubtedly sum up the thoughts of most Commodores fans regarding the athletic department overall other than baseball.

"It's painful," he said. "It's painful to watch."

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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