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Tuesday, June 7, 2011
Hamilton's demise should worry others

Mike Hamilton
Mike Hamilton's tenure at Tennessee has finally come to an end.

"He's a frog on a frying pan and he doesn't even know it."

The comment caught me off guard, so I turned and asked the man it came from to give me an explanation. His said his name was Jack Thompson, a contractor from Chattanooga. He was dressed head-to-toe in Tennessee Volunteers orange and white and the spot where he had unfolded his orange lawn chair and sat down to have his pregame meal provided a beautiful vista of Neyland Stadium.

It was Labor Day weekend of last year and I was there to shadow Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton during the Vols' 2010 season opener. He didn't know that I was shadowing him. He had, in fact, politely declined my request. But I was doing it anyway, and right now he was making his way down the hill toward the gleaming stadium, in the midst of a $27 million second phase of renovations, a plan that Hamilton had sent into motion with his unquestioned fundraising skills. He looked great, chipper, with summer color in his face. He shook hands, thanked people for their support, particularly their donations, and smiled all the way.

As I watched, Thompson explained: "You see, if you try to cook a frog by just throwing him on a hot frying pan, he'll know what's up and jump off. But if you put him on a cold frying pan and turn the heat up bit by bit, he doesn't know he's being cooked until it's too late."

Then, on cue, Hamilton breezed by, shook Thompson's hand, and kept moving.

"That man's cooked and he doesn't know it."

It was the first game for new head football coach Derek Dooley and Hamilton was clearly thrilled to see the day arrive. It was supposed to finally turn the last page on the sad, embarrassing Lane Kiffin saga. At last, Hamilton had confided to coworkers, he would be able to visit with Tennessee supporters and answer questions about the future and not the past.

Earlier that summer, he had looked much the cheery same when I caught up with the AD, Dooley and basketball coach Bruce Pearl at the school's Big Orange Caravan, a tour designed to touch base with alumni and fans in cities outside of Knoxville. Each took questions from those fans. And while the two coaches fielded queries about incoming freshmen and offensive schemes, Hamilton was peppered with "Do you wish you hadn't hired Kiffin?" and "How much are we still paying all Kiffin's assistant coaches?" and "Do you think the NCAA is going to hammer us?"

Again, he smiled and kept moving.

I didn't see him again in person until the end of the football season. In the time that had passed between Labor Day and Thanksgiving, the Pearl situation had come unglued. What's more, the football team, while entertainingly overachieving, was still stuck at .500, still operating under Kiffin's shadow and bracing itself for an impending notice from the NCAA. It was obvious that Hamilton hadn't slept. His eyes were a bit hollowed out. But he was still smiling. "The hardest times seem to be behind us," he said as he shook my hand. "The Music City Bowl is going to be a thriller and basketball is looking great."

The bowl was a mess. And basketball was the worst kind of collegiate roller coaster, the final dip hitting at the start of the NCAA Tournament in March. Again, I chatted with Hamilton before a big Tennessee sporting event, standing in the tunnel of Charlotte's Time Warner Cable Arena before what would prove to be Pearl's final, and worst, loss at Tennessee.

Now, for the first time, his smile was forced, more of a thin-lipped grin, perhaps a subconscious effort to keep himself from talking. He'd said enough, essentially revealing that Pearl was toast in a radio interview earlier that week. Our conversation had the same feeling that one got as they followed his official Twitter account over the last year. While his basketball program burned to the ground, his football program was still being combed over by the NCAA, and his baseball program was starting a season that would end with its coach being ousted, he said, totally serious, "I am really looking forward to seeing Coach [Pat] Summitt get another championship, aren't you?"

Finally, on Tuesday, the Mike Hamilton that we saw before us was all out of smiles. There were no more comments of misdirection, like his frequently ill-timed tweets congratulating nonrevenue sports on winning games that always seemed to coincide with embarrassing football and basketball headlines. And there were no more chances to point to the bank account created by his fundraising efforts as a sign of success. Those who contributed to that account, from alums to board members to the state of Tennessee, had finally been embarrassed long enough.

Gene Smith
Ohio State AD Gene Smith's seat is likely starting to feel very warm.

There are only two people in America who heard the news out of Knoxville and likely felt the sting of the headlines more than Hamilton himself: Ohio State AD Gene Smith and North Carolina AD Dick Baddour.

Yes, their athletic programs have won a lot of games on their watch. Yes, they have both made decisions and alliances that have made their schools a lot of money. And yes, they have both received public votes of confidence from their employers, Smith as recently as two weeks ago.

But Mike Hamilton also used to be able to check "yes" in all of those categories. And now he is gone.

Last fall I also shadowed Baddour, also at a big home game in his newly renovated football stadium. He too was hoping that game day would allow Chapel Hill to turn the page on scandal, the summer-long agent-fueled drama that dragged the once-proud Heels and their supporters through the mud. Like Hamilton, he moved along and smiled and shook hands. And like Hamilton, he chose to filter out the uncomfortable questions or the grumbles that followed him out of every room. "It's a great day to be a Tar Heel," he said over and over, pointing to the nice weather, Kenan Stadium's new scoreboard, and the start of basketball practice.

One thought kept repeating itself in my mind.

Frog in a frying pan.