Amidst making the most difficult, scrutinized and analyzed professional decisions of his career during 2008, University of Tennessee athletics director Mike Hamilton likewise embarked on an ongoing personal journey to expand of his family of four to six with the future adoption of two young Ethiopian orphans.
It's been anything but an mundane year for the Volunteers' engaging athletics leader, a passionate Tennessee fan who relentlessly supports his teams on gamedays but maintains a financially sound, CEO-type leadership in handling UT's day-to-day athletics operations. Hamilton has helped raise more than a quarter of a billion dollars since joining the Tennessee staff in 1992, but he's far from "just" an athletics director.
On this day, the devout Christian Hamilton sports a new black rubber bracelet supporting yet another of his many charitable interests, this one charitywater.org. He humbly dismisses a "renaissance man" label but acknowledges that the disappointing absence of bowl week activities and preparations allows more time with his beloved family for some out-of-town museum adventures.
Before that, however, Hamilton sat down for this lengthy, two-part question-and-answer session, a veritable "State of the Vols" address.
Part I, which primarily focuses on the coaching search process that resulted in Lane Kiffin's hiring on Dec. 1, follows. The conclusion, which deals with more football news, facilities updates, budget matters and more, appears online at VolQuest.com on Thursday.
VQ: Now that the search has been concluded for roughly a month, looking back what was the toughest thing about the coaching search? How did it compare to your search that netted Bruce Pearl? What did you learn and what might you do differently if you encountered this situation again?
MH: The first thing I'd tell you is that I think it's harder to do a football coach search than a basketball coach search. And the reason I'd say that is that in basketball, you've got 300-some Division I jobs. And you're not moving earth as quickly. You've got 12-13 guys on a team. Football, you've got big numbers of people involved and you've only got 119 I-A jobs. So if you're looking at a head coach there or a coordinator there, it's a smaller pool. Of if you're looking at the NFL, it's a much smaller pool. It's just, I think it's more complex to hire a football coach than it is to hire a basketball coach.
Then, for us, as we began this search process, the thing that became very clear to us early on is that, even though it's a smaller field, there was a tremendous amount of interest in Tennessee. You have to evaluate who's out there trying to get a raise versus who's really interested in Tennessee and who's a fit for Tennessee. So the first thing you have to do is narrow the field. You can't interview everybody. Now, I had the benefit of time in that I was able to probably interview more people than under another circumstance because we had three weeks from the time the initial decision was made until the end of the season. So that allowed me to really look hard at different options and then to make a decision on what size field (of candidates) I was going to interview.
And then it's actually sitting with them. You've got what you read about other people and what you hear about other people, but you've got to actually sit with the individuals and feel comfortable with the individuals. I will tell you, everybody I met with I felt a comfort level at some level that they could come in and have some success at the University of Tennessee. Because, first of all, they were successful people and successful coaches. They all had something about them that made you say, 'Hey, we're interviewing this guy for a reason. It's now obvious why we're interviewing this person.' But what you've got to get to is, what's the best fit? I've given the example on a couple of different occasions that there were a number of guys you felt pretty good about them being able to come in and win eight or nine games consistently, but that only makes it so far. In this league, you've got to be able to also have somebody that's going to be able to win 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 or at least the potential to win 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 because we're expecting to compete for championships. So who out of that group do you feel gives you the greatest level of confidence that you're going to achieve those goals? And that's where it comes down to sitting down and asking the right questions and frankly getting a gut feel as to who's going to take you to that level.
VQ: What were the right questions?
MH: Well, in some cases, it was different questions for different individuals based upon their experiences or where they had been. I really felt like, one question that I wanted answered is, 'What's your plan to recruit to the level that's necessary to be competitive in the Southeastern Conference?' And, then we talked a lot about offensive schemes and defensive schemes and philosophies about academic performance, athletic performance and weight training, scheduling philosophies and all those types of things. But for us, in this particular process, we started with recruiting because historically speaking that's been an element that has been vital to our success, has been that ability to go out and recruit. Not only regionally, but nationally. We felt like we needed to have someone who could do that for us.
VQ: Positive or negative oftentimes it seems we hear only from the vocal minority. What has been the feedback to you that you have encountered over the last six to eight weeks since these decisions began to unfold?
MH: You go through the period where there are names out there and everybody wants to weigh in on a certain name or about all the names that may or may not be involved in your search. You have to filter your way through all that because ultimately you have to live with the decision you make. I had a friend who's an athletics director who during the process made a call to me and said, 'Hey, when it's all said and done, you need to hire your guy. Because if he wins, everything's going to be fine and everybody's going to be in your boat. But if he doesn't win, all the guys who thought he was the guy are going to leave the boat and you're going to be the guy left there. So in the end, hire your guy.' And I think that's good advice. You want an individual as your head coach that the powers that be can feel comfortable with and feel good about, but in the end it's the A.D. who's on the line for the hire. So the first three weeks you're filtering through all that while really going about your task, going through hiring your coach. Then there's the press conference and what comes out of the press conference and what's happened post-press conference in terms of my feedback has been almost all positive.
You lose a commitment here and there, and you don't ever want to lose commitments, but you realize that's a part of the process when you have a change. Part of the business when you have a change. And you also have personal relationships with coaches from the previous coaching staff. Nobody on our previous coaching staff was a bad person or a bad coach. We had good coaches and we had good people. But it's inevitable that we had to have change. You deal with that on a personal level. You know, that's not necessarily something you hear from the vocal minority or majority. But if you wonder what's it been like in the last few weeks, there have been some personal issues to deal with, particularly with a staff that had been here as long as our staff had, because you develop some personal relationships. You know their wives, who their children are, you've been to functions at a bowl site with them or in a car riding down a dark road at night going to a caravan event so you get to know people.
VQ: You said it's important to hire 'your guy' because that's who's going to be in the boat with you. Do you feel like it's you and Lane in this boat?
MH: No, I don't. I know that in the end the responsibility for our success lies there in a lot of ways, but we've had good support for the hire from so many different perspectives. And validation of the hire from so many different perspectives that I feel good about the direction. And when you say, 'Your guy,' I feel sometimes there's this misconception. You're not hiring somebody who is like you, necessarily. If you look at Sam Winterbotham and look at Todd Raleigh and you look at Bruce Pearl and you look at Lane Kiffin, they are all different individuals. They were hired for specific reasons for their specific sports. And in some cases for the needs of that particular sport at that particular time. So it's trying as an athletic director to assess the landscape of where you are programmatically, each specific sport and look at each individual and see who brings the biggest upside potential to this specific sport at this specific time and trying to find the right guy for the right slot at the right time.
VQ: You've referenced the four coaches you have hired and even though I know you spent some lengthy time with coach Kiffin during the interview process, he's been too busy for you to have spent much time with him since then. But what characteristics do you think all four of those coaches hired by you share?
MH: They are unbelievable competitors. And they all appreciate the opportunity to be given the keys to this car at the University of Tennessee. They realize this is a special opportunity and a special place. And let me say this, they all four are intense recruiters. You don't see it everyday in tennis or baseball because you don't cover those sports every day, but all four of these guys get it from a standpoint of recruiting. They're unbelievable personal competitors and they all understand and appreciate the competitive level in the Southeastern Conference and being given the keys to the UT car, so to speak.
VQ: What, if anything, has maybe surprised you about Lane Kiffin since he was introduced as Tennessee's coach?
MH: I don't know that yet anything has necessarily surprised me. Every time I've had a conversation with him, I've felt more validated in the decision to hire him. And what I mean by that is, it becomes more and more clear that he has a sense of direction for where he wants things to go. And that's refreshing to hear. Every time I meet with him I see another step in that process, and that's a refreshing thing.
VQ: When you were meeting with him, when did he first broach the subject of bringing his father, Monte, with him as part of the staff?
MH: The first meeting. The first meeting in Atlanta. He let me know then that his dad had a clause in his contract that let him leave to go coach with Lane. And that Lane's plan was that his dad would be his defensive coordinator. That was certainly his first choice. He had a backup plan and everything, but that was what his direction would be.
VQ: How much of this process was, and you've said this before that you're only as good as the people who surround you, but how much of this process tilted toward Lane because of the staff he could potentially assemble and surround himself with?
MH: I think the staff assemblance is a vital part of the equation. The reality is that I don't know all the names he mentioned and I don't know all the people personally, but you're sort of trusting judgment in a lot of regards. As he walked his way through his 'A' pool and his 'B' pool, it was clear he had reasons for them to be on the staff and as he's made his way through that process, I've not spent any time with the new guys to speak of at this point, but he knows what the goals are here. And the thing that's been interesting to me is that he's not got a cookie-cutter formula for his staff. There's going to be a wide variety of age range, and you're going to see a wide variety of pay scale, which I think is a different approach.
VQ: A couple of money questions since you've provided the segue. You talk about the pay scale and you said the day he was hired that he had roughly an additional $1 million to deal with that would put it roughly at $3 million. Is there the potential for more than the $3 million?
MH: Yeah. Yeah, basically what we've talked about is two or three different figures with a top-end figured being based upon certain individuals being hired. And then if those certain individuals aren't hired then it goes to a different level. And that's the framework with which he operates. I'm not going to put a specific dollar amount; I'll be glad to do so when the staff is put in place. But he's been given a pool to do that. We will not have, when you've got the head coach and assistant coaches all combined, we will not have the highest-paid staff in the SEC but we're not going to be at the end of the league. We were in the middle to the lower half, and we will move into the top tier in terms of what our pay scale is going to be.
And one of the reasons we've been able to do that is that he as a head coach, and in reality he didn't ask for more money, he didn't ask for a larger sum of money, personally. We gave him what he asked for, which is what he was making with the Raiders this past season. He asked that we would commit additional dollars that would be used to assemble the best possible staff, which I think it speaks to what he's trying to accomplish, frankly.
VQ: Another money question. We've exhaustively heard about Phillip Fulmer's buyout. But what about Dave Clawson, who's become head coach at Bowling Green. Does Tennessee still owe him money to make his salary commensurate with what he would have earned as Tennessee's offensive coordinator?
MH: So far for the three guys who are in new positions, we will have some money that we will be paying Dave Clawson. And then obviously Latrell and Greg resigned so there's no financial impact on those decisions. I waived their (clause) where if they moved to a lateral position they were to pay a six-month deal. Because of the circumstances we were under, we waived that penalty.
VQ: Does that decision to waive those penalties go back to your respect for those individuals as coaches and people as you alluded to earlier? In these tough economic times it might have been easy to justify a hard-nosed approach.
MH: It was that, and it was also coupled with the fact they could have held on longer and eventually could have had to terminate them and owed them more money. So there's a balance there. They had job offers on the table that were time sensitive, and they needed to be able to know if they could move on or not. They also gave us an additional three or four weeks of their lives during a really difficult time, and we just decided it was the right thing to do.
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