As the University of Tennessee football team enjoys a weekend off before jumping back into the SEC fire next Saturday at Mississippi State, I can honestly say, things are not well in Big Orange Country. On Thursday of this week, reports from Knoxville tell us, that Tennessee Lady Vols Coach Emeritus, Pat Summitt said in a sworn affidavit that U.T. Athletic Director Dave Hart informed her in a meeting on March 14, that she would not be returning as the Lady Vols head coach. Hart also told her that he intended to hire her long time assistant, Holly Warlick as her replacement.
You have got to be kidding me! We all knew that Dave Hart was hardnosed, but if what Coach Summitt is saying is true, that goes well beyond hardnosed. The affidavit was brought to the forefront of former Lady Vols’ Media Relations Director Debby Jennings’ lawsuit against Hart and the University. Jennings is claiming she was fired, after thirty-five years at U.T. because of age discrimination, insubordination and retaliation. Jennings was let go on May 15 of this year as Hart apparently gave her three hours to decide to retire, resign or be fired. Hart also got rid of former men’s media relations director, Bud Ford, a forty year U.T. employee, in much the same way in late 2011.
Regardless of which side is telling the truth, this is a public relations nightmare for the University of Tennessee. As of this morning, (Friday) neither Coach Summitt nor her son Tyler had issued any further comment. In fact, nobody is willing to comment further on the matter, at least not right now. We have two different versions of a huge story out there, and there is nothing new to report.
The one-on-one meeting between Hart and Coach Summitt, reportedly took place on March 14, just before the Lady Vols departed for their NCAA Tournament first round game in Chicago. Summitt told Jennings, a Lady Vols assistant coach, and her personal secretary about the meeting with Hart, and that she was very hurt over his decision. Coach Summitt in a press conference on April 18, announced that she was stepping down and her decision was her idea. Now, almost six months later, her story has changed.
There is one factor here that I have not mentioned as yet; in August of 2011, Pat Summitt announced to the world, she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type. Those of us who have faithfully followed Tennessee basketball for some time, know things were not the same last season on the Lady Vols bench. Coach Summitt’s icy and intimidating stare just wasn’t there. We all knew the 2012 season would likely be her last, but we also felt if she did decide to step down, the decision would be hers to make, and hers alone. I guess my question is; why did Dave Hart meet with her, without a third party present? A person suffering from dementia may not recall things from the meeting, the same way that Hart did.
Dave Hart has made very few friends among the Tennessee faithful since he was named to replace Mike Hamilton last fall. In addition to cleaning house and separating the mens and women’s athletic departments, he also did away with the Lady Vols logo. U.T. officials now say, there is one logo for all athletic teams at Tennessee; the “Power T’.And if you have tried to buy Lady Vols merchandise recently, I would imagine you haven’t had much luck at all. It simply cannot be found.
The one common thread coming from the media in this situation is this; it is indeed a public relations nightmare. Maybe we can all just wake up, sit up in bed and realize, it was really just a bad dream.
Randy Smith has been covering sports in Tennessee for the last 43 years. After leaving WRCB-TV in 2009, he has continued his broadcasting career as a free-lance play-by-play announcer. He is also an author and is a media concepts teacher at Brainerd High School in Chattanooga. He is also the Head Softball Coach at Brainerd. Randy Smith's career has included a 17-year stint as scoreboard host and pre-game talk show host on the widely regarded "Vol Network". He has also done play by play of more than 500 college football, basketball, baseball and softball games on ESPN, ESPN2, Fox Sports, CSS and Tennessee Pay Per View telecasts. He was selected as "Tennessee's Best Sports Talk Show Host" in 1998 by the Associated Press. He has won other major awards including, "Best Sports Story" in Tennessee and his "Friday Night Football" shows on WRCB-TV twice won "Best Sports Talk Show In Tennessee" awards. He has also been the host of "Inside Lee University Basketball" on CSS for the past 11 years. He was the first television broadcaster to ever be elected to the "Greater Chattanooga Area Sports Hall of Fame", in 2003. Randy and his wife, Shelia, reside in Hixson. They have two married children (Christi and Chris Perry; Davey and Alison Smith). They also have three grandchildren (Coleman, Boone, and DellaMae).