Editor's note: this story was first posted in September 2010. We wanted to post it once again since it provides a good perspective on Hamilton's history at UT.
Bryan Mullen, The Tennessean
KNOXVILLE - When Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl admitted this month that he lied to the NCAA about violating recruiting rules, it was another in a series of black eyes for the university's athletic program on the watch of athletic director Mike Hamilton.
In the last 10 months, nine student-athletes were arrested for crimes ranging from armed robbery to aggravated assault. Also, the NCAA, the governing body of intercollegiate athletics, began inquiries into the conduct of the men's basketball, baseball and football programs.
What's more, the way in which UT's long-time football coach Phillip Fulmer was fired in 2008 drew criticism nationally; his successor, Lane Kiffin, provoked the ire of fellow coaches and others; and Kiffin's abrupt departure after one year produced more questions about the football program.
But set against those issues is the robust success of Hamilton's fundraising - turning an athletic department deficit into a fat surplus and funding major improvements to the football stadium and other building projects.
"If the person you are evaluating has done so much to forward the mission of the institution, then you want to acknowledge that," said Peter Roby, founder of the Sport in Society program at Boston's Northeastern University. "But at the same time, the reputation of an institution is also at risk if things are done in a way that brings embarrassment and ridicule. You have to balance those."
Fundraising, winning, and staying in compliance with the NCAA are criteria upon which athletic directors are judged. So are keeping student-athletes out of trouble and maintaining respectable graduation rates.
"Ultimately, as it relates to athletic work, I'm the athletic director and take responsibility," Hamilton said in an interview with The Tennessean. "When you're running an organization that has a $100 million-plus budget, and you've got in some ways some seemingly divergent responsibilities in the job, you have to become more of a generalist."
Hamilton has won the support of key allies, including UT Chancellor Jimmy Cheek, to whom Hamilton directly reports.
"I think Mike's leadership has contributed significantly to the overall mission of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville," Cheek said. "If you look at his accomplishments, we're nationally competitive in all sports. We're financially healthy."
Critics worry that while Hamilton brings in hundreds of millions of dollars, UT pays a heavy cost. They suggest Hamilton should also focus on avoiding NCAA investigations, recruiting athletes who don't get arrested in bar brawls, carry guns with serial numbers removed, or get arrested for armed robbery, all of which has happened at UT in the last year.
"The reality is that we are training 18 to 22 year olds," Hamilton said. "If you take a percentage of the population on this campus, there are going to be some issues there, too. I don't say that as an excuse. I say that as a statement of reality. With even that being the case, we have to handle our own issues."
Misconduct by college athletes is not solely Tennessee's problem. The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported last month that 23 Georgia football players have been arrested in the past three years. Earlier this month Florida wide receiver Chris Raney became the 27th player arrested in Coach Urban Meyer's six seasons with the Gators. And Southern Virginia University professor Jeff Benedict, writing on Sports Illustrated's website, si.com, reported that there have been 85 documented arrests of college football and basketball players in the first eight months of this year.
The accountability for athletes' conduct, though, rests with the school said Donald Morrison, a professor at UCLA's Anderson School of Business who specializes in administration in college athletics.
"You can put in all of the safeguards and draw flow charts and bring people in to speak, but it's more about embracing the spirit of compliance and really monitoring your admissions," said Morrison, UCLA's faculty representative for athletics.
"We will knowingly take some academic risk (in student-athletes), but we will not knowingly take a character risk. It's not perfect. But it really starts from the chancellor and the athletic director in terms of the coaches they hire and the message they send. Do they say they want to win and do it the right way?"
But Hamilton is also frustrated by coaches who break rules. Of particular concern was the recent revelation that Pearl lied to NCAA investigators. Pearl later came forth and acknowledged he had attempted to mislead the NCAA.
"I'm not happy that we had some coaches that were found to have given misleading information (to the NCAA)," Hamilton said. "That's certainly disappointing."
In a letter to the SEC office, UT admitted poor record keeping, miscommunication and carelessness in documentation by Pearl and others while contacting recruits. The letter states that Pearl and his staff made more than 100 excessive phone calls to recruits, and that they allowed prospects and their families to stay in Knoxville during recruiting visits longer than NCAA rules permit.
Hamilton says his NCAA compliance office works with UT's coaches and updates them on rule changes. Hamilton said that was the case long before the NCAA increased its investigations. In the past two years, in the Southeastern Conference alone, the NCAA has investigated Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama.
"I encourage it," Hamilton said of the NCAA's recent compliance push. "We had some discussion at the SEC meetings in Destin (Fla.) about the fact that we have to start taking serious action and that the serious action needs to be taken against coaches."
In one respect, Hamilton lived up to his word. When Pearl admitted lying to the NCAA, Hamilton docked Pearl $1.5 million in pay over the next five years. It was an unprecedented amount in terms of a fine from athletic director to coach. Hamilton also cut the salaries of three assistant men's basketball and limited their off-campus recruiting. But Hamilton did not fire Pearl.
When asked by The Tennessean why he did not fire Pearl, Hamilton said, "I don't want to get into specifics of the legal conversations we had."
When asked if firing Pearl was discussed, Hamilton said, "We discussed a lot of different options."
According to Pearl's contract, UT would be at risk if Pearl were fired before the NCAA wraps up its investigation. Pearl could sue the school, and there is precedent. According to an ESPN.com report, former Ohio State men's basketball Coach Jim O'Brien was fired before an NCAA investigation was completed. O'Brien sued and won $2.4 million from Ohio State.
The monetary and recruiting penalties levied at Pearl were a preemptive measures, with the hope the NCAA would find it sufficient and not penalize the program any further.
"If you look at potential penalties in these type cases, one of those penalties is termination of employment," Hamilton said. "One is the possibility of coaching for a year without pay. So we said, 'We've got to give some credence to the fact that he came forward and corrected his statements.'
"In essence, we've taken a year's salary away from him and one year of off-campus recruiting restrictions. It is a year of substantial activity in the life of a basketball program."
When asked if Pearl came forward because his conscience got to him, or because Pearl knew the NCAA had proof that he had lied, Hamilton declined comment.
Hamilton honed his skills in UT's development office from 1992-2003. During that time, his knack of getting donors to open their wallets made him a rock star in fundraising circles. In 1998, the National Association of Athletic Development Directors named him the National Fundraiser of the Year. It was only the beginning.
The year Hamilton was named athletics director - 2003 - UT's had a $750,000 deficit. It is now has a $9 million surplus. Athletics has raised $413 million since he began at UT, and since being named AD, Hamilton has helped raise $260.3 million in donations.
That has led to a building program. More than $230 million has been used to upgrade facilities and build new buildings. Neyland Stadium was renovated. More than $178 million of additional construction is currently being planned.
UT is also one of 15 Division I-A athletic departments that does not receive funds from state subsidies or taxes, yet still makes a profit. In fact, in 2010-11, UT athletics will contribute $10.3 million in cash to the general UT-Knoxville campus.
Hamilton's financial success has bought him job security. Fundraising and development, he says, are his strengths.
"Most leadership books I read say you have to concentrate on your strengths, but not forsaking your weaknesses," Hamilton said. "I've always continued to concentrate on what I think are my greatest strengths and that is external skills. With that being said, I try to get better in something every day."
The NCAA investigations and the off-the-field problems have raised the ire of some fans.
"When you're in one of these kinds of roles, you have to filter the noise," Hamilton said. "You have to know who you report to, know who are making the decisions to allow you to be successful in your job and who is holding you accountable."
Cheek, the chancellor, has heard the criticism, including calls for Hamilton's dismissal.
"There are certainly some that I have talked to that have said they don't support him," Cheek said. "But that's a very small minority of the people I have talked to."
In fact, those who matter most in terms of Hamilton's job security firmly back him.
Cheek, the chair of the UT Board of Trustees, has placed his support behind Hamilton.
"We have a process that is in place for the expectations for the athletic director," said James Murphy, chair of the UT Board of Trustees and a Nashville lawyer. "He and the chancellor obviously work closely on making sure he achieves that. And right now, he has achieved the expectations that the university has for him."
Even in the light of the NCAA investigations, the UT Board of Trustees is in Hamilton's corner.
"He has worked very closely with the chancellor on the issues that have come up and kept me apprised of the developments as they come along," Murphy said. "At this point, I think there is a perception that he is doing what he is supposed to be doing."
Cheek came to UT in February 2009 after spending 25 years in administration at the University of Florida. When asked if he would keep a closer eye on Hamilton following the NCAA investigations, Cheek said his mission has not changed.
"I think I have the same high expectations that we perform at a high level and we do so from an ethical perspective," Cheek said. "It is our mantra. I expect Mike to have in place strong compliance measures. But I think we also have to say that we have to be thinking about not only the spirit of the law, but the letter of the law to make sure we don't violate them."
Which points directly to Pearl, who Hamilton hired in 2005. Pearl has reinvigorated the UT men's basketball program, achieved success unmatched in school history and helped prompt a $20 million upgrade of Thompson-Boling Arena, along with the addition of the $16 million Pratt Pavilion, a first-class practice facility.
When Pearl admitted to lying to the NCAA, and when players got arrested, Cheek put the blame on Pearl and the players, not on Hamilton or others.
"I don't think you can prevent stupidity," Cheek said.
Hamilton's key supporters extend beyond trustees and chancellors. He also has a key political backer.
Pearl endorsed Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam's run for governor early on, and when Pearl admitted he had lied to the NCAA, Haslam was quick to respond. He asked Pearl not to rescind his endorsement. The Haslam family owns the Knoxville-based Pilot Corporation and is the biggest donor to UT athletics.
On-campus politics have been more fragmented. The lack of stability in UT's presidency has produced statewide attention, but Hamilton does not believe it has affected his job performance.
"I've had five bosses in seven years," Hamilton said. "But it's never been unclear who I report to and what their expectations are. Personalities, sometimes you can get a different emphasis here or there, but it's been good."
In July 2009, despite ongoing controversies involving the UT football program, Hamilton received a raise. His base salary rose from $274,575 in 2008-09 to $350,000 for 2009-10. He is scheduled to make $400,000 in 2010-11.
The NCAA issues involving UT and other programs suggest a question: are playing by the rules and competing on the highest level mutually exclusive?
"Part of what happens in college athletics is when people fear for their survival, their instincts kick in," Roby said. "They sometimes do things that are not in the best interest of their program or institution in the hopes they don't get caught."
Regarding UT, where more than 20 student-athletes have been arrested since 2004, many wonder if there are enough high-quality character players being recruited.
"I think that's a great question," Hamilton said. "When someone asks, 'Why did you hire (head football Coach) Derek Dooley?' I say, 'When we sat in the interview with him, a large portion of the two-and-a-half hour interview was targeted on character development specifically.'
"You've got to have the right kind of athletes to win, but there are a great number of those folks that are capable of producing on the field that also come with high character," he said.
"I try to look ahead and not look back."