The news out of Tennessee was twofold and ironic: Pat Summitt’s trip to the White House was scheduled for next week to bestow the iconic coach with the country’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And her media relations chief, Debby Jennings, who worked for the most demanding woman on the planet was, according to the athletic director, no longer fit to serve in that capacity.
Amid this dichotomy of news, first-year Head Coach Holly Warlick is trying to recruit her first high school signing class. Given the reaction on the message board on this site and an online petition that got 500-plus signatures in three days that objected to, among other things, the treatment of Debby Jennings, perhaps her sales pitch can include the passion of the fan base.
But that is a stretch. Warlick is trying to replace a legend and getting undermined on her own campus through no fault of her own. (To her and her staff’s credit, they are handling it well and signed two players for 2012 this week, a coup at this late hour in the recruiting calendar.)
Exactly who is at fault is not clear, and the situation has deteriorated into dueling lawyer letters.
The best person to shepherd a first-year head coach through the media maze next season – there will be tremendous interest for the first season of the post-Pat era especially with Pat Summitt still around at practice every day – would have been Jennings, who served Summitt for 35 years and has extensive contacts with media across the country. The shovel loosening the Lady Vols’ foothold on the national scene shouldn’t have found dirt in Knoxville.
But Athletics Director Dave Hart had this to say Thursday: “Although I do not normally comment on personnel decisions, given the nature and volume of inaccurate information that has been disseminated from those around Debby Jennings, I believe it is necessary to set the record straight. I lost confidence that her employment was in the best interests of the Athletics Department. Specifically, I concluded that she was insubordinate, disrespectful and forced an atmosphere of negativity and division.
“Based on her years of service, she was eligible for full retirement from the University, including medical benefits. I gave her the opportunity to retire instead of being terminated, and she chose that option. I will have no additional comment at this time, and I wish Debby well in her future endeavors.”
That statement was actually longer than Hart’s remarks when the departure of Jennings was announced on May 16: “We would like to thank Debby for her service to the University of Tennessee. She has been a part of our eight national championships in women’s basketball, and we wish her well.”
Hart’s statement Thursday wasn’t a parting shot. It was a fusillade across Jennings’ bow. So, how did it get to this point?
Jennings has hired David A. Burkhalter II to represent her. His letter to Tennessee can be read BY CLICKING HERE .
Burkhalter’s request for preservation of possible evidence can be read BY CLICKING HERE.
The response from Tennessee can be read BY CLICKING HERE and BY CLICKING HERE .
It is officially acrimonious when lawyers issue accusatory letters, and they make their way to the media via FOIA requests.
Contained in those documents is the allegation that Hart approached Summitt in March to tell her that she would not return next season, a sense of timing that would rival that of his predecessor, Mike Hamilton, saying Bruce Pearl would be evaluated after the season – after months of a vote of confidence – right before the Vols began the NCAA tourney in 2011 and they were subsequently smacked down in the first round amid constant media speculation over Pearl’s status.
There is a major difference in this case as news of this meeting, if it took place – Hart denies it in the released documents by saying it didn’t even warrant a response – didn’t reach the media until now. But, if it’s true, a team that already was dealing with a coach who had to adjust her sideline activity because of dementia now had one who had just been asked to step aside from a job she held for nearly four decades right before she entered the NCAA tourney.
All season long Summitt’s remarks and those of Tennessee were that Summitt and her staff would evaluate the matter after the season and her focus was on the 2012 team to try to get them to a Final Four. A few days before the team’s appearance in the tourney, was Summitt weighed down with the knowledge that her career was over?
Summitt made her weekly appearance with the media before the team left for Chicago, and the New York Times was also in town to quiz Summitt about her future plans.
“Oh, I haven’t made any decision about that,” Summitt said March 14. “I love the game. And whether I’m here at UT, I may or may not coach. It is what it is. I’m just trying to get another championship for this group.”
Burkhalter’s letter to Chancellor Jimmy Cheek refers to this in vague terms: “Most recently, on March 16, 2012, Debby protested other discriminatory action by Mr. Hart regarding a colleague. I am sure you are aware of this.”
What that meant was not at all clear and it never mentioned Summitt.
But the documents that Tennessee released included Jennings’ March 16 email to Hart in which she said: “Mr. Hart, I learned yesterday that you just told Pat Summitt that she will not be back next year as our head women’s basketball coach and I respectfully ask you to please reconsider this decision as it is not in the best interests of the University, and also, in view of Pat's condition, it is discriminatory and wrong. Additionally, please reconsider these actions as they are contrary to the support the University has professed publicly since Pat came forward with her diagnosis.”
Tennessee’s lawyer fired back this week with this: “Ms. Jennings’ most inaccurate and disturbing allegation is her self-serving mischaracterization in a March 16 email (attached) that Pat Summitt’s retirement was involuntary. We call your attention to Coach Summitt’s comments during her retirement press conference for the truth.”
On Friday, Burkhalter answered that charge in a letter to UT's counsel, Michael Fitzgerald: "I am in receipt of your letter of May 24, 2012, which I note you released to the media with approximately 250 pages of documents according to the Associated Press. Your letter also contains several assertions and inaccuracies which I will not comment on at this time.
"We are concerned, however, that you released the March 16th email from Ms. Jennings to Dave Hart protesting Mr. Hart's statements to Coach Pat Summitt that she would not be coaching next year. We intentionally left Coach Summitt's name out of the correspondence to Chancellor Cheek. However, Ms. Jennings stands by what is stated in her March 16th email. You assert: "We call your attention to Coach Summitt’s comments during her retirement press conference for the truth." As you undoubtedly are aware, Ms. Jennings helped prepare Coach Summitt's remarks. Moreover, Ms. Jennings had every right to defend her coach and to request Mr. Hart to reconsider that decision, especially since it was communicated to Coach Summitt one day before she was leaving for the NCAA tournament. Ms. Jennings simply felt that Coach Summitt should have been allowed to make her own decision as to her future with the University."
Burkhalter's letter went on to state that he was prepared to file suit, but his client remained open to a solution, and he asked Tennessee to suggest the names of federal mediators. He also noted that since Jennings was a retiree, she was entitled to access her UTK email account, and he requested that the access be granted as soon as possible.
The complete letter can be read by BY CLICKING HERE.
All of this now begs the question: Was Summitt’s retirement voluntary or not? Her media relations chief says no in that email. Tennessee’s lawyer says yes in its letter to Jennings’ attorney.
An argument could be made that it was indeed the right course of action for Tennessee and for Summitt. She had been diagnosed with early onset dementia a year ago and her health was a top priority.
However, if a conversation concerning her future did indeed take place with Hart, that was egregiously wrong to do so when Summitt was on the verge of beginning the NCAA tourney and had been adamant all season that the matter would be addressed after the season ended.
Hart’s March 16 email to Jennings – the Lady Vols would have arrived in Chicago for the sub-regional the evening before that date – gave him plausible deniability: “The email you sent me at 12:52 a.m. regarding Coach Summitt is so inaccurate, on so many levels, that it does not warrant a meaningful response. I would think that a person holding a position such as yours would understand, far better than most, the negative impact of rumor speculation.”
The tone of that reply is one of anger. Is Hart angry because he was falsely accused of forcing out Summitt? That would certainly merit such a response. Or he is angry because Jennings somehow became aware of the conversation?
And did the conversation actually take place? One person can settle that. Pat Summitt.
If it’s not true, an explosive allegation against Hart would be shown to be false and that hurts Jennings’ case.
If it’s true, Hart’s credibility takes a significant hit, because of the implied denial.
And the public relations lid will blow off this case never to be secured again in Tennessee’s favor. Summitt is one of the most well respected and admired figures in the state of Tennessee and across the country. This coming Tuesday, she will receive the country’s top civilian award at the White House. If it is revealed that she was forced out to any degree, the backlash will be intense from all quarters.
Granted, the statements don’t match what happened at Summitt’s press conference on April 18. It was a gracious exit with Summitt, her son Tyler, Hart, Chancellor Jimmy Cheek and Warlick on the dais.
But Tennessee has kicked one of her top lieutenants to the curb and characterized Jennings as a problem employee, despite the fact she served Summitt for 35 years and won national awards and recognition for her work. Did Jennings rock the boat in the merger? No doubt. Nobody expected that to be a seamless process, and Jennings isn’t one to withhold her input.
Can Summitt get involved to help resolve this? Because while Summitt is not likely to engage in a public back-and-forth, she remains head coach emeritus and still has clout on campus. Her voice resonates with everyone from Chancellor Cheek to the governor’s office to the major donors.
In defense of Hart, he apparently inherited a mess with a mandate to get the financial house in order. That was going to be a contentious process. But this one has spilled into the public arena, and while the issues of the case are detailed and likely won’t be fully understood unless it reaches an open courtroom, the headlines do enough damage.
Warlick and her staff are trying to recruit amid news stories that mention gender discrimination and the involuntary exit of a longtime Lady Vol in Jennings. Derek Dooley is trying to restore the football program to national prominence. Cuonzo Martin is steering basketball back on track, and the Weeklys have the softball team one Super Regional away from the Women’s College World Series.
What these coaches and every other staff on campus don’t need is Team Turmoil on the administrative side of athletics.
Perhaps Summitt can intervene. Or Cheek. Or the Board of Trustees. Or Hart.
Somebody needs to step up.