Around here we cover football and men’s basketball. We only get into non-revenue sports when something very, very big happens. Last week we told you that former Tennessee Lady Vol PR person Debby Jennings had filed suit against the school, claiming discrimination in her firing. She also put Pat Summitt — sources who’ve talked with the ex-coach say she has “good days and bad days” in her battle with early-onset dementia — in the spotlight, forcing her to back a friend (Jennings) or back the school she loved and program she built.
Summitt has now joined in Jennings’ fight.
On Rocky Top, this will create a “men versus women” fight that will rage far beyond any courtroom Jennings’ suit reaches. This could ultimately be a major blow to the tenure of AD Dave Hart who was hired last year.
The Knoxville News Sentinel is reporting that Jennings’ lawsuit against UT has been amended in reaction to the school refuting Jennings’ initial claim that Summitt had been told she would not return as coach next season. A Vol spokesperson said last week: “That statement is absolutely not true. It was Pat’s idea to be head coach emeritus.” At the time of the announcement, Summitt, too, said that it was her decision to step aside. She’s said that several times since.
Well, a sworn affadavit from Summitt has now been added to the suit that corrobarates the suit’s claim. That affadavit states:
“On March 14, 2012, I had [a] meeting with [Tennessee athletic director] Dave Hart. The meeting took place prior to our team traveling to Chicago for the NCAA tournament. During this one-on-one meeting, Dave Hart indicated to me that I would not be coaching the Lady Vol Basketball team in the next school year (2012-13) and he planned to name Holly Warlick as the head coach. Dave Hart told me I would still have an office in Thompson-Boling Arena and my title could be Head Coach Emeritus. This was very surprising to me and very hurtful as that was a decision I would have liked to have made on my own at the end of the season after consulting with my family, doctors, colleagues and friends and not to be told this by Mr. Hart. I felt this was wrong.”
Summitt also said: “Prior to Debby Jennings’ termination, I was not consulted by Dave hart, the UT Athletics Director. But had I been consulted I would have requested that he reconsider termination, and try another alternative, such as disciplinary action, if he felt that was necessary.”
Also hurting Hart is Summitt’s claim that he spoke to her about doing away with the Lady Vols’ logo and branding all Tennessee teams with the “Power T” logo worn on the Volunteers’ football helmets. When that story hit the press, Hart denied ever having such a notion. Summitt: “I was angered when he came out in an interview with the media in May 2012 and denied that he ever intended to do away with the Lady Vol logo.” (From a business perspective, Hart’s decision to nuke an extra logo and all the extra apparel that featured it would cut off an extra revenue stream. If he did think about dumping the Lady Vols’ logo, he was willing to give up some cash in merchandise sales by doing so.)
So here’s where things stand:
1. It’s going to be hard for Hart to survive this. Really. Summitt is a living legend in the Volunteer State and many people feel she deserved the right to go out in her own way. Last season, there were times when her assistants had to steer her towards the opposing coach for the traditional postgame handshake — extremely sad, by the way — but if that’s how she wanted things to end, it should have been her call.
2. Now that Summitt has publicly annihilated Hart, will she keep her $350,000 per year “emeritus” job and her office at Thompson-Boling Arena? Good luck to the person who fires Summitt altogether.
3. Summitt — or some would say Hart — has now annihilated the Tennessee women’s basketball program, too. Good luck recruiting in this mess. By supporting Jennings, Summitt has further put her longtime friend and aide Warlick in a bind. (Of course, we don’t know the relationship between Summitt and Warlick at the moment. Who knows if Summitt felt then or might feel now that Warlick might have played some role in her departure? That’s a question for another day.)
4. Will Tennessee fight fire with fire? Those close to the program and those close to Summitt say that she simply is not herself at all times anymore. In court, Hart and UT could certainly call witnesses to suggest that Hart was trying to spare Summitt a sad ending to her career. Why else force her out only to replace her with her top assistant? But if Hart and the school choose to go that route and air dirty laundry, they’ll be viewed as embarrassing a legendary figure.
5. Horribly, the question must be asked: Does Summitt really know what she’s saying at this point? After all, she did state publicly that she was not forced out. Now, months later, she’s aiding a lawsuit against the University of Tennessee claiming that she was indeed forced out.
6. Finally, UT chancellor Jimmy Cheek could catch hell for this as well. After all, Hart was his hire and this — allegedly — went down on his watch.
This one’s going to get very ugly, very fast for Tennessee. Considering the end of the Phillip Fulmer era, the brief Lane Kiffin era, the hire of Derek Dooley, the end of the Bruce Pearl era, the end of the Mike Hamilton era and now this… maybe it’s time for the school to just shut down athletics altogether before they shoot themselves in the foot once more. And all this time I thought Barney Fife was in Mayberry, not Knoxville.
Summitt has come to Jennings’ defense and gutted her school and her old program in the process. Hart — allegedly — arrived in Knoxville and immediately forced the most popular person in the state of Tennessee out of her job.
UPDATE – We’ve been catching some flak in the ol’ email inbox from Tennessee fans for not stating loudly enough in this piece that Jennings was wrong to drag her ill friend Summitt into this mess. But that point was actually the main takeaway from the piece we wrote last week regarding Jennings’ lawsuit. If you read that piece, you’ll see that the first paragraph today picks up right where that one left off. And to my knowledge, we were the only folks to call Jennings into question for placing Summitt in a bind… until today.