There are no easy paths to prosperity in situations such as the one currently facing the University of Tennessee’s athletic department.
Tennessee men's athletic director Mike Hamilton
Mike Hamilton’s Tuesday confirmation that he’d step down as UT’s men’s athletic director was far from a poor choice. Realistically, it was the only correct choice.
The prudent path isn’t always the most pleasurable, though.
Hamilton’s decision — if, as he claims, it was his decision — was the correct call for himself, his family and his employer of the past 19 years. Many mistakes have been made at UT in recent years, and many of the worst ones have been made under his watch, by people he hired. That, by association, makes them his mistakes. Logic renders that indisputable.
But here’s my humble counterpoint: This isn’t a time for unbridled joy. It shouldn’t be, anyway.
UT will lose a good man on June 30. Hamilton is not a professionally perfect man, but he’s one of the better human beings I’ve come across while covering college sports’ most cutthroat conference.
You may dismiss this as naive, holier-than-thou or condescending, and you have every right to your opinion. But it’s long been my firm belief that Mike Hamilton is one of the more genuinely kind people in his profession — at least at his level.
UT’s athletic department can’t afford to employ people who don’t produce. This isn’t AYSO soccer. You don’t get a ribbon and a handful of orange slices for trying. The SEC keeps score. There are winners, and there are losers. And UT has lost too much lately, especially when considering the pieces in place for its prosperity.
But this story, like most, isn’t as simple as some would have you believe.
Mike and Beth Hamilton with daughter Kalu
Few things are black and white. Some people are mostly good, and some are mostly bad, but a vast majority of their personalities fit into varying shades of gray. For every Mother Teresa or Charles Manson, there are millions who fit somewhere in the middle.
Mike Hamilton is no Mother Teresa, but he’s never been exposed as anything less than a good man. I can only opine for myself, but he’s been one of the better people I’ve come across in my 11 years as a sportswriter. He’s been accommodating and accessible in an era when more and more of his peers have closed their doors. He’s never (that I know of) lied to me, which even some good people have done. He’s never been afraid to open up and speak his mind off the record. He’s never been afraid to say he doesn’t have all the answers. He’s apologetic when he thinks it’s in UT’s best interest to avoid publicly discussing a situation, because he acknowledges that media have a responsibility to inform the public. He’s accountable for his mistakes. Perhaps to a fault, he trusts people to do the right thing.
The professional side of Hamilton has never intrigued me as much as the personal side, though.
Hamilton and high-school-sweetheart wife Beth frustratingly, unsuccessfully tried for years to have their own children before accepting, in Mike’s words, that it was “God’s plan” for them to adopt.
They followed that plan.
And then some.
Mike and Beth have adopted five children — daughter Madison from their native North Carolina, son Matthew from Tennessee and Ethiopian-born siblings Papy, Kiya and Kalu. They were content with Madison and Matthew until receiving another spiritual call. Again, they answered. Shortly after Mike received a raise and contract extension from UT, he and Beth read a book about African adoption. They couldn’t get those thoughts out of their minds, and they couldn’t contain their emotions. Despite several well-intended objections from friends and family, they started the exhaustive process of international adoption. They cleared several hurdles — including a second trip to Ethiopia when Kalu’s initial move was denied — and they ultimately brought all three siblings to East Tennessee. They did all this despite Mike’s rigorous schedule and an unavoidable acceptance of the fact that he and Beth, both in their 40s, would need organic octane boosts to raise a new trio of rugrats.
Mike said at the time that his family had been “blessed,” and they felt the need to spread that blessing.
I can’t recall the exact number of times I called Mike on his cell phone, and he’d be celebrating a birthday party — seven-member homes have plenty of those — or laughing while watching his children splash each other in the pool. It happened a few times.
“I’m too old for this, Wes,” Hamilton told me once. “This is something you should be doing.”
“I don’t have Mike Hamilton Money,” I said.
“Neither do I,” Hamilton replied. “I have a wife and five kids.”
Those conversations often made me think of my own parents, who had their last child — my only brother — when my mom was 39 and my dad was 40. I’d remember them chasing that little blond-haired bandit around the house in futile attempts to corral him into submission. And then I’d remember that the Hamiltons were a few years older and fighting the same futile fight against three times the tikes who weren’t organically their own flesh and blood.
God bless ‘em. And God help ‘em.
Creating awareness for a cause is one thing. Pouring money into it is another. Putting it in your home is another.
But there’s more.
In addition to their fairly well publicized work with local, national and international adoption agencies, the Hamiltons have become deeply involved with Blood Water Mission, a Nashville-based organization that combats Africa’s catastrophic HIV/AIDS and water crises.
Why so much concern?
The Hamiltons’ three Ethiopian children are AIDS orphans.
Now remember that the man of that house needed police protection after firing basketball coach Bruce Pearl earlier this year.
The point of this piece isn’t to stand on a keyboard-sized pulpit and preach. It’s not to suggest that Hamilton’s resignation was a bad thing for the Vols, either. Tuesday’s news was needed for several reasons. The UT men’s athletic department is a business that’s in bad shape, and being a good man doesn’t excuse direct or indirect actions that damage your department.
But perhaps it can prevent some from dancing on that man’s professional grave.
Forgive me if this sounds self-righteous, but I was brought up in a house that preached the greater good. I was raised to respect those who sacrifice personal comfort for the benefit of others. I was taught that our world is a place where imperfect people occasionally do perfect things.
With those lessons in mind, I acknowledge that Hamilton’s resignation was the right thing. I don’t delight in it, though.
UT sports, as a business, might have a brighter outlook than it did yesterday. That would be a good thing for the general well-being of many people in this orange-tinted state.
But a university whose unique nickname derived from selfless acts of people serving a greater good — perfect moments from imperfect people — will soon lose a man whose personal triumphs trumped his professional turbulence.
Mike Hamilton is a North Carolinian who became a Tennessee Volunteer in his professional and, more impressively, in his personal life.
Why celebrate this man’s demise?
Contact Wes Rucker at firstname.lastname@example.org, www.twitter.com/wesrucker247 or www.facebook.com/wesrucker247