Friday, July 30, 2010

Why David Climer's Column About Vanderbilt's Need to Hire an Athletic Director is Misguided

Before I delve into the substance of this post, let me say that I am a complete, 100%, in the tank, David Williams homer. I took a class from him, have done research for him, and had the good fortune to get to know him a little bit over the last year. He was incredibly gracious a few years ago when he sat down with VSL to discuss the state of Vanderbilt sports.

With that as context, you can imagine my initial reaction when I read David Climer's column in today's Tennessean about David Williams and the need for Vanderbilt to hire an Athletic Director, and essentially return to a more conventional athletic department structure. It's not that I disagree with the notion (although I do), it's that I find real fault in the underlying assumption: that there is something wrong with the current state of Vanderbilt athletics. There's not. In fact, I think this is a strong case, given the overall strength of the SEC in a host of sports, that Vanderbilt athletics has never been stronger.

Climer's evidence for the decline of Vanderbilt sports and the need to call "the grand experiment...neither [a] rousing success nor utter failure" boils down to the fact that last year's Commodore team went 2-10. It is inarguable that Vanderbilt had a disappointing season after winning their first bowl since the 50's, and making their first appearance since 1982. Additionally, I would note that after Vanderbilt's last bowl appearance (a loss to Air Force in the Hall of Fame Bowl in 1982), the Commodores finished their next season with just 2 wins. I doubt Tennessean columnists were calling for a fundamental restructuring of the way athletics was run at Vanderbilt after that disappointment.

But Climer cites little else to support his point. He does go out of his way to gloss over the successes in sports Vanderbilt has achieved since the 2003 restructuring, notably that the men's basketball team has made 4 of the last 7 NCAA tournament, while the women's team remains a perennial tournament team. Climer fails to mention all together the baseball team, probably the strongest program the school has. I get it, never let the facts get in the way of a good argument. Climer then pulls out the trump card for those eager to mock Vanderbilt athletics: the women's bowling team. I'm proud as hell of our women's bowling team. Those women don't deserve your derision, nor anyone else's for that matter. But besides all that, how many national championships had Vanderbilt won in anything prior to the restructuring?

Climer writes: "Any upticks are due in large part to the leadership of the coaches in the respective sports, not to any fundamental changes that came due to reorganization." Without taking anything away from the leadership of the coaches Climer is taking about, doesn't this argument seem incredibly convenient? It also ignores the job Williams and his staff have done at keeping these coaches, no easy task given their successes. You can't have it both ways.

Climer notes that David Williams has a plethora of responsibilities at Vanderbilt beyond athletics, including the important tasks of serving as the University's General Counsel as well as sitting on the Board of Trust just to name a few. Is he a busy guy? No doubt about it. But given the list of accomplishments that were delineated above, it doesn't seem like his schedule has affected his ability to oversee athletics in the slightest. Again, given the strength of the SEC in almost every sport, I would argue that Vanderbilt athletics, as a whole, is as strong now as it's ever been.

All I can figure is sports fans and sports columnists still haven't gotten over the restructuring because it threatens the notion that there is only one way to skin a cat (in this case, compete at the NCAA level). Vanderbilt's restructuring was symbolic of the University's desire to make every athlete a student. Given what's transpired in college sports since the restructuring, that strikes me as a pretty powerful symbol. Symbols are important, they matter, but they are also just symbols. Does anyone think that Vanderbilt doesn't have an athletic management structure that resembles that of every other school? Is it that important that this apparatus be called an "athletic department?" If the restructuring hasn't been a huge failure, why disrupt the structure in place? While I don't always subscribe to the notion of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," that axiom seems particularly appropriate.

Climer is right about one thing, Williams' decision about who the next football coach will be is incredibly important. It is the "first critical hiring decision of the restructuring," because, as mentioned above, Vanderbilt sports has been blessed since the restructuring to have had a stable of excellent, dedicated, and effective coaches guiding their respective teams? Why discard an organization before it's been tested because you're not sure how it will do? If the hiring of a football coach is bungled, that's another thing. But as I read it today, it strikes me as entirely premature.


Douglas James said...

I totally agree Bobby. I was reading on the other day about David Williams calling in (on his own, not a set up interview) to 104.5. And lots of people were commenting about how Vanderbilt DOES have an athletic department!!!! Of course we have an athletic department, just unlike every other NCAA school it is not separate from the rest of the University. BUT it still has athletic only employees, still has its own budget, as well as budgets for each individual sport, and basically is run almost identically to EVERY OTHER AD in college sports. And I have to believe that as evidenced by being able to retain CTC, CKS, going to the first bowl game is 26 years, having top recruiting classes in baseball, excellent ones in basketball and much improved ones it football. Also the huge improvements in our facilities wouldn't be possible if we somehow "didn't" have an AD. It simply is that the AD at Vanderbilt is more intergrated with the rest of the University. And I for one am proud of that fact.

AD said...

Douglas, I was listening to 104.5 that night, and I thought DW brought it in a good and thorough way. We got to hear the radio personalities doing some backpedaling, which was instructive (and something not easy to replicate in print). Not sure why DW is taking it so hard all of a sudden. He hasn't messed up yet in the new structure, and I agree with Bobby both that he is really busy and doing a complete job of it, and that this coaching decision is an important test. I too took a class with him and like him. I think he's good for Vanderbilt.

Anchor of Gold said...

The line that pissed me off the most from Climer was the one about a few coaches "in their private moments" feeling the need for an AD.

This is a very damaging statement and Climer knows it. And it's completely unverifiable.

That Climer would attempt to knowingly damage the harmony on Vandy's campus with a throwaway, unverifiable claim like that is extremely appalling.

I say it's time for the Tennessean to fire David Climer and Joe Biddle. What awards have they brought home to the Tennessean lately? What accolades have they EVER received? Time for the Tennessean to look for improvement.

Vandygal78 said...

I absolutely agree with your article and the comments here. The Tennessean has to have the most pathetic sports columnists and editor. Note that I didn't say reporter, that young man is fine. That stupid Biondi article from Orlando is STILL linked to the vandy section. I remember before last years LSU game, the paper had an article that was nice, however the headline made it sound like our player was insulting LSU players. One of their blogs was starting to get angry when finally one commentor noticed that the headline didnt match the story. Personally, I think our biggest problem is the Tennessean. Hope potential recruits don't read it. P.s. Thanks for the time you spend on this website. You do a great job.

Anonymous said...

He has too much on his plate. We need a full-time A D.

AD said...

Anonymous makes the same mistake as Climer, which Bobby plainly identified in his post. What evidence is there that DW has too much on his plate? What decision or outcome have you observed that would have been different had we had a full-time A.D.? This is the same sort of comment that promted (DW's wife to tell) DW to call into 104.5 this week and clarify things. He does have people dedicated solely to athletics, just like he has people dedicated solely to legal work and every other component of his responsibilities. Even if Anonymous is correct, his or her comment isn't helpful. It doesn't contribute anything, and the only evidence it provides is support for the notion that Anonymous didn't read Bobby's post.

I'm reminded of a short article SI ran, maybe in 2007?, when VU made the switch away from the common athletic department structure. The author praised the move at a very early point and cited success of various teams (then the Price-led baseball squad, I think) as evidence that this was such a good idea. It was nice to read positive press, but that article is no different than the current critics, who point to a 2-10 football season as evidence that the administrative structure is a failure and should be abandoned.

Yes, DW is busy, but as he told the 104.5 folks, he doesn't play golf, and doesn't do much more than work and spend time with his family, during which time he remains "on-call."

He's a working man with a lot of experience (AD at tOSU, then the largest athletic dept. in the country, for example, not to mention his legal experience), and he hasn't provided any indication that he cannot do his job as vice chancellor. To the contrary, as Bobby touched on, he has done nothing but suggest the opposite.

Seamus O'Toole said...

Anchor of Gold --

AMEN. I am right with you here. Where does Climer come off saying that "[i]n private moments, members of Vanderbilt's athletics staff will tell you that the absence of an athletics director is a serious issue"? Let's unpack this a sec: They "will" tell (the general, catch-call) "you", or THEY (more than one coach or assistant?) DID (recently?) tell YOU (David Climer)? If the former, that line is complete garbage and shameful. If the latter, then you've got a reporting obligation: man up and say (at least) that "[a] Vanderbilt coach[es]" said X, AND (at least) explain what you mean by "serious issue." That sentence right there is either a reflection of laziness, disingenuous reporting, malice, or some combination of the three. I for one believe he is now under an obligation to either clarify or retract that statement. Either way just get it out of my face.

Time for dinner.

Thomas said...

Gentleman, I believe it may be a little more complicated than all of that. I believe it was actually rather prescient. In late 2006, Congress challenged the NCAA’s tax-exempt status, questioning the organization’s lucrative commercial contracts and alleged lack of emphasis on higher education. Some pointed out that Division I football and basketball are looking more like minor leagues for the pros that benefit only a tiny portion of a university’s student body and may actually be more detrimental to the overall education of the athlete.


I believe David Williams has a background in tax law, and would have been especially aware of this. The folding in of the Athletic Department into student activities is a proactive and savvy move meant to protect Vanderbilt from the loss of their tax exempt status, which would appear more likely to occur as a member of the SEC (probably the conference that as a whole walks the thinnest line).

In the past Gordon Gee, at a gathering of Alumni, has acknowledged that the tax exempt status issue played a large part in the decision.

Of course this is probably way above Climer's head. It is much easier to write an article critical of Vanderbilt's lack of success than actually do some home work.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the guys who says we need an AD and I still think american idol sucks. Whether we get an AD or not, american idol will continue to suck. That part is not up for debate.

Big Papa said...

My main problem with David Williams is that he operates a losing program in the red. Most college programs do not have a total budget of $17 million. Yet with $17 million coming from the SEC alone, DW manages to run the program into the red.

Possibly, it is because DW himself made over $1 million last year.