Tiger Bait 

What's wrong with TSU’s once-proud athletics program?

What's wrong with TSU’s once-proud athletics program?

This wasn’t exactly junk mail. In 1997, Thomas Martin, Tennessee State University’s vice president of student affairs, received a letter detailing potential violations of NCAA rules by the school’s football program. Martin didn’t give the letter much credence, even though it came from a former assistant coach. In fact, Martin told acting athletic director Teresa Phillips that he believed the letter was ”trash“ and instructed her to throw it away.

That was a mistake, according to the NCAA. In a classic case of the cover-up being worse than the crime, the NCAA specifically cited Martin’s failure to investigate the allegations contained in the letter as evidence that Tennessee State lacks ”institutional control“ of its athletic department.

After a two-and-a-half-year investigation, the NCAA placed Tennessee State on three years probation in January for violations ranging from financial-aid improprieties to funneling free tickets to players. The punishment was far lighter than expected, and now TSU officials are hoping that they can move forward.

”All of the events basically have happened and are behind us,“ says Metro Council member at-large Howard Gentry, the school’s former athletic director and current chair of its search committee for a new basketball coach. ”At this point, the athletics program is in a phase of reconstruction and headed for a new beginning.“

It might not be that easy. The historically black institution still faces troubling questions about the operation of the athletic department.

Right now, TSU’s biggest headache may be its own one-time athletic director, Vivian Fuller, who arrived at the school with much fanfare in October 1997. One of the first female athletic directors in Division I athletics, Fuller was immediately lauded as a pioneer in women’s sports and a breath of fresh air for a program that had been slumping for years. But after a little more than a year on the job, TSU President James Hefner fired Fuller for, as he put it in a letter to the Tennessee Board of Regents, ”consistent lack of adherence to university policies and procedures.“

Shortly after her dismissal, Fuller filed lawsuits in state and federal courts. Seeking her old job back plus unspecified damages, she claimed that as a woman, she was treated differently from her male colleagues.

University officials dispute the allegations, and the case remains in litigation. But this year, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which investigates allegations of gender bias, determined that Fuller’s charge has merit. The EEOC decided that Fuller ”was held to a different standard than her male predecessor“ at TSU.

If Fuller’s lawsuit does go to trial, TSU will likely face some tough questions about the university’s treatment of certain male officials. For example, from 1993 to 1997 when Gentry was athletic director, 34 student athletes received excessive financial aid—a situation described by the NCAA as a ”systematic breakdown.“ But Gentry, who was also on watch when the football coach was cited for improper recruiting, wasn’t punished by the university, but merely transferred to another position outside the athletic department.

In his defense, Gentry says that the financial aid violations were more a product of institutional mismanagement than neglect on his part. ”The over-awarding of financial scholarships started way before I was athletic director,“ he says.

As an interesting aside, Gentry says he resigned as athletic director on his own volition, but the NCAA report states that TSU reassigned him after these violations became apparent. Whatever might have happened, Gentry—whose father earned his place in TSU lore as a successful athletic director and football coach there—not only has a job with the school, he is now chairing the search committee for a new basketball coach. Fuller has nothing.

Martin, the vice president for student affairs, also apparently escaped reprimand even though his failure to investigate allegations against the school’s football program earned a harsh rebuke from the NCAA. Martin wouldn’t comment about the report except to say, ”In my view, I have not done anything that necessitated punishment.“

According to the NCAA report, the university did transfer oversight of the athletic department from Martin to the president’s office. But for what it’s worth, officials in the president’s office referred the Scene’s calls about the athletic department back to Martin’s office.

NCAA violations occurred under Fuller’s watch as well, with most stemming from the football program. After its own investigation, TSU punished coach L.C. Cole last June while also reassigning his assistant coach and younger brother, Johnnie, to a position outside the athletic department. But days after L.C. Cole left to take a job at Alabama State University, Hefner offered Johnnie Cole the head coaching position, insiders say.

He didn’t take the job, but like Martin and Gentry, Johnnie Cole doesn’t have a clean bill of health from the NCAA. As described by the governing body’s report, the younger Cole snuck into his team’s locker room during halftime when he was serving a TSU-imposed suspension for recruiting violations. According to a story in The Tennessean, a crafty Cole crept in to offer advice to a few players. He disguised himself by draping a towel over his head. Again, as Fuller’s lawyers might have noticed, the school’s overture to Johnnie Cole seems like another instance of the university giving men the benefit of the doubt.

TSU has also been criticized for how it has gone about searching for a basketball coach. After nearly a decade on the job, coach Frankie Allen resigned last month at the end of a disappointing 7-22 season. The program, which once shined under Allen, had gone downhill over the years while attendance stagnated at an average of slightly over 2,000 fans a game.

Hoping to reinvigorate the program, the university appointed a search committee to hire a new coach. But in a move that proved easy fodder for sports talk shows, James Smith, the school’s athletic director, was left off that committee. According to some, President Hefner made that decision because he worries that his athletic director might overshadow him. One potentially telling piece of evidence: On the university’s athletic Web page, there is a biography of Hefner but not of Smith.

University officials insist that Smith can still evaluate the committee’s selection. Not everybody is confident of that. Says Councilman Melvin Black, a 1960 graduate of TSU and longtime friend of the late football coach John Merritt, ”I wonder if the AD will be able to say, ‘I disagree with that choice.’ “ (Repeated attempts to interview Hefner failed.)

There is a host of other issues for the athletic department. Graduation rates remain low for both the men’s basketball and football programs, and the school is still looking for a track coach to replace the one fired last year for letting two athletes compete under false names.

There is some good news. In light of the NCAA report, the school plans to beef up its compliance staff. TSU has also just finished building a new softball field and plans to construct a new tennis complex as well.

But bricks and mortar alone can’t rebuild an image. Recently, L.C. Cole blasted his former employer in an interview with WTVF-Channel 5’s Hope Hines. ”You look at that program, nothing had been successful there for quite a long time until we got there,“ says Cole, who won consecutive OVC titles before departing. ”That athletic department needs a facelift.“ Or at least someone to read the mail.

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