In an unprecedented move, all 16 head coaches from the University of Tennessee united for a joint press conference on Tuesday morning.
It opened with head basketball coach Rick Barnes, playing the role of spokesman, saying that he’d never seen anything like this voluntary show of unity from the head coaches and vowing that they would “be truthful.”
It ended with baseball coach Dave Serrano touting the “One Tennessee” mantra that has been pushed forward in recent years by the school.
In between was approximately one hour of the 16 head coaches representing the 15 varsity sports at Tennessee touting the unity, cohesiveness and the overall culture of the school as the panel fielded questions from approximately 40 gathered media members.
The press conference came 15 days after six plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against the school alleging that there is a “hostile sexual environment” within the athletics program and that “deliberate indifference” has been shown to alleged incidents of sexual assault.
Since that lawsuit was originally filed, one recently-departed football player, Mack Crowder, was arrested in Florida in connection with a child sex sting and current Vol defensive tackle Alexis Johnson was charged with one count of aggravated assault and another of false imprisonment after a recent alleged incident with a female in Knoxville.
While the lawsuit certainly loomed large in the coaches’ decision to unite and speak on the issue, media were informed at the beginning that the coaches would not be able to specifically comment on any pending legal matters.
Instead, the focus shifted to the general culture around the university – and the question of how females are treated on campus. And while multiple coaches acknowledged that there can always be improvements made, the overwhelming sentiment from the coaches was that the culture, and the attitude towards women on campus, has never been better.
Softball co-head coach Karen Weekly, who has been at Tennessee sine 2002, said the campus culture is as good as it’s ever been since she’s been in Knoxville. Lady Vols’ basketball coach Holly Warlick echoed that, saying that she wouldn’t hesitate to let her own daughter be on campus.
Multiple coaches who oversee female student-athletes touted a university culture that allowed teams to share facilities, coaches to share advice and the ability to work with athletic director Dave Hart, who female soccer coach Brian Pensky said he’d “never been around a leader like (Hart).”
But Hart wasn’t present at all on Tuesday morning in the Ray and Lucy Hand Digital Studio on campus, the setting for this joint press conference. UT athletics spokesman Ryan Robinson confirmed that Hart and “other administrators” were out of town on Tuesday and that 10 am ET on Tuesday morning was the time that worked for all of the head coaches on campus, many of whom have been actively on the road recruiting.
Pensky noted that the coaches were “speaking on behalf” of Hart and other UT administrators.
Football coach Butch Jones, who leads the most high-profile program on campus and the individual team under the most media scrutiny at the moment, was among the most vocal at the press conference
“This (press conference) isn’t scripted,” Jones emphasized. “This isn’t anything we were told we have to do.”
Jones spoke on behalf of the alleged victims, saying that “his soul hurt” because of some of the alleged actions that have recently happened and emphasized that they are the first priority.
“Everything is about the alleged victims,” he said. “We take that very seriously. We feel for them. We hurt for them.”
He also stood up for his program, saying that he takes it personally when players in the football program are stereotyped. That statement from Jones came after Warlick was asked if she would be comfortable with her players attending “Tennessee football parties.”
Jones defended the culture of his program on Saturday evening in a media availability held during the first half of the Vols’ basketball game against LSU.
“We‘ve worked very hard to build our culture,” he said on Saturday. “We’ll continue to defend it and we’re very proud of what we’ve got here. When you just look at the academic excellence, the graduation rates, the community service, winning on the field, winning off the field. There’s no culture problem.”
A number of coaches acknowledged that the current national perception that there is a cultural problem at Tennessee is harmful to the program. Women’s golf coach Judi Pavon said “it’s really frustrating” that there is a national perception that UT doesn’t treat women fairly. Warlick mentioned that cultural questions come up in recruiting,
“I do think it’s real,” Jones added. “Our competitors are using it against us.”
Multiple coaches said they have emphasized that recruits who have actually come to campus on visits have been able to feel that the perception isn’t the reality in this case.
Credit the coaches for being innovative, pro-active and united on this front. They clearly made their statement of unity, gave tangible examples of how they work together – male and female teams – to help each other out and showed empathy for the alleged victims. Nobody said the culture was perfect either and many emphasized the need for general safety and common sense on any campus around the nation.
Questions remain, however. Did Hart’s absence, which was noted by multiple local and national media members, show a lack of leadership? What will a judge and/or jury find in response to the pending lawsuit as it moves forward in civil court? Will a poor national perception, fair or not, stick with Tennessee as it tries to move forward as an athletic department?
Those questions will continue to follow Tennessee in the coming days, weeks and months. Tuesday, however, was a needed step in many regards.