Mike Ward, more or less, had become the last man standing.
Late last week, the veteran member of the University of Tennessee athletics administration recognized it, too, was time for him to exit from Rocky Top with nearly every member of Dave Hart’s cabinet out the door.
For Ward, who holds biology and law degrees from the University of Alabama, it was bittersweet.
After all, Ward was among the very few folks all those years ago who embraced the challenge of a football game inside Bristol Motor Speedway.
“I think I’ve got an enthusiasm for the impossible,” Ward said in an exclusive interview. “The Battle at Bristol comes to mind immediately. People said there’s a reason it hasn’t been done. I think I was initially a part of a small number of people who said we can get this done, and the only way is with a great deal of enthusiasm.
“And it became what I thought was really a nice result — and of course it helps we won. It was a special experience.”
Note there how Ward still refers to Tennessee as “we” even though he’s beginning the transition phase for the next chapter of his career, which includes experience in Alabama’s athletics department while the Crimson Tide football program won national football titles under Nick Saban and the more recent program improvement at UT.
Perhaps most importantly Ward embraced the task of helping to overhaul Tennessee’s Title IX education and protocols even before the now-infamous lawsuit had been filed — ultimately settled for more than $2 million — against the state’s flagship school.
“I took classes to better understand that aspect of Title IX and had an opportunity to apply my research,” said Ward, who studied under industry leaders such as Janet Judge, the National Association of College and University Attorneys (NACUA), the Helen Ross McNabb center and others. “I wanted to look nationally and implement as much as I could to help our student-athletes.
“I can say I taught every single athlete on campus multiple times about social responsibility, consent, and I think our student-athletes are positioned to be leaders. We’ve had a great, great run of young people not getting in trouble.
“I hope that continues when I’m gone. It’s not something I foresaw doing when I got here, but I had the willingness to push myself. We’ve constructed a program that I think is unique in the nation, and we’ve seen the results the last two years.”
Too, Ward’s been intricately involved as Tennessee switched from Adidas to Nike for its exclusive apparel rights; constructed the now-open Stokely Family Residence Hall, which replaced the five-decades-old Gibbs Hall; aided in construction and renovation projects such as the basketball locker rooms’ ongoing overhaul, as well as the also in progress work to the Vols’ football practice area. Tennessee should have two full-sized football practice fields outdoors before fall camp — a benchmark measure initiated by Hart & Co.
Still, Ward — who in recent years turned down other job opportunities to remain on Rocky Top and to continue raising his family in the Knoxville community — reflects more on his interpersonal relationships than his brick-and-mortar accomplishments.
“I think the student-athlete experience has been where I’ve had biggest impact,” Ward said. “From psychological services, sports medicine, seeing our student-athletes truly embracing ‘One Tennessee.’ They dine together, train together, work together.
“The lives we’ve impacted, thinking through conversations and some young people here that have really blossomed and I’ve been fortunate to help them out some. We get the opportunity to mentor young people, and we’ve found time for that. They all know me personally and they see me stop in because I’m invested in their success.
“And the ‘Campaign for Comprehensive Excellence,’ to conceptualize where we are and where we want to get to, how to do that, what projects to prioritize, we sold a vision of One Tennessee. Of Competitive excellence. I think that resonated with our fans; that’s what people want to invest in. I really feel like we’ve built a foundation that’s going to continue to yield results the next three to four years; success stories that come out competitively, academically, personally. I think 2017-18-19 will be banner years for University of Tennessee sports.”
MORE ON THE MOVE
Multiple sources across the past 10 days have told me that additional movements into and out of UT’s athletics administration appear imminent.
As first reported here, Blair DeBord is joining Currie’s staff from the development department at Kansas State. The former Wildcats’ baseball player is set to be Currie’s de facto chief of staff.
Elsewhere, sources stress that Tennessee could lose one or more key members of its Tennessee Fund staff, and perhaps one other executive intricately involved in athletics department finances. It’s believed another Power-5 school is seeking to snag one of UT’s top fundraisers.
Patrick Brown did some excellent reporting on UT’s costs/revenues associated with its December trip to the Music City Bowl, noting that the school officially reflected a modest profit. Brown’s quality work shows UT is viewing the trip as netting a profit of approximately $275,000.
What UT doesn’t include in its expense report is the large amount doled out on bonuses for coaches, staff, administrators and others from the bowl game. Hart years ago, to fuel the drive for ‘One Tennessee’ and to get folks aligned with the vision of a healthy football program, altered the bonus structure so that all eligible employees bonus based on football’s success or lack thereof. Hart, for example, pretty wisely didn’t see a need for a nearly 10-percent bonus to be doled out to certain staffers if, let’s say, UT soccer or golf advanced to postseason play.
So every person instead has for three years gotten bonuses from the Vols’ bowl trips. This past year, while head coach Butch Jones nabbed $100,000, defensive coordinator Bob Shoop’s contract outlined he would collect $95,795 for postseason bonus. An executive with a $145,000 salary would have garnered more than $12,000 in bonus money.
As one person with intricate knowledge of the situation told me, UT might have doled out an estimated figure of “close to $700,000 on bonuses.”
So Alabama, for example, released that it had a modest loss on the heels of its national runner-up finish, but the school included its bonus distribution in that calculation.
KUDOS TO CURRIE
New A.D. John Currie has been sending email-form letters to the UT fanbase, a smart move to engage a group that isn’t renewing season football tickets nor donations at quite the same levels as recent years, per sources with knowledge.
Currie has been extremely proactive across all sports and in delivering his message to a fanbase that largely (and understandably) is disgruntled in many areas.
Speaking of ticket sales for football, UT already is offering select season tickets with zero donation required and a season-long price tag around $350-430.