Last week, we noted when former Lady Vols spokesperson Debby Jennings filed a lawsuit against the University of Tennessee for “unlawful discrimination” that her attempt to drag former women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt into the mess was hardly the action of someone who had the coach’s health in mind.
Summitt is battling early-onset demantia and — it’s hard to put this nicely — isn’t always herself these days. Jennings worked alongside Summitt for 35 years before being forced out as the Lady Vols’ PR contact for “insubordination” earlier this year. Stating in her suit that Summitt had been forced into the role of “head coach emeritus” against her will was clearly done to a) get public opinion on the side of Jennings and to b) damage the reputation of Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart.
Jennings forced Summitt to pick between her longtime colleague and the school that had employed her for 38 years and gave her a $1 million bonus when she stepped into the emeritus role this spring (a role that also comes with an office and a $350,000 a year salary).
Well, as we learned late last night, Summitt had already made her choice before Jennings even filed her lawsuit.
In early-August, the ex-Lady Vol coach signed an affidavit claiming that Hart had met with her before the NCAA Tournament and told her that he was going to name Summitt’s assistant Holly Warlick as the new head coach. (In the same affidavit, Summitt also claimed that she and Hart met again and that Hart told her that she “misinterpreted what he said” in the earlier meeting. Summitt said she did not tell Jennings of that meeting. That part might be hard for Jennings’ lawyers to explain.)
Making matters worse, Summitt claimed in the document that she was “angered when (Hart) came out in an interview with the media in May 2012 and denied that he ever intended to do away with the Lady Vol logo” and switch to the “Power T” logo as he combined the men’s and women’s departments. According to Summitt, he had discussed that idea with her months earlier.
Naturally, this all caused quite a brouhaha in Knoxville today. Speaking with a Knoxville radio host this afternoon, I was told that the majority of talkshow callers had weighed in in favor of Summitt and against Hart on WNML-AM/FM, a flagship station of the Vol radio network.
No doubt that is exactly what Jennings had wanted. She has requested a jury trial. And having Summitt on her side would be as much a coup in a court of law as it is in the court of public opinion.
But does Jennings really have Summitt on her side as the affidavit would suggest? Sadly, by signing that document, Summitt has put herself in a position where it’s fair game to question whether or not she even knew what she was signing on that day back in August.
This is a woman who is still employed by the University of Tennessee. When Jennings filed her suit last week and claimed — without the Summitt document — that Summitt had been forced out, a UT spokesperson immediately said: “that statement is absolutely not true. It was Pat’s idea to be head coach emeritus.”
Would a UT official have made such a forceful comment on a matter so sensitive without first getting the ex-coach’s go-ahead? That’s doubtful. Very doubtful.
Also, in announcing the promotion of Warlick, Summitt said the decision to move into a new role was hers. So why would Summitt say she made her own decision back in the spring, then sign a document claiming she was forced out in August, only to OK a statement from the school a month later saying she was not forced out?
Sadly, it may be up to her son — now an assistant coach with Marquette’s women’s program — to clear some of this up. From people I’ve spoken to, Tyler Summitt is not at all happy that his mother has been placed in this position.
For Tennessee, the only way out of this mess might be a statement from Summitt or her son saying that indeed she was not forced out and that she was misled by another party — perhaps — or that she simply misunderstood what she was signing in August.
Interestingly, the ex-coach was not asked to sign a non-disclosure clause in her deal to become head coach emeritus because — as one Tennessee official told me today — there was no reason to have her sign one. According to the official, she was never forced out of her old position. There was nothing to keep under wraps in the first place.
So one wonders who was with Summitt at the time she signed the affidavit in question. Her son? Not from what I’ve heard. An attorney or advisor? Perhaps. Jennings?
Only one thing is certain — Tyler Summitt might be the last great hope for Hart and the UT administration to escape this mess in one piece. Short of that, they will continue to burn at the stake as upset Tennessee fans toss more and more logs onto the fire beneath them.