Vanderbilt's firing of its athletics communications team and how athletics decisions are really made
football Edit

A peek behind the curtain at Vanderbilt and athletics decisions

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This year has raised questions regarding Vanderbilt's priorities with athletics. Last week’s news that the university eliminated its existing athletics media relations staff and will replace it it with employees selected by (and reporting to) the university's communications office raised more questions.

Vanderbilt has repeatedly refused meaningful comment on this and other athletics-related matters. But here's a view from people who've seen first-hand how the school operates, and their voices might shed a lot on what's happening and what's to come.

Athletic director Candice Lee took over full-time in February.
Athletic director Candice Lee took over full-time in February. (Vanderbilt University)

What happened with athletics communications

Vanderbilt fired everyone in its athletics media relations office excepting Alan George, the associate athletic director for communications. Some are already gone, whlle others will have their employment terminated just days before the start of the football season.

About 24 hours later, Vanderbilt explained its move this way:

Through George, I asked athletics director Candice Lee for expanded comment; Lee declined and I was referred to the above statement.

However, I attained a copy of an email that Lee sent to athletics staff on Friday to explain the decision. (The full text of that email is at the bottom of this artlcle.)

One positive in this is that the positions that the school creates will be funded outside the athletic department's budget. Lee stated the decision "wasn't driven by the pandemic, understanding that we have been examining these areas for some time," and "... frankly, we cannot apologize for doing something that we believe is best for who we serve."

That's how the university presents the decision. Insiders still have questions.

"I don't understand the disconnect between Candice's email that says, 'Guys, this is for the best, we're not abolishing anything," a source who read the memo said. "Then why the necessity to let everyone go? Why couldn't they just have kept everybody? What am I missing here? There has to be a cost element or why would they post a bunch of entry-level jobs (on the school's website)?

"Why is it best to hire new people rather than keeping your staff and putting them under the umbrella of campus? If she came out and said, 'Guys, we have to make some tough financial decisions,' I'd understand that. But this is somehow being sold internally as a beneficial decision for the department–not a forced one.”

The terminated employees never got a chance to speak with Lee. George and assistant athletic director Michelle Towns, who is in human resources, handled the firings through a Zoom call.

Sources believe George--whose input should have been sought on that decision--was unaware these changes were coming. George declined comment in an email, saying, "Per our policy, we do not comment on personnel matters."

How the school views sports, and what that means for athletes

To understand how things work inside Vanderbilt athletics, it's important to understand how stakeholders view the school. Many observers have commented on a pattern in which the academic side sees sports as a distraction, "a glass of wine on the porch after a busy day, a cocktail party where the game is a lovely Saturday afternoon distraction and it's glorified intramural sports," as one source put it. The implication is that success at sports implies mis-placed priorities.

Another source had a similar take.

"There doesn't seem to be a mob just wanting to kill it, but, there doesn't seem to be a group championing the value of sports," that source says.

Vanderbilt has been outstanding recently in several sports. It won national titles in baseball in 2014 and 2019, in bowling in 2007 and 2018 and women's tennis in 2015. It won the Southeastern Conference title in women's soccer in 2019. And certainly, the school's academic reputation helps in those sports.

But with the exception of baseball, most sports lag their competitors in terms of facilities and behind-the-scenes support. And football most often gets the worst of it.

"'Directionless' sums (football's direction) up," the parent of a former player said. "These kids have no idea what they're playing for. They're not only fighting opponents, they're fighting a system where they don't even know who the players are. They've got forces (inside VU) working against them and they don't even know where the spears are coming from."

Many former players are appreciative of what Vanderbilt provides, but wish the school's approach to athletics would change.

"I wouldn't actually trade my time at Vanderbilt for anything," Kirk Williams, a 1997 Vanderbilt graduate and football player from 1993 to that time, says. "I cherish my time there. I met my wife there. I love that place. I love everything that it's done with my life. And I still watch football every game we play. I consider myself in the top 10 percent of Vandy fandom. I drove to Omaha to watch the school win the national title in 2019. I'm a true fan of the university.

"In high school, making a decision on which college you go to is important. To go to Vanderbilt, you likely attained a certain level of success on the football field and in the classroom and you make a decision to go to Vanderbilt for all the right reasons. It's the perfect intersection of academics and athletics. I've seen so many players say 'I'm going to a top-20 university in the best conference in the country.'

"But as someone who's now a parent I have concerns about how our student-athletes on campus are treated and viewed. And maybe there are things I was naive to during my time there and I've had a chance to process and gain a different perspective.

"And I'd be lying if I didn't admit that as student-athletes, we feel we're fighting multiple uphill battles. You're fighting for respect and success in the most elite football conference in the country and on a daily basis you fight for respect on campus. And it's not as easy on the campus end because you don't know who's with you and who's against you. And it's palpable on that campus that there are people who feel you don't belong there.

"As a black student-athlete in particular on that campus, you walk in on Day 1 and you get a sense that you're getting shunned. And you're getting shunned because you don't have a successful program on the field and everyone questions whether you should be there academically.

"Everyone matures and as you get into your sophomore and junior year, you realize that regardless of what everyone else out there thinks, you realize you need to take advantage of those opportunities. Call it selfish or whatever you want, but you realize you need to make the best of it. And so you focus on your personal educational path and your degree and what it may mean for your future.

"And it doesn't matter who you are individually. And this is a stereotype that happens on a lot of campuses, but it happens even more on the Vanderbilt campus. If you're going to fight this fight, the one person you can control is yourself, and you're in a situation where that's all you can do. I need to focus on what's in my personal best interest, and that's unfortunate.

"I don't want to say you give up on a dream of having a successful football team. But you realize you're not at a university that gets support from a nearby community and the faculty and staff and administration and you're not in an environment that's even looking for you to succeed. And you sour on the process and you sour on your time there.

"I'm not asking that you be exalted on that campus because you're a football player. I'm just asking that you get the same level of respect that anyone else gets on campus. I think all the guys are just asking for the same basic level of respect that everyone else gets without being looked down upon for the very fact that you play football.

"You sometimes limit your children if you set the bar low. And the university sets the bar low. As the university presents itself, the bar is set high in everything related to academia. When it comes to sports, which is part of the university, it seems the bar is set excruciatingly low. We have a university that suggests its focus is on excellence in all areas and that should translate to sports. It shouldn't just be an afterthought. And it doesn't have to be that way. It feels like those Jedi forces are actively working against success on the field.

"Whether the school wants to admit it or not, collegiate sports is so strong in the perception of the university. Stanford hasn't shied away from it. Northwestern hasn't shied away from it. You can be successful in both arenas. And if we're going to do sports, let's do it well. I don't understand how at this university it's not the same.

"And in sports, it's counterintuitive to compete half-assed. There's no individual sports in which you can step on the field in competition and say, 'I"m going to give 50 percent effort.' You lose every time. I don't understand how the university can just dip its toe in it because the product won't be a good one. I'm not saying we have to win national championships but we need to give the best effort we can.

"The expectations are low and so the results will never be that great."

One former player confirms the long-held belief that many a former player and coach has articulated, which is that you have to win before you get many of the amenities your competitors have.

"Being a student-athlete at Vanderbilt has its price," Zac Stacy, who played at VU from 2008-11, says. "My experience at Vanderbilt was great and I was there at at time when we had success more than they do now. I tried to keep tunnel vision and stick to football and academics. What it comes down to is the big picture of getting support from the school and it's hard not to compare and contrast the time when Franklin was there when we had success with now. Definitely when you win, more stuff comes to you. When the winning goes away, we might not get the same type of support.

"It starts with a mindset of making sure that we're competing not just in the classroom but with all aspects--marketing or whatever--and we need the support. And when winning doesn't happen, it's a domino effect."

The athletic department's saving grace may be the fact that the school doesn't want to walk away from the huge revenues that sports generates, like the $45.3 million check it got from the Southeastern Conference for the fiscal year that ended on Aug. 31, 2019.

"There are generations of people who can never point to a point where the school said, 'We intend to win and we intend to prove that by showing we'll be the lead investor in facilities,' a source says. "Because if they were to approve that and show some sense of positive momentum, a whole lot of people would probably jump in and help."

A recent history of campus communications and athletics

The athletic communications office has already seen what happens when the school controls the message.

"We were told from somebody on campus that, at one point in time, campus communication had been discouraged from promoting any achievements and success of athletics within its internal newsletters," a source said. "The implication was that athletic news was not a priority to the university."

"That did change to some degree over time, but it was still disheartening to hear an approach like that was at one time in place."

While the dismissed employees were shocked by last week's decision, there were hints along the way.

First was VU's decision to move athletic fundraising out of McGugin Center, where the school's athletics offices are, and off-campus to the Loew's Vanderbilt Hotel, where it still resides.

"I don’t think (athletics fundraisers) knew they were moving until they told about it," a source says. " I don’t think they had much input on it. I don’t think they wanted to leave. And they were rightfully concerned about the optics of it. They’re asking people for money and people are going to ask, ‘Why aren’t you in the athletics building?'"

Another sign came when ex-athletic director Malcolm Turner's introductory press conference was done by teleconference. Turner was hired in December 2018 to take over for David Williams but didn't make it to campus until the following February.

"When Malcolm Turner was hired, athletic communications had little to no input (on how Turner was introduced)," a source says. "This is why Malcolm was famously introduced by a teleconference; campus made that decision."

"In later meetings, the campus (communications) team expressed surprise as to why that teleconference was received so poorly by the media. We told campus no (Southeastern Conference) AD is introduced by teleconference in today's world. It should have been an in-person press conference, probably streamed live on the SEC Network.

"Campus could not understand why that was strange."

Athletics communications was also told a campus takeover of the was possible over a year ago.

"Our staff had been told that a 'reorganization' was in planning that would streamline the relationship between campus and athletics communications," a source said. "Most folks inside McGugin... feel that announcement (on July 7) was that reorganization."

Seeds for this were likely sown under Williams, who taught Lee nearly everything she knows about the job. Lee served as a senior administrator under Williams from 2004 until he retired in 2018.

"There's been a fundamental misunderstanding of the athletic communications office within McGugin leadership (not just campus) dating back to David Williams. David once told somebody he felt campus (communications) could do our jobs--he did not understand why a sports information director was necessary, and he understood even less the importance of social and creative content in today's (communications) departments.

"He would always get frustrated if we announced something on Twitter and not the website, because, in his words, 'Only young generations look at social media.'"

Williams de-valued athletics communication to the point that when George's predecessor Kyle Parkinson left, Williams didn't replace him for about six months.

"No one seemed to realize it was weird that we were about to host a baseball super regional and had no head of communications," a source muses.

Turner declined comment for this article but VandySports has learned that Vanderbilt broached the topic of bringing athletics communications out of the athletic department and under the university under his watch. Turner prevented it because he believed it wasn't how a Power Five athletic department should operate.

"If Turner had the authority to keep such a move from being made, one would assume Lee would have the same privilege

"She either chose not to fight it, or she knew it was a battle she could not win because she didn't have the power or standing to fight it," a source says. "She was either unable or unwilling to defend her people in her building. It's one of the two and I don't think there's a third possibility."

"Her audience is Kirkland Hall, and everything and everyone else be damned," another source said.

Baseball is the school's model program, and the program's Twitter account, which has 151,400 followers (by contrast, the university's has 53,200, and the football team's, 62,100), shows how large a reach the school's sports programs have when they perform well.

"The same communications people were doing a great job with baseball, and (Turner's) goal was to make the entire athletic department like that," one source says.

Instead, Turner resigned days before the Super Bowl and Lee took over. And around that time, everything changed with athletic communications.

"In recent months, campus had begun requiring athletics to submit every one of its social media posts to campus communication for approval before posting--Twitter, Instragram, everything," a source says, specifying that there two deadlines each day for submission.

"You'd think they'd know how much content (athletics media relations has) to pump out," a source says, adding later, "You're going to ask a lot of people who frankly aren't used to working 60-hour weeks to do it."

And that's not all.

"Who's teaching someone how to run a tennis tournament?" a source says. "How to oversee a soccer press box? Any of that stuff? I think there's a lot of logistics they're not thinking about and I think you could see sports suffer because of it."

People who've worked in athletics communications said there had been some breakthroughs over the years. At one time there was a monthly meeting with campus communications folks that seemed to create some respect and understanding.

"It's amazing how shocked they were at the things our (athletes) were doing. ... It just showed how little they knew," a source said. "It's hard to articulate how little they know about college sports... and now, that's the group that's going to be running things," a source says.

"How's this going to be a catalyst to help the teams have more success than they've had in the past?" another source asks.

When the university takes greater control

For about 60 years, the university has been hesitant to allow athletics as much autonomy as its Power Five peers. The most recent instance was the search to replace Williams in 2018.

A source involved with the process specified ahead of time that was it was vitally important that then-chancellor Nick Zeppos select an athletic director with whom he was comfortable working aside. That source also said it was important to find a candidate who had experience working inside a private school like Vanderbilt.

That committee found a candidate in Army athletic director Boo Corrigan who not only met those criteria, but was liked and respected by his peers around the country.

Multiple sources indicated that Corrigan was accepting the job but something went wrong as the hire was presented for administrative approval. Corrigan took the North Carolina State AD job 2 1/2 months later.

Rather than work the pool of several existing FBS athletic directors who expressed interest--a few never even got a phone call--Vanderbilt, with the help of search firm Korn-Ferry, tabbed Turner, who'd never worked on a college campus. Sources with first-hand knowledge of the situation said Turner would be given complete charge over athletics, unprecedented authority for a Vandy AD.

"The tremendous growth of the G League appealed to Vanderbilt," a source said. "There were people at the university who wanted to see what athletics could become. He was hired and given complete control of the athletic department."

Turner told Vanderbilt it needed about $800 million to update its facilities to Southeastern Conference standards. He was in the process of soliciting funds for needed projects.

But Zeppos resigned that spring and things quickly went south under interim chancellor Susan Wente.

"Her focus was getting the chancellor's job," a source says. "To do that, she had to keep her foot on athletics. She didn't want athletics out front. That's not the Vanderbilt Way and it would hurt her chances.

"She was petrified of athletics spending money, of a facilities plan and all that. That would have stirred up the faculty. She wanted to avoid any noise because she was afraid it would hurt her chances of becoming chancellor."

That hire went south within months and Turner resigned under pressure in February of this year. With Zeppos gone, interim chancellor Wente appointed Lee the temporary AD in this breathless press release issued by the university communications office.

Facilities have been an issue for a while. Vanderbilt's lack of commitment to building anything meaningful in the midst of a commitment of investing hundreds of millions of dollars elsewhere has been a topic of constant discussion.

"Every time (Turner) tried to do something, Kirkland Hall (Vanderbilt's administrative building) built a wall around it," another source says. "Athletic fundraising was gaining momentum every day. They weren't interested in doing things differently than they'd been done the last 30 years. And Kirkland did not want athletics involved in fundraising."

There are other things Turner was attempting to do to address that would cost the school nothing.

"Athletes don't have priority registration for classes," a source says. "Every school in the conference does that except Vanderbilt.."

School officials privately assured boosters there'd be a national search for a permanent AD. That never happened and incoming chancellor Daniel Diermeier tabbed Lee the full-time AD this spring.

"Since Williams was hired, they've never had an athletic director who was about athletics," a source says. "And they had it for about eight months (with Turner) and they didn't like it."

Fast-forward to the summer of 2020, and nothing has changed.

"Remember that long anticipated announcement of the strategic plan?" a source says. "That was the chance for Vanderbilt to change its narrative. Instead, all that's been done since then is firing the athletics communications staff--while making no moves whatsoever on facilities.

"That's Vanderbilt in a nutshell."

Candice Lee's email to staff on July 10

Dear Staff,

I was asked by a fan earlier this week if I still felt excited about where we are headed in the face of unprecedented challenges. My answer, without hesitation, was “yes.”

That may sound odd because we are most certainly weary from the current climate, and adversity seems to hit us from different angles right now. Yet, two things can be true. I recognize that this week in particular has been difficult for many of us and our colleagues for several reasons. One of those reasons is the restructuring of communications.

We didn’t “eliminate” or “abolish” our communications/video departments. The athletics communications staff has worked in conjunction with the university communications staff for several months now on various initiatives. This restructuring presents an opportunity to more closely integrate our staff with theirs to ultimately increase our output and resources. Such expansion is necessary to ensure that we are serving our student-athletes, coaches and stakeholders at a higher level.

As part of this restructuring process, some athletics positions in communications, graphics and video have been eliminated. The movement of functions and centralizing to university communications is also happening with other areas of the university, not just athletics. To be clear, the decision to eliminate these positions was part of a comprehensive review process and not a reflection of the individuals affected or their service to Vanderbilt. It is purely a challenging, yet necessary, organizational change based on our needs. It is also not driven by the pandemic, understanding that we have been examining these areas for quite some time. As part of this process, university communications has been -- and will be -- creating positions to provide services to athletics.

Ultimately, we will continue to have communications staff housed in McGugin. The structure will be similar to that of some of our other support areas that serve and are accountable to our department, while formally reporting to and being funded from outside of athletics.

I understand that change is hard and am truly empathetic to how it feels to endure such change. I also understand that some things will require disruption (and discomfort) as we chart out our next steps. Things are often harder before they are better, but they will definitely get better. And, frankly, we cannot apologize for doing something that we believe is best for those we serve. Having said that, I do regret the timing of this email. It should have gone out shortly after the decision was finalized. My initial inclination was not to send a broad based announcement out of respect for those truly impacted, but I also recognize it’s important to communicate as much as we can when we can.

We plan to have another virtual all-staff meeting in the coming week or two to provide updates on key developments/items, and I will be happy to answer any additional questions on this topic specifically.I thank each of you for your dedication to this department.

Please stay safe and healthy, and take good care of yourselves.