True statements, the truth and the Vanderbilt Way
For two months, nothing about Vanderbilt’s athletic department has made sense.
There was one group of folks who, leading up to the departure of ex-Vanderbilt athletic director Malcolm Turner, presented a set of facts about Turner that appear to be true. And yet there was a defense of Turner that soon emerged from the rubble after Feb. 5, the date Vanderbilt announced it had moved on from its AD, that didn’t square with what we knew.
Here is now this resolves: There are true statements, and then there’s the truth.
That's how the dots connect. Welcome to the Vanderbilt Way.
The Vanderbilt Way is this invisible hand that weaves true statements into a picture that isn’t the whole truth. It's says, look here and not there as it weeds out whatever threatens it.
True statements: Turner unpopular with coaches and athletic department employees. He wasn’t engaged enough with his own people or even around much at the end. He wasted money on travel and employed several consultants. He presided over the hire of basketball coach Jerry Stackhouse’s staff, which is perceived with VU as “too bloated.”
The truth: What Turner did was pre-approved and empowered by chancellor Nick Zeppos. Spending was approved through proper channels at Vanderbilt and allowed to happen. Objections were voiced after the fact. Then, when Turner tried to raise money to fund what he was hired to do, he ran into more obstacles.
We detailed last week how VU could have stopped spending. More information has come to light.
The most internal griping came over consulting expenses and Stackhouse’s staff. Let’s discuss the consultants first.
Consulting agreements go through the procurement office. The costs are disclosed in advance. People know about the cost of any outside source. It was impossible for that to be Turner’s doing alone.
To the Stackhouse staff: Turner approved it in the spring when Zeppos was still there. Zeppos didn’t leave until August. One can argue it may not have been wise, but his authority to do it, down to the amount spent, was unquestioned.
Turner wasn’t as visible as an AD should have been from November on, and maybe some of that was on him. But consider what he was working against.
Try to get stuff for athletics at VU, and you put a target on your back. The Indoor Practice Facility made former AD David Williams a target for campus criticism for a long time. Before Turner arrived, the university had just moved the Commodore Club—the fundraising arm of the university—out of McGugin Center (that’s VU’s athletic building) and into the Lowe’s Vanderbilt Plaza, which is where the university development office is.
Turner was hired under the condition that he had control of budgets and also the freedom to create his own vision for athletics and facilities. He had every reason to operate his department as such. And early on, everything seemed to on the table for athletics.
A lot wasn’t realistic, but again, it was his task to explore the possibilities. There was a palpable sense of excitement in booster circles, and it hit a crescendo as the fall went on.
But at some point, Turner got sideways with university vice chancellor Susie Stalcup. Things weren’t well between he and interim chancellor Susan Wente. At some point around the start of the new year, Turner was said to be shopping for a new job.
There’s another significant piece here: The school was telling athletic donors, privately, that it would match donations past a certain amount—the figure was at, or around, $250,000—dollar for dollar, but wouldn’t publicly advertise it.
Need proof? Note the absence of a matching mention in the university’s recent press release announcing a $5 million gift from George Huber.
“They had this donor match program, where the university would match funds to what was given athletically, but they wouldn’t announce it,” a source said, in speaking of a program launched sometime in 2019. “And everybody was like, ‘What?’ They wouldn’t announce it publicly. They wanted that to be a secret. Isn’t that odd?”
“That tells me that they don’t really want to raise money for athletics. I don’t think the university wants athletics to have a larger role in fundraising.”
The Vanderbilt Way calls all the shots and picks the winners and losers based on who supports it and who opposes it. It is filled with hypocrisy. There’s a lot of,” It’s fine for us, but not you,” within the Vanderbilt Way. It thinks athletics belongs at the kids’ table and not with the adults, so, it bloviates about academics and integrity and fiscal responsibility when one presses on with questions that relate to winning.
The Vanderbilt Way specializes in buying time. By the time anyone figures out what happened, it’s way too late.
This is true: Around the middle of last decade, a renovation of Vanderbilt Stadium was to be part of the coming capital campaign for the university. That never happened. The explanation was that the university didn’t trust then-AD David Williams to raise the funds.
The truth: Is Vanderbilt a victim of itself? How in the world does a school tout fiscal responsibility and then pay Williams--a man who was essentially VU's AD for 15 year, a man who had zero experience in his job--a seven-figure salary for a job he couldn't do?
This is true: Folks within the AD and university Vanderbilt griped vociferously about Turner’s travel expenses. His hiring a car and driver to Memphis to interview Stackhouse, followed by his chartering a flight home, particularly offended sensibilities.
The truth: Vanderbilt wastes obscene amounts of money regularly. It is curiously selective about where (and towards whom) its outrage is directed. Williams, with now-interim AD Candice Lee in tow, once took a limo to Birmingham and back on the company dime.
This is true: Vanderbilt makes a public show about putting minorities in leadership and compensates them exceptionally well for those roles. And of course, It’s great that we can live in a day and age where that can happen.
The truth: Vanderbilt has, in many ways, neglected its football and basketball programs for decades. In that time, hundreds of black athletes have come through those programs. Is that real commitment or just window dressing?
The whole truth: Turner wasn’t guilt-free in all this. Even his supporters admit that. But there are people who remain employed at Vanderbilt who’ve made big ones, too, including some currently in the AD. Lee is now in charge, and while asking question alone doesn’t imply guilt, it has to be asked where she and her boss, interim chancellor Susan Wente, were in all this. Wasn't it their job to help Turner, and also help him avoid pitfalls?
A source said it best: Lee does what she thinks was right. But her view is based on her experience at Vanderbilt, the only place she’s ever worked. The only boss she ever had, pre-Turner, was Williams, And while Williams did, occasionally, try to buck the Vanderbilt Way and even succeeded with the Indoor Practice Facility, his ability to acquiesce to it probably helped him keep his job so long.
And let’s look at what the Vanderbilt Way has wrought in the way of athletics.
Vanderbilt's once-proud men’s and women’s basketball programs are undisputedly the worst in school history. Its football program was bad last year, even by Vanderbilt standards. Two of the three coaches responsible for those messes are still around.
If Vanderbilt ever wants to win at sports, it should re-examine the Vanderbilt Way. And if its Board of Trust really wants to know what goes on with athletics, there should be an independent investigation of what's gone on based on what we know alone. And maybe it wouldn't find much. But what if it did?
Based on history, don't get your hopes up.
The Vanderbilt Way remains nearly unbeaten for 60 years. It wins two ways: It either exhausts opponents until they surrender, or, it scores a more public TKO the way it did with Turner. And, if you’d like to switch sports metaphors, that press release that accompanied Turner’s departure was one heck of touchdown celebration.
And now, with the leader it wanted all along, the Vanderbilt Way chugs along and is gaining steam. It’s running a race where it determines the rules and sets the finish line. And until someone or something can muster the political power to stand up to it, God only knows where that’s going to lead.