Mike Hamilton finally sees the door

In the past 12 months, the more you heard about Tennessee athletics, the more you had to wonder: How does Mike Hamilton still have a job?

Our own Pat Forde put it harshly -- but appropriately -- in his Feb. 23 column on the topic:

It's bad when the football program is charged with major violations. It's bad when the men's basketball program is charged with major violations.

When they both get charged at the same time? It's really bad. Fireable offense bad.

If I were the president at Tennessee, the man in charge of an athletic department that has hemorrhaged credibility at an alarming rate in recent years would need a Committee on Infractions miracle to keep his job. Nothing short of an exoneration of both programs would be enough to spare Hamilton -- and chances of that happening are even smaller than the chances that Tennessee plays in the next BCS championship game.

That pretty much sums it up. We've seen Lane Kiffin dash away in the middle of the night to USC after one embarrassing, allegation-filled season. We've seen Bruce Pearl publicly flogged for lying to the NCAA, after which he resigned his post and prepared for potential basketball wilderness. That's two of the school's three truly marquee athletics programs -- thanks goodness for Pat Summitt's ethical stubbornness, right? -- that have allegedly committed violations in the past several years. (Hamilton is the men's athletic director, by the way, so he doesn't even get to take credit for Summitt. Heck, no one does. But he does get the nod for a disastrous baseball hire in recently fired Todd Raleigh. Add it to the list.)

There's one thing those two programs have in common: an athletic director. That athletic director was Hamilton. These things happened on his watch and under his supervision, and still, Hamilton kept his job. It got to the point this week that, believe it or not, Hamilton appeared ready to sit in front of the NCAA Committee on Infractions and do his damnedest to keep Tennessee athletics from winding up in some sort of COI Mortal Kombat combo finishing move. (FINISH HIM!) This appeared to be unwise, but there Hamilton was. He wasn't going anywhere.

Until, that is, today. At the risk of burying the lead (which is not much of a risk, since you know this news already), Hamilton suddenly resigned his post as Tennessee men's athletics director Tuesday.

"My family and I love the University of Tennessee, and we love Knoxville," Hamilton said in a statement. "We have poured out our lives over the last 19 years to try to make this a better community, a better athletic program and a better university."

His resignation comes just days before Tennessee officials will travel to Indianapolis to appear before the NCAA's Committee on Infractions. That hearing is scheduled for Saturday, which Hamilton also will attend.

If you remember your eighth-grade reading lessons, you'll be able to spot the context and inferences at work in that last paragraph. Hamilton's resignation does indeed come just a few days before Tennessee is set to face the COI in Indianapolis. He'll still be on hand for that meeting, and technically he'll be representing it as the current athletics director, because he will technically leave the job at the end of June.

But that is a formality. In reality, Hamilton is resigning as a sign to the Committee on Infractions that Tennessee, if only now, finally, mercifully gets it.

There are very good reasons for that. The Committee on Infractions, which sounds scary and Orwellian but is really just a group of people like you and me, takes no joy in punishing programs. But it will do so harshly if it believes that program doesn't take the allegations against it seriously. It will do so if it believes that program has done little to change the atmosphere of compliance that it, according to its notice of allegations in the NCAA case, "failed to promote" before it got in trouble in the first place.

You know how in grade school, when a teacher would punish you, and you would try to laugh and look cool and impress your buddies, and the teacher would only get way, way angrier? The COI is a little like that. Unless you take serious steps to change the nature of your athletics programs before you show up to your long-awaited hearing, the punishment is only going to get worse.

With all the uncertainty already surrounding Tennessee athletics -- not to mention new NCAA president Mark Emmert's stated desire for harsher, more prohibitive penalties -- an image of anything but grave seriousness is the last thing the Volunteers can afford.

The question is ... will Hamilton's gambit work? Will the committee look at Tennessee, with its new football coach, new basketball coach and new athletic director and say, "Hey, Tennessee gets it? I think they might!"

I have my doubts. If I'm Emmert, I'm looking to make clear that it isn't enough to respond after the fact. I want you to know I'm not happy with your athletic directors and coaches resigning. If I'm Emmert, I want to punish you for not getting it right the first time. I want to make sure your school -- and every conference and every conference member -- knows that there's an old way of doing things and a new way, and that this is the new way now. If I'm Emmert, I want cheaters to know: My name is my name. Let it ring out: If word gets back to me, I'm coming down to the street, and sooner or later, you're going to realize your only option was not cheating in the first place.

We'll see how it plays out. Perhaps a cleared house will earn Tennessee some measure of mercy. Perhaps not. Either way, by the time the NCAA releases its findings, Hamilton will be long gone.

As he said at his press conference today, that departure was always inevitable. The surprise is that it took this long.