Jennings retires after 35 years

To most fans, people like Debby Jennings are behind the scenes and largely unknown. But because she worked at Tennessee for 35 years, the fans there did know her. She was an integral part of Tennessee women's athletics; she was actually on campus even before coach Pat Summitt arrived in 1974.

Jennings always jokes, "My parents dropped me off in Knoxville in 1973 and never picked me back up." She got her degree at Tennessee in 1977 and then became the Lady Vols' first director of media relations. She eventually rose to the level of associate athletics director.

For those of us who cover women's basketball, she's an institution and the standard-bearer for a professionally run sports information department. Who can even count how many thousands of interviews she has set up, game notes she has written and edited, industry-leading media guides she has produced, awards she has won and young people she has mentored.

Which is why her "retirement" -- announced in three paragraphs by Tennessee on Wednesday -- is such a frustrating statement about downsizing, power moves and the lack of loyalty that characterize so much of the corporate-America aspect of college athletics.

Jennings did not comment Wednesday, but a source close to the situation told me that Jennings did not want to retire. At 57, she's still as in love as ever with her job, and just as passionate about publicizing the accomplishments of Tennessee student-athletes. But the on-going merger of the school's men's and women's athletic departments has resulted in Tennessee purging some of its longest-tenured employees. No matter how good they are at their jobs.

The merger, announced last summer and being implemented now, happens to come when Summitt has moved to a head coach emeritus position for health reasons, as she has early onset dementia. And Joan Cronan, Tennessee's women's athletic director since 1983, soon will be moved to an advisory role to new overall AD Dave Hart and chancellor Jimmy Cheek. (Cronan had filled in as interim AD for both men and women in the four months last year between former men's AD Mike Hamilton's departure and Hart's entry.)

The changes have caused concern for Lady Vols fans about the future of women's sports. Tennessee has been a national leader in every aspect of how college women's athletics is supported and treated. That's been a source of pride for most Tennessee alums. And even those who definitely are not fans of women's sports still for the most part have welcomed the good publicity that Summitt's teams, in particular, provided the university for nearly four decades.

Tennessee and Texas have been the holdouts in regard to keeping men's and women's athletic departments separate. Obviously, Tennessee's merger is meant to save money. Tennessee announced in mid-April that 17 full-time positions between the two athletic departments would be eliminated as of June 1, saying that would save about $1.03 million.

That's not a huge sum in the realm of major-college athletics, but it's something. Although what Tennessee saves in those salaries might not equal what it loses in experience and institutional knowledge, especially in women's athletics.

Hart didn't discuss any specifics about the 17 layoffs last month. Wednesday in regard to Jennings' retirement, he said in a release: "We would like to thank Debby for her service to the University of Tennessee. She has been a part of our eight national championships in women's basketball, and we wish her well."

Realistically, Hart -- who left his alma mater, Alabama, to take over in Knoxville last September -- barely knows Jennings or any of the other Tennessee employees who have been let go. I'm not trying to paint him as a dastardly villain; that's not the pragmatic way to view it. He came to Tennessee facing the lingering residue of mistakes made by his predecessor Hamilton, who had two prominent hires -- Bruce Pearl in men's basketball and Lane Kiffin in football -- turn out badly.

Hart's main focuses are trying to get Tennessee football on solid ground and overseeing the departments' merger. The latter was bound to take some human toll, regardless of who was athletic director. Whether it could be handled better, though, is legitimately up for speculation.

And there indeed has been speculation on Tennessee message boards and media outlets about whether diversity -- including at the executive level of the athletic department -- is losing ground with the merger. For example, of those eight executive positions, only one will be held by a woman in the re-organization. (Jennings' replacement is Eric Trainer. He has been at UT for 15 years and was mentored by Jennings.)

In an interview last week, Hart told me that "nothing" was going to change with Tennessee women's sports, and that he would be its strongest advocate. Like his statement about Jennings on Wednesday, the interview was brisk and all-business. Hart is a busy man with a lot to get done outside of women's sports, and that's part of what worries those who follow the Lady Vols.

They are alarmed that the departure of Jennings (35 years working at UT) and moves into the background for Summitt (38 years) and Cronan (29 years) are all happening at about the same time.

Hart says his track record with women's athletics in previous jobs -- including a 12-year stay as Florida State's AD -- proves his commitment. But to think he's as invested in Tennessee's women's programs after about eight months in Knoxville as three people who've worked at the school a combined 102 years … obviously, he couldn't be.

Football drives the bus at Tennessee and all big-conference Division I schools. Tennessee's football program has been struggling: The Vols have had a losing record three of the past four years and have reached a double-digit win total just once in the past seven seasons. Alums and boosters want football "fixed" at Tennessee, and that's a financial priority.

But it's reasonable for fans of women's sports to be wary about whether the athletic department might be needlessly weakening something that has brought the school so many accolades.

As for Jennings, no matter what you think of women's sports and mergers and the harsh financial climate, it's sad and alarming to see someone who has given her entire adult life to her alma mater be cut loose. Those of us who've seen Tennessee so long at the apex of women's athletics never imagined this would happen there.

Jennings was born in England and then grew up all over in the United States, as her father moved around for jobs first in the Air Force and then with General Electric. But once she settled in Tennessee, her blood turned orange. The rise of the Lady Vols under Summitt had one premiere chronicler, someone who was there to see it all firsthand and who remembered every face, name and number.

Eventually, Jennings was going to hand off that torch. But after all she has done for Tennessee and women's basketball, it isn't right that her exit was like this when she was still at the top of her profession.