Mark Story: Lee Todd stuck by his people

Sports improved across the board

mstory@herald-leader.com,Mark StorySeptember 10, 2010 

In the legacy that Lee T. Todd Jr. will leave University of Kentucky sports, the outgoing UK president has two major achievements that are beyond debate.

During the 2005 football season, Todd and his handpicked athletics director, Mitch Barnhart, had the backbone to stick by embattled head football coach Rich Brooks when the wolves were howling for the coach's scalp.

Brooks had never been a popular hire. His first two Kentucky teams finished 4-8 and 2-9. His third UK team in '05 was ravaged by injuries and headed through a 3-8 slog.

Public sentiment wanted to pull the plug on Brooks. Todd and Co. instead stuck with the veteran coach who had inherited the brunt of Hal Mumme-era NCAA sanctions.

Four straight bowl trips and four straight winning seasons for the long-suffering UK football program have resulted from that decision.

The other area where Todd clearly got it right was UK's non-marquee sports.

Before Todd became Kentucky president in 2001, UK was not giving its athletes who didn't play men's basketball or football the resources to consistently compete against the cash-rich athletics departments of the Southeastern Conference.

With Todd's support, Barnhart changed that. UK upgraded budgets for the Olympics sports and improved facilities across the athletics department.

Kentucky's 2006 SEC baseball championship; its 2006 women's soccer SEC Tournament title; the women's basketball team's run to the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight in the spring; and this season's No. 16 national ranking by women's volleyball are tangible results of Todd's commitment to a well-rounded sports program.

In other areas related to UK sports, Todd's record is less clear.

He came into the presidency in the middle of the NCAA investigation of Kentucky football that resulted from the "Claude Bassett scandal."

In response, Todd vowed to "change the culture" of the UK Athletics Association. Over its sports history, UK had basically averaged a major NCAA scandal every decade going back to the 1950s.

"If you can't win fairly and win legally, then I don't want to win," Todd said then.

The new president also promised to bring the athletics department into the life of the university proper to a greater degree.

He ordered a top-to-bottom review of the UK athletics department, a process that led to the departure of incumbent athletics director Larry Ivy.

Todd went outside the "UK family" and plucked Oregon State A.D. Barnhart as Ivy's replacement.

Like many would-be reformers, Todd has found integrating a big-time college sports operation into the regular campus easier said than done.

By the time Todd announced his retirement Wednesday, an era of lean state budgets had contributed to recent salary freezes for educators and regular staff at UK.

Yet the athletics department — flush with cash from lucrative contracts to televise (primarily) SEC football — is paying a basketball coach almost $4 million a year and studying the feasibility of building a replacement for Rupp Arena.

The storied Kentucky men's basketball program has proven a difficult ship to steer for Todd and Barnhart.

In the final two years of Tubby Smith's regime, the program went stale. After Tubby left, UK failed to woo Billy Donovan away from Florida.

The university settled on Texas A&M's Billy Gillispie. At the time, Billy G. was seen as one of the nation's up-and-coming coaches. If not a home run, it seemed a defensible move.

It turned out to be, arguably, the worst major coaching hire in UK sports history.

A contrarian and a loner in one of the most high-visibility jobs in college sports, Gillispie lasted only two seasons before Kentucky admitted a mistake by firing the coach.

You would have thought an effective background check should have raised red flags on Gillispie as a "fit" for UK. To misfire that badly on the hiring of a Kentucky basketball coach might have been expected to be a mortal sin for a UK athletics director.

As he had done in prior controversies, Todd stayed loyal to Barnhart, the AD he hired.

With the pressure on to attract a coach who could return Kentucky to the top ranks of college basketball, Todd signed off on the hiring of Memphis Coach John Calipari.

The charismatic Cal energized (much of) the Kentucky fan base, began routinely attracting elite recruits and won 35 games in his first year.

Fair or not, Calipari also came with "reputation baggage" as a coach not unfamiliar with working in the gray areas of college hoops. He was an interesting hire for a university president who came into office talking culture change.

Once Todd steps down as UK president, he will be acutely missed by one constituency: The sportswriting fraternity.

A guy with two degrees from MIT turned out to be quite the sports trash talker.

Before Kentucky played Louisville in football in 2006, Todd referred to the Cardinals as "overmarketed and underperforming" at a UK kickoff luncheon.

Properly inspired, Louisville buried the Cats 59-28.

Undeterred, Todd went before a gathering of Jefferson County UK alumni later that year and did it again. He predicted that the Kentucky-U of L basketball game might be "somewhat competitive" while noting, correctly, that Rick Pitino's Cards had "almost lost to Georgetown" College in an exhibition.

After the second remark, I asked Todd why he kept giving his school's archrival bulletin-board material.

"You're sitting there with 900 Wildcat fans and sometimes you get carried away," he said.

Lee Todd is hardly the only university president to get caught up by the zeal for big-time college sports.

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