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Dr. Saturday

Mike Hamilton is out, and Tennessee has a light at the end of the tunnel

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Like anyone whose job is too keep the organization running smoothly, an athletic director's success can usually be measured by his relative anonymity outside of the small circle of people who tend to pay attention to athletic directors. They're not on the sidelines. They don't command the extravagant salaries of the coaches they employ. In airports and restaurants, they're indistinguishable from any other middle-aged guy in a suit or polo shirt. Their only memorable public appearances tend to involve either defending or firing an embattled coach — often a coach hired by the AD — or answering for some kind of scandal. With a few exceptions, an athletic director with a public profile is an athletic director desperately spinning for his life.

No wonder, then, that Mike Hamilton's tenure at Tennessee made him one of the most high-profile ADs in America, as the guy who led the Vols into the wilderness. With his long-awaited resignation this morning, he's finally given up hope of being the guy who leads them back out.

Within five years of his arrival in 2003, Hamilton had fired not only an underperforming men's basketball coach (Buzz Peterson), but also the winningest baseball coach in school history (Rod Delmonico, who won more than 700 games with three trips to the College World Series over 18 years) and a long-tenured football coach, Phil Fulmer, who'd spent nearly his entire adult life as a player and coach at Tennessee and delivered its first national championship in nearly 50 years.{YSP:MORE} In their place, Hamilton hired a baseball coach who would soon be fired without once qualifying for the SEC tournament, a basketball coach who would soon be fired for multiple, major NCAA violations and an unproven football coach who would soon steal away in the middle of the night after 14 mediocre months, leaving a frantic coaching search and a crumbling roster in his wake.

Bruce Pearl and Lane Kiffin also left a lingering, two-headed NCAA probe that will come to a head Saturday with Tennessee's first ever appearance in front of the NCAA Committee on Infractions, where UT will try to spin its way out of heavy sanctions for a lack of departmental oversight by arguing that the rogue coaches that ran afoul of the rules are long gone, and at least one of them will be despised in Tennessee forever. But it's no coincidence that the man responsible for bringing them to Knoxville in the first place is now gone, too, purging the department entirely of the power brokers that brought it so low before it kneels in penance in front of the committee.

Hamilton was hired in the first place because of his success as a fundraiser in the nineties, and — again, like anyone who's put in charge of an operation they can only control by making their best guess at personnel — it's entirely possible he is a highly competent manager who found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. He's not the only person who's ever hired Kiffin or Pearl, or the only one who thought they looked like good ideas at the time. He's certainly not the only one who saw one of the nation's proudest programs stagnating under Fulmer. But Saturday is his moment as much as anyone's, and it's appropriate that it will be the culmination of his tenure as much as it is of Kiffin's and Pearl's. Sanctions are almost certainly on the horizon in one form or another, but when the sun comes up on Sunday, Vol fans can be reasonably certain for the first time in a very long time that the worst has passed.

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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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