Collateral Damage

Deborah (Debbie) Jennings filed a lawsuit in Federal court against the University of Tennessee and Dave Hart, UT’s Athletic Director. Ms. Jennings was the long-time Media Relations Director of the UT Women’s Athletic Department. She was an employee since 1977, became the first Lady Vol Sports Information Director in 1978, and ran the Media Relations Office until 2009 when the men’s and women’s Media Relations Departments were consolidated.

Jennings later resigned under pressure, as recounted in court papers.

But it was recently when the lawsuit gained national attention after Pat Summitt was made part of the legal festivities that the damage to hundreds of thousands of alumni and friends of the University was done.


One of Dave Hart’s assignments as Tennessee’s AD has been to consolidate the men’s and women’s athletic departments.

Among other things, the suit brought by Ms. Jennings alleges that during this consolidation process, she was marginalized and ostracized, was denied employment opportunities due to her gender, and/or age, and was gradually stripped of her duties and responsibilities.

The suit gets messy as it recounts how Jennings’ computer was confiscated and emails “had been deleted or removed from her Outlook email directory.”

The suit also paints a picture of Dave Hart’s professional background as one where he routinely engaged in gender discrimination when an administrator at East Carolina and as AD at Florida State.


Prior to the original filing of the case by Ms. Jennings, Coach Summitt was asked if she would provide testimony. She submitted an affidavit dated August 10, 2012.

In the affidavit, Coach Summitt describes her working relationship with Debbie Jennings in a very positive and complimentary light. She described Jennings as somebody who “was not afraid to speak her mind and that was one of her strengths as an employee.”

Summitt indicated that she was not consulted by Dave Hart prior to Jennings’ termination, but would have asked Hart to reconsider or “try another alternative, such as disciplinary action, if he felt that was necessary.”

She also wrote that during a February 15, 2012 meeting with Hart, the AD wanted to discontinue using the Lady Vol logo, intending to place all UT women’s and men’s athletics under one logo. “I was angered when he came out in an interview with the media in May 2012 and denied that he ever intended to do away with the Lady Vol logo.”

Summitt’s meeting with Hart in the now-famous March 2012 meeting had the AD telling Summit that she “would not be coaching the Lady Vol Basketball Team in the next school year” and she found that “very surprising… and very hurtful as that was a decision I would have liked to have made on my own at the end of the season after consulting with my family, doctors, colleagues, and friends and not be told this by Mr. Hart. I felt this was wrong.” She also indicated that Hart told her she “would still have an office in Thompson-Boling Arena and (her) title could be Head Coach Emeritus.”

Coach Summit indicates that, being upset, she shared information about this meeting with several people, including Debby Jennings.


Then, the most curious part of Summitt’s affidavit is the last part:

“Unbekownst to the individuals I shared this upsetting news, Dave Hart spoke with me again, subsequent to the March 14, 2012, one-on-one meeting, and indicated that I misinterpreted what he said.”

That’s the end of the affidavit. Nothing more. No explanation. No extended commentary on the last sentence.



In response to Summitt’s affidavit, UT spokesperson Margie Nichols said that the “statement is absolutely not true. It was Pat’s idea to be head coach emeritus.”

And this is when the collateral damage was inflicted.

The media of all types and all locations basically began to report that the University of Tennessee had forced Pat Summitt out and was now calling her a liar.

Dave Hart was now the hired henchman, presiding over an immoral and perhaps illegal act.


It didn’t really matter that Coach Summitt issued a written statement on Friday to set the record straight from her perspective.

“It was entirely my decision to step down from my position as Head Coach of women’s basketball at the University. As I stated at my press conference in April when I announced my decision, I loved being the Head Coach for 38 years, but, after consultation wity my son, my doctors, my lawyer, and several close friends, I concluded that the time had come to move into the future and step into a new role. I have welcomed and enjoyed my new role as Head Coach Emeritus, and I am excited for the opportunities that now await my dear friend and colleague Holly Warlick as Head Coach.”

“I did not then, and I do not now, feel that I was “forced out” by the University. Anyone who knows me knows that any such effort would have met with resistance. If my affidavit has caused confusion on that point, it needs to be dispelled. In connection with my move from Head Coach to Head Coach emeritus, the University has treated me with the utmost respect and graciousness, as it always has throughout my tenure as Head Coach.”

Yes, it really doesn’t matter from the perspective of what will be said five, ten, or more years down the line. Somewhere down the road, we will all find ourselves in a conversation with someone saying “Yeah, Tennessee. How could they fire a legend who changed the face of her sport?”

It won’t matter if Debby Jennings’ claims hold water or not. It won’t matter if Dave Hart acted legally or not.

It won’t matter if Coach Summitt had forgotten the details of a conversation and/or if she was talked into modifying the original language of her affidavit.

The only thing that will matter is that perception rules over whatever the truth might be. And we will all have to bear the burden of that.


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6 responses to “Collateral Damage”

  1. surroundedbyimbeciles says :

    Hart was in a tough spot concerning women’s basketball. It was evident that Pat could not continue coaching, but how does a new AD deftly handle such a situation with someone of her status? Also, he had to deal with it while many people were probably upset over the merging of the two departments.

    Pat was not going to be able to coach another year no matter whose decision it was. He was hired to guide the future of he entire athletic department, and, unfortunately, the future of the Lady Vols is not what it would have been.

    I believe Jennings used Pat, a person she worked with for three decades, to promote her lawsuit. That is worse than anything Hart may have done.

    • norcalvol says :

      Hart was definitely in a tough spot. It was made more difficult by the fact that the circumstances of Summitt’s departure from the active head coaching position was painted within the framework of a very messy lawsuit. Very unfortunate. It made UT a Peyton Place (no pun intended) to the rest of the nation. That is what is so disappointing to me. Summitt didn’t deserve all of this.

  2. Jan Evett says :

    What in the world is going to happen next at UT? We certainly have had our fill of surprises and things that go bump in the night!

  3. rockytop78 says :

    I agree that Pat needed to go; I have seen many persons who suffer from dementia in my line of work, and I would be surprised if she made it another year as an active head coach.

    A good number of people (including the guy I work with) have said variations on “With all that she’s done for this university, Pat deserves to pick and choose the time that she leaves.” And while I agree that Pat has done a tremendous work for UT, and generated much good will (and has become, in her own way, the Robert Neyland of women’s basketball), Dave Hart has a responsibility to the entire athletic department — and university — not just one person or program. Look at what happened with Penn State, or Florida State, or Grambling, when their head football coaches stayed long past their “shelf life”: there is a decline in the program that is harmful to the university and the program (and I’m not even referring to the Jerry Sandusky matter).

    Dave Hart, not being part of the Tennessee “family” when he came here, was probably in the best position to have that difficult discussion and make that hard call on Pat Summitt. Would another AD, one with much more of a history with UT (say, Philip Fulmer, who has been mentioned in the past as a potential AD here), have been able to make the tough decision that needed to be made? It is sort of a no-win situation: either people will say that Tennessee made a mistake by firing “a legend who changed the face of her sport,” as mentioned above; or if Pat had been allowed to stay on and deteriorate in public, people would be saying how Tennessee kept someone around who should have been retired years before. It’s a bad place to be, either way; but, hey, that’s why Dave Hart is paid the big bucks, right?

    • norcalvol says :

      If Dave Hart indeed decided that Pat Summitt had to retire because of her condition, or persuaded her to consider that option leading to her decision to step down, I fully agree that that was the correct and proper decision. I have had many conversations with many people regarding her medical condition (my father had it, although it was not an ‘early onset’ situation, but it certainly drove many hard decisions made by the family).

      The main point of my article was more along the lines of the unfortunate chain of events that created an undesirable public perception, one that pitted the word of the University (Hart et al.) vs. Summitt as painted by the media jumping to conclusions before Summitt’s subsequent statement was released. I think that is what the majority of people around the US will remember, unfortunately.

      • rockytop78 says :

        Oh yes, I absolutely agree that UT has been painted in a bad light, and is something that many folks will remember about us badly long into the future — irrespective what the final outcome of the litigation may be.

        It is sometimes an unfortunate consequence of lawsuits like this — that one or the other party uses the media to seize the moral high ground for strategic litigation purposes (for example, influencing the potential jury pool, or trying to obtain a better settlement). And the media, of course, are more than happy to put it all out there, because that’s what sells newspapers/television time.

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