Mike Hamilton can still remember the question. It was 2008, and Hamilton, then the athletic director at Tennessee, was stumped when his wife, Beth, offered a hypothetical situation one night during dinner: If he had all the money in the world, what would he do with it? The soft-spoken man best known for his newsworthy tenure as head of Tennessee's athletic department thought for a moment before offering an answer that came from the heart. "I told Beth that I enjoyed what I was doing," said Hamilton, "but I really wanted to go into a deeper relationship with helping solve the orphan crisis in the world."
Today, after 25 years in college athletics that included stops at Clemson and Wake Forest, Hamilton's newest venture is a testament to his personal goal. Last October -- four months after his sudden resignation as UT's athletic director -- Hamilton put collegiate athletics behind him and became the president of U.S. Operations for Blood:Water Mission, a non-profit organization based in Nashville that addresses Africa's clean water and HIV/AIDs crises, two of the leading causes of orphanage in sub-Saharan Africa.
A new path emerged for Hamilton after the embattled AD resigned his post at Tennessee last June amid NCAA investigations into both the Vols' football and basketball programs. His eight-year tenure at Tennessee included the decision to force longtime football coach Phillip Fulmer -- who led the Vols to the 1998 national championship -- out the door in 2008. Hamilton also hired basketball coach Bruce Pearl before firing him last March following NCAA violations, a situation that arguably cost Hamilton the last of his support at Tennessee. But the hire of Lane Kiffin as Fulmer's successor might have caused the biggest splash of Hamilton's career. Despite hopes that Kiffin might resurrect the Vols' program, the coach stayed in Knoxville for only one season before leaving to replace Pete Carroll at USC in January 2010, a decision that sent Hamilton on a search to eventually land current Tennessee coach Derek Dooley, the Vols' third football coach in three seasons.
Criticism mounted as NCAA investigations crept onto campus, and when Hamilton opted to leave the university in June, he noted the "challenges and frustrations" of his final chapter at Tennessee, saying "in a way [my resignation] was inevitable." He echoes that sentiment today. "The craziness of the last two years [at Tennessee] was draining on my ability to be the kind of husband and father that I want to be," Hamilton said. Shortly after his exodus, Tennessee women's athletic director Joan Cronan told the Knoxville News Sentinel that Hamilton was a "man of integrity" and "the university lost a good person" despite the tumultuous ending to his UT career.
Instead of seeking more work in athletics, Hamilton tapped into another passion. Once in charge of overseeing operations for Tennessee's $100 million athletic department, Hamilton now generates revenue for Blood:Water's fundraising efforts in Africa. Hamilton says more than 325 million Africans live without access to clean water every day, while 22 million of the world's 33 million HIV-positive individuals reside in sub-Saharan Africa. Blood:Water offers aid to the region by repairing wells and offering other support for clean water while providing clinics, treatment and support groups for HIV-positive natives.
"I think all Americans should be called first to help our fellow man, but I don't believe that our work should end at the city limits anymore," said Hamilton, who is based in Nashville at Blood:Water's headquarters. "We're based in a worldwide economy. So why should our care, concern and charity work stop at the city limits?"
Hamilton's dedication for the cause developed soon after that initial 2008 conversation when he, Beth and their two oldest children, Madison and Matt, who were adopted domestically at birth, began considering adoption from the sub-Saharan African region. The family traveled to Ethiopia, home to more than six million orphans, in July 2009 and returned to the States with three siblings orphaned due to Ethiopia's HIV/AIDs crisis: two boys, seven-year-old Nate and four-year-old Kiya, and a girl, five-month-old Kalu, who is HIV positive.
In the children's native Ethiopian community, Kalu's name means "get the word out," and Hamilton couldn't ignore the path unfolding before him. After hearing about the organization from a friend, the family became donors for Blood:Water Mission and began raising money to provide grants for others interested in adoption in Africa. They hosted a fundraiser each of the last two years in Knoxville, raising more than a half-million dollars in aid. Hamilton even traveled to Kenya and Rwanda in January 2011 to view for himself the dilapidated communities in sub-Saharan nations, many of which suffer from broken water wells, dangerous road conditions and the overall stigma attached to those who have HIV/AIDs that often discourages treatment.
The first-hand experience solidified Hamilton's relief efforts and helped him decide to enter the non-profit arena and join Blood:Water full-time. "We believe that Americans can make a difference, and it can be done in small steps," said Hamilton. "One dollar will provide fresh water for one year for somebody in Africa. One dollar will provide care for somebody with HIV/AIDs in Africa for one day. We just want people to join us in this equation and hope that we can affect change."
The new direction has given Hamilton time to recharge, but it's also given him time to reflect on a career in athletics that ended sooner than he expected. "It's strange not going to ball games on Saturdays," admitted Hamilton. "But this has given me an opportunity to reconnect with my family, to be with some of our friends." The former AD's closet is still full of orange, and he continues to maintain an arms-length relationship with several friends made during his time with the Vols.
The legacy Hamilton left at Tennessee continues to serve as fodder for radio talk shows and sports bar debates in Knoxville. Among the most discussed headlines was Hamilton's choice to fire Fulmer in 2008. Fulmer had been the Vols' head coach since 1992, the same year Hamilton joined Tennessee's athletic department, and compiled a 152-52-1 record at UT along with the 1998 national title, but the Vols finished with a losing record in two of the coach's final four seasons. "I don't think it'd surprise anybody to say that the most difficult decision I was involved in was the institute's decision to make a change in football," said Hamilton. "My tenure at UT coincided with Phillip being named head coach, and then having to be placed in the position of having to make the decision that was made in 2008 was gut-wrenching and a horrible thing to be involved in."
Kiffin's decision to leave for USC after 13 months thrust Tennessee into further turmoil, but Hamilton understood. "That for him was a dream job, and I don't believe you should ever hold one back when they have the opportunity to take a dream job situation, as hard as it was for the University of Tennessee and him having only been there for 13 months," Hamilton said. The hardest decisions were often the ones that didn't make the front page. From UT coaches suffering through family issues to student-athletes attempting suicide, situations that took place behind closed doors did more to humanize these larger-than-life sports figures than anything else in Hamilton's eyes. "I think in athletics sometimes we lose sight of the fact that these are people who are in many ways just very normal folks who happen to be in positions of notoriety because of a sport," Hamilton said.
Hamilton is no longer in that position, but he's getting the chance to make a difference in the world through Blood:Water. Though he entertained joining other athletic departments, including one in particular that he admits to considering "very seriously" but won't talk about specifically, Blood:Water was a cause that was gradually developing into an extension of his life. "This was a natural transition for us because it's part of the DNA of our family," Hamilton said. Hamilton will now travel to Africa three or four times a year hoping to add to the legacy Blood:Water is building in the region. Since the organization was created seven years ago, Blood:Water has completed projects in more than 1,000 African communities.
Hamilton hasn't ruled out one day returning to college athletics, but for now he's focused on Blood:Water. "Never say never," Hamilton said. "If the right opportunity comes up, I might look at that down the road. But I can tell you I come to work every day here with a passion that I believe in very strongly and I believe is making an impact in the world. I love doing that, and I could see myself doing this for quite some time."