Making the Case: Why John Gilbert is the Right Fit For Tennessee's AD Role

Tennessee leadership is currently looking for a new athletic director. Here is the case for one of their top candidates, ECU AD, John Gilbert.
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The Tennessee Athletic Department is currently looking for a new athletic director to replace the retiring Phillip Fulmer. Several candidates have emerged as early candidates to replace the retiring Tennessee legend. This piece will examine the case for and against one of those candidates, current East Carolina Athletic Director, John Gilbert.

Matt: 

Brandon went very in-depth on all that you need to know about Gilbert's history in his portion of the piece below. I will not go as in-depth on his career achievements, however, there are some key pieces to note about Gilbert. Gilbert's time at Tennessee under Dave Hart is a black eye, for obvious reasons, but I will say this; I have worked in several different jobs in my life from the restaurant industry to the health care field, and I have my own short comings, as most do, but I do not want to be judged for the shortcomings of my boss. Obviously, Gilbert and Hart worked hand in hand, but I do not think he should be discredited as a candidate because of his former boss. Gilbert shares several ties with Rick Barnes, who despite last night's blowout loss to Florida, is currently leading the most productive major sports team at the University. More importantly, Tennessee is at a major cross roads, and he knows how the game works in Knoxville. The Tennessee administration appears to be in good hands with Donde Plowman and Randy Boyd. Gilbert's time as a long-time administrator shows that he is more than qualified for the job. Students have excelled under his guidance, which is another key piece to not. Gilbert has worked with various administrations across the Southeast, and he has a great rapport with many influential people. He is a favorite in the clubhouse, and he will be tough to beat for this job. The one other thing to note about Gilbert is he has only made one hire to a major sport at ECU with Mike Houston. Houston's tenure has been rough, but he was a great hire at the time given his success, in my opinion. I have shared my thoughts on Mark Ingram earlier, and I do not believe Tennessee can go wrong with either candidate at this point. 

Brandon:

Gilbert is currently the athletic director at East Carolina. Gilbert joined the Pirates’ program in December of 2018, where he was immediately thrust into a coaching search. The first major decision that Gilbert had to make was hiring a new football coach for ECU. He settled on Mike Houston, who had previously had great success at James Madison, playing for one FCS title and winning another. Houston currently represents the only head coaching hire to a revenue sport that Gilbert been personally responsible for. During his tenure with ECU, Gilbert has also overseen projects that saw extensive renovations to the ECU football and basketball facilities. Prior to serving as the athletic director at East Carolina, Gilbert spent time as the athletic director at Southern Miss, a job he took in January of 2017. Gilbert came to Hattiesburg from Tennessee, where he served under former Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart from 2011-2017, and before that under Hart at Alabama from 2009-2011. Gilbert had worked a total of 17 years in the athletic department at Alabama before leaving for Knoxville with Hart.

One of the reasons that Gilbert is considered such a strong choice for Tennessee job is the fact that he does have previous experience as an athletic director. He is familiar with what will be demanded from this role thanks to his time with the Pirates and Golden Eagles. Gilbert is also familiar with Tennessee and the situations in Knoxville. He was on staff in the Volunteer athletic department for seven years. Gilbert already has relationships with many of the people he will need to work with should he return to Knoxville. Furthermore, Gilbert has been involved in previous football coaching searches at Tennessee, and he has also conducted his own search at East Carolina, one that came immediately after he was hired. It is also worth noting that Tennessee basketball coach Rick Barnes has given his support to Gilbert. Apart from working in the athletic department when Barnes was hired to Tennessee, Gilbert and Barnes are also both graduates of Lenoir Rhyne. Barnes has already strongly supported Gilbert.

While Gilbert does have experience, an exceptional amount of it is tied directly to former Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart. Gilbert served under Hart at Alabama, and then came with him to Tennessee. Gilbert served his entire time at Tennessee under Hart before leaving for the Southern Miss job, which saw him leave Knoxville shortly before Hart retired. Hart had himself been the long-time athletic director at East Carolina, and he was brought in to fill an advisory position there in 2018. Hart was instrumental in the Pirates hiring Gilbert as their new athletic director. While the close ties to Hart led to much of Gilbert’s experience, it is difficult to find many Volunteer fans with much good to say about Hart’s time in Knoxville. Hart came in following the aftermath of the Derek Dooley hiring for Tennessee football. He fired Dooley and ultimately hired Butch Jones to Tennessee. Hart also hired Cuanzo Martin to coach Tennessee basketball, then handled Martin’s contract situation so poorly that Martin left to go to Cal after a successful NCAA Tournament run. Hart then hired Donnie Tyndall, whom he had to fire less than a year later due to NCAA violations after a poor season. Hart did manage to hire Rick Barnes to Tennessee to replace Tyndall after he had been fired by Texas, but the hiring record and running of the Tennessee athletic department was hardly successful or exemplary under Hart, the regime Gilbert worked in. Perhaps the most noteworthy moment in Dave Hart’s tenure at Tennessee was when he relieved legendary Lady Vols coach Pat Summit of her duties after her diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Summit announced her retirement after this decision from Hart, which ended the career of one of the greatest coaches in any sport, ever.

So, all of Gilbert’s experience at Tennessee, and the overwhelming majority of his experience period, is under one of the most reviled figures in recent Tennessee history. For better or worse, Gilbert was part of an athletic department that oversaw an unsuccessful, tumultuous, and rarely successful portion of Tennessee athletic history. The only major hire Gilbert has made on his own, Mike Houston, is also sitting at a record of 7-14 at the end of his second season at East Carolina. There are also concerns about the extensive amount of time that Gilbert worked for Alabama. After the issues with Pruitt and Hart in the past, many Volunteer fans are wary of anyone with extensive time spent in the Crimson Tide program.

Gilbert has decades of experience working in athletic departments, and he has past experience working at Tennessee. However, Gilbert has only been an athletic director for three years of his career, making just a single hire for a revenue sport. To Gilbert’s credit, that hire was made immediately after he was hired at ECU, the same situation he would find himself in at ECU. That coach is also currently sitting at a .333 winning percentage after two years. Gilbert has worked at Tennessee, but it was in a regime that made far more poor decisions that it did good ones. Gilbert has the support of the most recognizable coach currently at Tennessee; however, he is unlikely to ever negotiate another contract with that coach. John Gilbert is certainly one of the top candidates for UT leadership, though closer examination reveals each strength for Gilbert seems to be directly offset by a concern in the same area. It will be interesting to see how much consideration Gilbert is given.