Michael Adams leaves presidency with big imprint on UGA sports

In his 16 years as president of the University of Georgia, Michael Adams’ influence on athletics at the school has been felt, as he put it, by keeping “a hand on the rudder.”

That has made for some smooth sailing as well as some choppy times during his tenure.

Georgia’s athletic revenue has grown from $25.7 million in 1997 when Adams became president to a projected $92.1 million for fiscal year 2013, and the Bulldogs have won 19 national titles in six sports during that time.

He had a messy parting of ways with athletic director Vince Dooley that enraged much of the Bulldog Nation and played a large role in the hiring of basketball coach Jim Harrick Sr., who resigned after four seasons following an academic scandal.

“I don’t have many regrets,” Adams said during an interview in his north campus office in his final weeks as president before his retirement on June 30. “You want to know what my biggest regret is? Not getting the final five yards against Alabama. To have gone out in the national championship game, and I felt that night that was the national championship game and I think the following events proved me right. I’m not sure I’m over that one yet.”

Adams was a regular presence in postgame football locker rooms and he takes pride in the two game balls he said the team gave to him during his final season as president after victories against Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl and versus Georgia Tech, a 42-10 thrashing.

“That’s about how it should be each year,” he said. “There’s nobody in the Georgia Nation who wants to beat Tech more than I do and they know that.”

Many in the Georgia Nation viewed Adams in an unfavorable light when he sent Dooley, the beloved former football coach, to retirement as athletic director earlier than he wanted.

Dooley worked for four other presidents, but his 40 years at Georgia ended in a very public squabble with his boss.

“Well, I guess the first thing I would say to you is that all that is over 10 years ago,” Adams said. “I just don’t think I’ve talked about it since then and I don’t think I’m going to.”

Adams, who will be succeeded by university provost Jere Morehead, will preside over his last Athletic Association board meeting as chairman this week in St. Simons before attending the annual Southeastern Conference meeting in Destin, Fla., next week for the final time as president.

He may be viewed locally by some through the prism of how he handled Dooley, but at the conference and national level, his role in athletics is viewed in a different light.

SEC commissioner Mike Slive said Adams has “been a significant voice nationally in matters of intercollegiate athletics. … There’s no doubt that he has made his mark as someone who understands intercollegiate athletics and was willing to speak out on issues. Obviously had some very significant assignments both at the conference level and at the national level.”

Adams served as chairman of the NCAA’s executive committee, represented the SEC on the Division I board of directors, served as chair of the SEC’s executive committee, as a member of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics and called for a football playoff in 2008.

“He’s made himself very knowledgeable and obviously he’s had a very significant tenure in terms of his years at Georgia, which gave him a significant tenure here,” said Slive, who says he’s turned to Adams for consultation during his 11 years as commissioner. “When he speaks on issues in the meetings, people listen carefully. When our presidents and chancellors meet, there are 14 leaders in the room, but he spoke about issues, he thought about issues, he was effective in communicating his points of view.”

Dooley, AD from 1979 to 1994, tried to be diplomatic in assessing Adams’ role in athletics at Georgia.

“I don’t really have much to say except that I appreciate his contribution and his interest in athletics,” Dooley said. “He had a real interest in intercollegiate athletics.”

Early in his presidency, Adams said that he spent less than 15 percent of his time on athletics.

The 15 percent mostly held true, he said, but the biggest exception came in 2009 when his friend, the late NCAA president Myles Brand, had pancreatic cancer and a dire prognosis.

“The Foundation Board and the Athletic Association Board were very good to me that year to allow me to do what I needed to do because I was both president of the University of Georgia and also helping to run the NCAA,” Adams said. “That 15 months, I think it was actually was the time where athletics took more of this job than at any other time.”

Adams was mentioned as a potential replacement for Brand after his death, but he remained at Georgia, where he saw a football program suffer its first losing season under coach Mark Richt in 2010 and then return to prominence with back-to-back trips to the SEC title game.

“I am proud of my association with this Athletic Association,” Adams said. “It has been for me more stress-relieving than stress-inducing. What I mean by that is the stack of papers you see on the corner of that desk over there, by the time they get here, there aren’t many easy ones because they’ve been back and forth between deans and vice presidents and other constituent groups and all. For most days in athletics it has been a stress reducer. As you know, I love the games. I love the contests. And when (wife) Mary and I would get there, you could just kind of feel the stress of the day draining away. There have been a few days where they have enhanced my stress, but 98 percent of my days here I’ve been able to be a fan and I like being a fan. And I expect to be a Georgia fan well into the future, as does Mary.”

Michael and Mary Adams were on vacation in Nashville, Tenn., during a long July 4 weekend in 2010 when he got a phone call while he was sitting in bed at the Hermitage Hotel.

Damon Evans, the athletic director who Adams picked to replace Dooley, had been arrested for DUI in Atlanta.

“We had just ordered breakfast in the room and it hadn’t yet come,” Adams said. “I finished the phone call. I looked over at Mary and said, ‘We’re going home.’ So we got in the car and drove to Athens and worked all weekend putting the pieces together.”

A woman who was not Evans’ wife was in the car that night.

Evans, the first African-American AD in the SEC and a senior administrator under Dooley, could not survive in what he called his dream job.

When Adams is pressed, the way things ended for Evans is what he said he regrets.

“I was very close to Damon,” Adams said. “I helped bring him along. I’m glad he’s now getting back into the sports world (heading a fundraising division with IMG College). Mary and I were close to the kids. The kids would come to the house periodically to see her. We were close to the whole family. So that was maybe the toughest weekend I’ve had here in sports.”

Adams said he views Evans’ six years as athletic director from 2004 to 2010 as a time when positive changes were implemented that remain in place today: strengthening academic advising, improving student recruitment of athletes and enhancing ticket operations.

“For me personally, I felt that it was a personal loss as well as a professional loss,” Adams said.

Adams had a role in big decisions impacting athletics in several hires, including Harrick.

They knew each other when both worked at Pepperdine University when Adams was a vice president and Harrick the head coach.

“He is a superstar in the making on the college presidents’ scene,” Harrick said in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution story after he was hired at Georgia in 1999.

Georgia was found to have committed major NCAA violations between 2001-03 during Harrick’s tenure that left Georgia on probation and required it to forfeit games. Former player Tony Cole’s allegations led to an NCAA investigation that found academic fraud and extra benefits. Georgia fired assistant Jim Harrick Jr. and decided to pull the Bulldogs from the SEC and NCAA tournaments.

“I said to coach Dooley, ‘Would you like for me to get Jim Harrick in the pool,” Adams said. “He said, ‘Yes. I think the better the pool, the better.’ We interviewed three finalists. Coach Dooley made a recommendation to me for whatever reasons. I think, and still think, that he and coach Harrick got along very well.”

Dooley’s first choice was then Delaware coach Mike Brey, who turned down the chance and eventually landed at Notre Dame. Harrick won the national title at UCLA in 1995 but was fired the next year over expense reports from a recruiting dinner that violated NCAA rules.

“Ultimately on decisions on the head basketball coach and the football coach, I make the decision only from the standpoint of that was my recommendation to the president,” Dooley said.

Adams said Dooley recommended Harrick twice, the second time after Harrick decided he wanted to stay at Rhode Island before changing his mind.

“I think the AD was involved in the hiring, he played the lead role in hiring Jim Harrick, not once but twice,” Adams said. “I think that I can document all that.”

Adams still calls Harrick “one of the best final-two-minute coaches that I’ve ever seen, and I know enough about basketball to know the difference. I regret what happened to him, but he made mistakes here at a level that would have made it impossible to stay whether I was making that decision or coach Dooley was making that decision. It was just obvious to both of us.”

Adams received a warm ovation from a Georgia alumni crowd at its UGA Day event Wednesday night in the Buckhead section of Atlanta. He was on a program that also included defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and men’s basketball coach Mark Fox.

“The way you build a great university is every time there’s an opening, you replace whoever’s leaving with somebody better,” Adams told the crowd. “I think we’ve done that in most cases. You never bat a thousand in personnel decisions, but my theory has been to hire the very best vice presidents and deans possible, which is the area I’m most responsible for, and the AD and the chief legal person, the chief PR person. And then you get out of the way. That’s what I’ve done. I’ve not micromanaged. I have not sat with each of them every week and told them what I wanted them to do.”

Time hasn’t healed the wounds for some.

Adams turned down Dooley’s request to have his contract extended again as athletic director in June of 2003, forcing him out a year later. Dooley requested four more years and later reduced that to two.

Adams had said in 2001 that Dooley’s contract would not be extended once it ended. He stayed on as a special assistant for fundraising at his regular salary of about $300,000.

Barbara Dooley, not known to hold back on much, still has raw feelings about how Adams treated her husband, who won 201 games, six SEC titles and a national championship in 25 years as football coach. Georgia teams won 23 national titles with Dooley as AD but also had six major infractions cases in 25 years.

“In my opinion, he has never said anything positive about Vince Dooley’s ability as the athletic director,” Barbara Dooley said. “He’s comparing all of these great things that have happened after Vince Dooley. I take personal offense to that. You can certainly print that.”

Adams’ decision — backed by the university system chancellor—brought about emails and petitions voicing discontent with the move and further strained already rocky relations between Adams and the UGA Foundation, which raised and managed private donations to the school. Foundation members tried to force Adams out and commissioned an audit of his spending habits and management.

Adams said he knew he would have an opportunity to name an athletic director at the proper time after becoming president.

“I didn’t come here with any hard and fast schedule on that,” he said. “I had been told by the previous president that he had extended coach Dooley’s contract and they had agreed that was going to be his last contract. So I kind of had three, four, five years, whatever was left remaining in mind. I didn’t come in here and start immediately changing anybody. I think vice presidents and deans and what all when you get a new president, you want to evaluate. ‘OK, where are the strong points, where are the weak points, etc.’ We did a lot of things right in athletics long before I got here. So I didn’t come with a whole set of predispositions. You sort of learn and evaluate on these things as you go.”

Adams and Dooley didn’t see eye-to-eye on the firing of football coach Jim Donnan and the signing of some basketball recruits.

Adams wanted Donnan gone, but Dooley objected after a 7-4 regular season in 2000. Adams at the time called it “an honest disagreement.”

Donnan had three years left on a contract that paid him a buyout of about $2.1 million.

After the firing, it became known that Adams had given Donnan a raise of about $250,000 in the summer of 1998 when he turned down an offer from North Carolina. Dooley and the athletic board did not know about the arrangement, but the board approved paying it.

“He was hands-on, controlling and (some say) egotistical,” Dooley wrote about Adams in his book “History and Reminiscences of the University of Georgia.”

Adams came to Georgia from Centre College in Danville, Ky., which had an enrollment of 970. He lost a bid for Congress as a Republican in 1980 and had worked on the staffs of Gov. Lamar Alexander and Sen. Howard Baker, both from Tennessee.

He was chair of the NCAA Division III president’s commission but didn’t have a background running a major-conference school like Georgia.

“There are a lot more zeroes in the budget here,” Adams said. “I sat for six years on the all presidents’ commission before I got here and it was dominated by I-A presidents. I had at least listened to and to some extent been conversant in many of those issues before I got here so I’m not sure I was quite as much a babe in the woods as some people may have thought.”

The power struggle between Adams and Dooley wasn’t a consideration when Greg McGarity pursued the athletic director job in the summer of 2010 at his alma mater after serving as a senior athletic administrator at Florida.

“Frankly, I didn’t want to know anything about it,” McGarity said. “It’s just irrelevant. It had no effect on me. It happened years ago. For me to come in with any preconceived thought or notions there would not have been fair to anyone.”

McGarity said a three-hour lunch meeting in New York when he was interviewed for the job put to rest any “preconceived attitudes.”

He keeps a napkin from the first meeting McGarity attended with Adams and Georgia athletes in the fall of 2010. McGarity scribbled on it some of what Adams said: Follow rules, go to class, stay out trouble.

Said McGarity: “He’s very, very clear on expectations. … It’s pretty simple.”

McGarity says Adams has been “extremely accessible” and that the common goals about athletics proper place on campus are clear.

“I think the academic interests are closer aligned with the athletic interest and vice versa right now than at any time since I’ve been here,” Adams said.

McGarity said Adams has let him do his job as he guides an Athletic Association that ranked 12th among public school athletic departments that showed a profit in 2010-11, according to one ESPN.com study.

“There’s no question he’s my boss,” McGarity said. “He’s in charge of everything under the University of Georgia banner. Not only athletics. He has let basically me run the department. … I think he has confidence in all of his cabinet members to run their department because as president he can’t. There’s so many balls to juggle in the air that there’s just no time to devote full-time to really any area.”

Richt, who replaced Donnan and is entering his 13th season as Bulldogs coach, said “the relationship I’ve had with President Adams has been very good.”

They met annually to talk about the program.

“He would say whatever he wanted to say and would allow me to voice anything I wanted to voice,” Richt said. “Mostly it was just conversations about being pleased about how things are going and if there were things that we needed to handle, we would handle them.”

Adams said he’s always been involved in five pivotal positions in athletics: the athletic director, and head coaches for football, men’s and women’s basketball and gymnastics.

“Those are five key positions that impact how this university is viewed almost daily,” Adams said. “I’ve treated most of those situations, not all, there are two or three exceptions that you know about, but I’ve treated most of those situations like I have the hiring of deans. … Well, I’ve done that on a couple, maybe more than a couple coaching or AD changes, but I only get in it at the last minute.”

When McGarity was searching for a new volleyball coach in 2010, he said Adams gave him a name of someone in the volleyball world to serve as a reference for candidates.

“That’s the value of someone so connected,” McGarity said.

Adams, who turned 65 in March on what he called his “Medicare birthday,” plans to take a year off from the university. He said he will spend time at his lake house and travel next year to Australia, New Zealand and California and may write books.

Then he plans to teach political science or political communication at UGA.

He will continue to have a hand in college athletics after his retirement.

“On the big issues of the country on higher ed in sports and higher ed academics, those are the kind of things I’m going to write about and still be involved in,” he told the crowd in Atlanta, “because I care deeply how this model which has existed now for about 130 years is perpetuated in this country going forward. We have to keep amateurism in collegiate sports.”

Adams will serve a three-year term on the NCAA Committee on Infractions and said he already has “two or three opportunities” to serve as a consultant.

“We’ve had our ups and downs here, but I’ve had a pretty good record of keeping things within the white lines,” he said. “I’m probably going to do some consulting in areas to help presidents with athletic issues, athletic board issues and also with general board issues. I’m going to write some in that area. That’s one of the areas that I think I have learned some things in.”

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