Tennessee coaches went on the defensive Tuesday after recent allegations that they’re part of a culture that has allowed sexual assaults to become commonplace.
Everyone of Tennessee’s 16 head coaches attended a press conference that lasted more than an hour in response to a Title IX lawsuit that was filed by six unidentified women against the university, alleging that Tennessee has created a “hostile sexual environment.”
“Can we do better?” Tennessee football coach Butch Jones said. “Yes, we can all do better, any team, company or organization looks to improve but I do know this: we have very good people. We have prideful individuals that love being at the University of Tennessee and representing the University of Tennessee.”
Having every head coach present is thought to be unprecedented by Tennessee. After speaking very little on the campus culture since the lawsuit was filed, most coaches were willing to weigh in.
“This is one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen,” basketball coach Rick Barnes said. “A group of head coaches have come together and wanted to do this without anything from the administration to set this up. I think it really speaks volumes about my counterparts here and how much we love the University of Tennessee.
“There’s a lot of things, bad publicity and things being written out there, we know it’s there. We have to deal with it everyday in our job. But the one reason we want to do this is we realize we have some great leaders here.”
Tennessee’s coaches had to be somewhat careful with what they said because legal proceedings are still pending. However, they could speak generally about what life is like as a student. Barnes disagreed, vehemently, that Tennessee should be cast as a school that goes light on sexual assault issues.
“We don’t want the stereotype that there’s something out there that’s not true,” the first-year Tennessee basketball coach said. “It’s not perfect now and it’s never going to be perfect but the fact is, the University of Tennessee’s athletic department is as good as I’ve ever seen anywhere that I’ve ever been. When we look at what’s going on, we have to stand up and tell you the good side too.”
Several coaches said they constantly educate their players about how to avoid bad situations. However, there was also a defensive tone at times.
“If you want to go back 20 years and find incidents then I would imagine you could look at a lot of schools like Tennessee and come up with a similar story,” Tennessee softball co-head coach Karen Weekly said. “I think that’s what’s happened here and that’s the part I feel is unfair.”
Tennessee women’s golf coach Judi Pavon also voiced her displeasure.
“It’s really frustrating,” she said. “I’ve been here for 18 years and women have never been treated better than they are now.”
Tennessee’s football program is at the center of the investigation. It was the most often mentioned in the Title IX lawsuit.
“Everything is about the alleged victims,” Jones said. “We take that very, very seriously. We hurt for them. It starts there first and foremost, but also, it’s not who we are. We have great players in our football program. We have great individuals in our entire athletic department. We have a very good culture in place.
“That’s why I said we are going to defend our culture. We have good people and they’re embarrassed by it. They’re upset about it. They know it’s not who we are.”
For the Vols, the press conference was clearly about showing solidarity as much as anything else. It’s been a trying month. Since the lawsuit was first reported, Tennessee has had two former players and an early enrollee recruit arrested on serious charges.
“If we didn’t feel comfortable and we didn’t have confidence in this athletic department of each other in every individual sport,” Jones said. “We wouldn’t be sitting here.”