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Monson: If Chris Hill keeps his job, he has to do it better

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Gordon Monson

By Gordon Monson

Tribune columnist

First published Jul 02 2013 03:15PM
Updated Dec 7, 2013 11:34PM

Chris Hill went before reporters Tuesday morning, alongside the investigators of the University of Utah swim scandal and school president David Pershing, and for the first time addressed his role in the now-infamous athletics department screw-up. And all the apologists out there can save it. Hill did mess this thing over in a big way.

He called one of his blunders "my big mistake." That was the one where he didn’t act when he should have after Ute swim coach Greg Winslow got in a fight while he was drunk and out of control. Winslow punched his assistant Charlie King outside a bar — just a single bit of evidence of the coach’s alcohol-abuse problem that had a hugely detrimental effect on an already troubled program. It’s a program that had experienced claims by athletes and athletes’ parents of a coach subjecting those swimmers to physical and psychological abuse.

Alan Sullivan, one of the investigators, said it this way: "It’s hard for us to understand why the athletics department would choose to retain Winslow as coach after he physically assaulted his assistant coach Charlie King in a drunken rage in July 2011. We think Winslow should have been terminated. … The department failed in its duty to the athletes in that regard."

Sullivan added: "We don’t believe Chris Hill paid attention to the problem."

And Hill agreed.

"There’s no reason I shouldn’t have taken a look at that more deeply," he said. "And I know if I’d looked at it more deeply and knew what was going on, I knew what I would have done."

But he did nothing.

Asked why he did nothing, he repeated that it was a mistake: "No excuses."

And he said he was really sorry.

So was Pershing, the man who could have fired Hill but decided to keep him. Pershing apologized, too, to the athletes in the swim program who had been affected adversely by Winslow’s behavior and expressed distress at Hill’s lack of action.

"I’m disappointed that Chris Hill did not exercise sufficient oversight of the associate athletic director who had responsibility for the swimming program," he said. "Specifically, given the seriousness of the complaints about coach Winslow, I would have expected Chris to follow up frequently and seriously with the associate AD."

He did not, and Winslow continued to coach at the school.

Pershing labeled the episodes within the program "painful events," and added that the school would "strengthen the oversight of our athletic programs to make sure nothing like this ever occurs again."

The entire news conference was an embarrassment for Hill, who was raked by investigators and the president for his missteps. And he was emotional, calling the wellbeing of the school’s student-athletes the "core" of his administrative philosophy.

He apologized to Utah’s other coaches, who try to attract the kind of talent that will make their individual programs successful, for allowing events to transpire that publicly put that core at the university into question.

Either Hill is Laurence Olivier or he was sincere about his contrition.

The AD’s tone was perfect for the occasion.

His voice shook. The plumbing in his eyes backed up a moment he later referred to as the point where "I was losing it." He looked ashen. And he seemed sorry, like a man who knew he was lucky to still have his job. More importantly, he acted like a suddenly humbled administrator who had learned from his mistakes and who needed to do his job better.

In truth, he’ll have no real choice. Under the new recommendations coming out of the swim mess, backed now by Pershing, it was announced that Hill will have two empowered babysitters, one on his left and one on his right, who will track separately the behavior of coaches and the responses of athletes under Hill’s watch, keeping a vigilant eye on the way student-athletes are treated and attended to by administrators and coaches.

Pershing said Hill will have no control over the dogs on the watch.

Other recommendations coming from the investigative committee are that coaches will have behavioral standards to follow and those standards must be enforced. Hill said the details of those expectations will be specific enough to go down to the level of how coaches respond when, say, an athlete is late for practice. Coaches also should have in place for them treatment scenarios, or consequences, in the case of alcohol or substance abuse.

As for allegations of physical and psychological abuse, the investigative committee was a bit vague on how all that went down. In a summary of the investigative report, it read: "With a limited number of possible exceptions in 2007-09, Winslow does not appear to have physically abused student-athletes."

A limited number? Isn’t one enough to fire the coach? A single example comes from 2010 when Winslow grabbed an athlete by the neck and pushed him against a wall.

Hill said he took action, telling Winslow to "knock off" some of his excessive drills, and investigators seemed to be satisfied that those drills ended. Psychological abuse, on the other hand, is the area where new attention supposedly will be paid.

The report said investigators found no evidence of racism from Winslow and no accounts of sexual relations with students.

Whether the committee uncovered everything it should have, whether it found the truth, everything that actually took place, is unknown.

But what is significant is something it did uncover and iterated and reiterated: that a powerful administrator like Hill, who has so many coaches, and more importantly student-athletes under his watch, has to keep prudent watch always. He has to know what’s going on in all of his programs.

It’s easy for the university, and maybe investigators, to blame guys like Winslow and Pete Oliszczak, the associate athletic director over swimming, both of whom have been fired. But what happens in Utah’s athletic department ultimately is Chris Hill’s responsibility. He’s the man who has to make sure his "core" is being properly attended to. His student-athletes have to be safe and confident that they won’t be abused, physically or psychologically or in any other way, by mentors placed over them by administrators. That comes first — even over winning.

Asked if he considered resigning during the fiasco, Hill said: "No. … I know what I did. I know what I could do better. If I thought I was in the way of having things be successful, I wouldn’t do [this job]."

Two things are clear: He still has that job and he needs to do it much better.

GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.

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