Adams leaves Georgia on his terms

semerson@macon.comJune 29, 2013 

University of Georgia President Michael Adams.

ATHENS -- Michael Adams enjoyed the spotlight as much as any major university president, never caring if it meant controversy. And yet he is leaving his job quietly, cleaning out his office Friday without fanfare and spending Sunday, his official final day, at his lake house.

In a way, that is his final victory as Georgia’s president.

Adams never quieted or convinced his critics. He just outlasted them. He retired at a time of his choosing, and his replacement was his understudy.

The fact Adams lasted this long is his own jab at those who wanted him out 10 years ago, after he forced out perhaps the school’s most popular figure in its most visible endeavor -- athletics. Although the words “sports” and “athletics” don’t appear in his official Georgia bio, much of Adams’ legacy at the school is related to it.

The relationship between Adams and athletics was often a tumultuous one. But as Adams departs, Georgia sports feature his imprint and by most measures are in solid shape.

“We are infinitely better shape in athletics than we were 16 years ago,” Adams said.

As he leaves, Adams is unapologetic on some matters and unwilling to reflect on others, particularly, the most high-profile battle of his tenure.

Many fans will never forgive Adams for making Vince Dooley, the former football head coach, retire as athletics director before Dooley wanted to leave. The two never have made amends.

Adams takes a deep breath before answering whether the situation could have been handled any different.

“Well you know, I just, I haven’t talked about that, and I’m not going to,” Adams said. “Personnel situations are always tough. That was over a decade ago. I did what I thought was in the best interests of the university, and I still feel that way today.”

He also demurred when asked if anything more could have been done to explain his position.

“I just don’t have any comment on it,” he said.

Adams is more expansive when he’s asked what his legacy for Georgia athletics should be. He calls the past 16 years “one of the best times in the history of UGA athletics.” He points to 57 SEC championship and 25 national championships. The athletics department is quite healthy financially, with nearly $70 million in a reserve fund. The academic bench marks -- graduation rates, APR -- are also well above average.

“I don’t think I by any means did all of that myself,” Adams said. “But I think I created a climate where doing things right and doing things extremely well were expected. And I think we’ve all benefitted by that.”

That major hiccup came in the early 2000s when the men’s basketball program, under Jim Harrick, was revealed to have committed a number of embarrassing violations, including the basketball class taught by Jim Harrick Jr. (Sample test question: How many points is a 3-pointer?) Adams pushed for Harrick’s hiring, according to Dooley, who preferred Mike Brey.

In a recent book, “History and Reminisces of the University of Georgia,” Dooley spent 26 pages detailing his interactions with Adams. Dooley wrote that Adams was “hands-on, controlling and (some say) egotistical.”

But as Adams steps down, Dooley and his supporters are largely holding fire. Dooley’s statement last year upon Adams’ retirement announcement said it was time for the school to “unite under new leadership” but also “commended” Adams on his service.

College Football Hall of Famer Bill Stanfill, one of Dooley’s former star players, was a vocal Adams critic when his former coach was forced out. This week, however, he shrugged it off.

“I don’t want to say anything negative,” Stanfill said. “But it’s time. Let him retire. Let him move on.”

The Dooley decision is the most controversial of Adams’ tenure. It wasn’t the most painful.

Damon Evans succeeded Dooley as athletics director, and in late June of 2010, Adams had just bestowed a raise and extension on Evans. Then came an infamous drunk driving arrest, and salacious details that came with it, leading to Evans’ removal.

“As far as executing a decision, that was the most difficult because it touched so many people,” Adams said. “You know, in a heartfelt way. I have a lot of respect for Damon. I hope he finds himself back in the business at some point. But again, there are just certain expectations that you have to have at levels like that. He made a serious mistake, he paid a high price, and I think he will tell you that he and I remain friends today.”

Asked if the two are still in touch, Adams answered, “Yes.”

The current athletics director, Greg, McGarity, has seen Adams as a delegator, not only in athletics but other parts of the university.

“I am not aware of any type of working relationship other than the one we’ve had for the past three years. What people say, or what they believe, all I know is what happened the last three years,” McGarity said, after his final meeting with Adams on Wednesday. “As I told him (Wednesday), he’s just been a phenomenal boss.”

There have been other controversial policies. The school changed the locations for football tailgates, much to the consternation of some fans. Georgia and Florida stopped calling their football game “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party,” although many fans still refer to it as that.

Adams also has overseen a UGA police department that has a lengthy arrest record of athletes. It has been part of a larger effort to cut down on underage bad behavior, ensnaring regular students, as well.

And then there’s drug-testing, which has the harshest punishments in the SEC. It puts the football program at a competitive disadvantage, but Adams still thinks it’s the right thing, because it leaves them better off when they leave the school.

“We try to enforce the law. We respect the law in the state of Georgia. And we try to set reasonable expectations and standards for our athletes,” Adams said. “But we do so because we believe that’s in their best interest.

“I don’t think winking and nodding at that sort of thing does the student-athlete, especially the student-athlete who is going to be a professional. It lowers their value in the marketplace as they go into the professional sports world. We want to prepare young people to do that.”

From a compliance perspective, Georgia also has a good record. The Harrick debacle is the only major blemish.

“We did have a couple of situations but it’s been over a decade since we’ve had anything more than a short-sighted, secondary violation here and there. And frankly you’re going to have some of those given the difficulty of the rule book nowaday,” Adams said. “But there are few if any cleaner programs in the country. I think the current athletic director is as committed to that as I am. And as important as the wins and championships and all of those things are, doing it right is the first priority for the student-athletes and administrators. And I think our record there is pretty strong.”

At different times, Adams had interest in becoming the president of the NCAA. A few years ago the job instead went to Mark Emmert, who has become a national punching bag. So does Adams look at Emmert and say, there but for the grace of God go I?

He chuckles.

“They’ve had a lot of bad luck with the various situations, with Ohio State and Miami,” he said, then said Emmert is a good man in a tough situation.

Even after retirement, Adams will remain involved with the NCAA, serving on the enforcement committee. There’s a good chance he might pop up in an advisory role at some point, whether it’s at the SEC or NCAA level or even at Georgia.

After taking some time off, Adams plans to teach a political science class at Georgia, work three days a week and leave the rest for time with his grandchildren.

But he says he’ll remain visible at Georgia, attending football games, but also a lot more basketball, one of his first loves. He and his wife Mary will also try to make it to more volleyball matches.

“I suspect you’ll us at those places as much or more. But it will be in a different light,” Adams said. “It’s time for somebody else to lead the charge. We’ll be Bulldog fans forever. But the roles have changed. And right now that’s a good thing.”

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