ATHENS -- A few years ago, Jere Morehead was teaching a freshman seminar, a class of a few first-year students at Georgia. Sitting in that class was a future Olympic gold medalist, swimmer Allison Schmitt, and a young football player named Aaron Murray.
“You could tell then that they were both special student-athletes,” Morehead said. “Very focused, determined, mature for their age when they were in my seminar.”
That wasn’t the first brush Morehead had with future sports figures. Years ago, when he was a young law professor, he taught Mark Lewis, a Bulldogs football player who today is the executive vice president of the NCAA.
“I probably have his picture somewhere in this office,” Morehead said Wednesday, scanning the office reserved for the president of the University of Georgia.
The room was occupied for more than a decade by Michael Adams, the outspoken lightning-rod president, who was never afraid to get involved in sports at Georgia, the SEC or NCAA level.
Morehead is a contrast to Adams in style, not as quotable (at least not yet), and treading carefully on most issues. People at Georgia who know him say he’s also quieter behind the scenes than Adams, more likely to listen and help look for consensus.
But in a half-hour interview Morehead made clear that he won’t always sit on the sidelines when it comes to issues in athletics.
“I’m not a back-bencher kind of personality,” he said. “But you don’t seek out leadership roles. The leadership roles are brought upon you based upon the record that you’ve established.”
As he begins his job, Morehead is remaining deferential. He chose his words carefully on some hot-button national issues and deferred to athletics director Greg McGarity on topics within the Georgia athletics department.
Adams was known for walking through the locker room after football games, shaking hands with players and coaches. Morehead said he hasn’t decided on his pregame and postgame routines; those will depend on his schedule.
But Morehead does not come to the job without credentials. From 2003-10 he served as Georgia’s faculty rep for athletics, a job that requires attendance at a number of SEC and NCAA events. That’s when he got to know football head coach Mark Richt, and the two have remained in touch since.
“On a personal level you do get to know your faculty rep pretty good, so through that process and beyond, even though he moved into the provost position, the relationship was already there,” Richt said. “So there’d be times we’d see each other socially or some type of Bulldog event. Or there might be a question that comes up where I might pick up the phone and give him a call. So that’s been a real good relationship.”
Morehead grew up in Lakeland, Fla., then moved to Georgia as a teenager. His father was a big baseball fan, so Morehead grew up rooting for the Atlanta Braves.
“Before they became a good baseball team,” he said.
It wasn’t until he got to law school at Georgia that he really became a college football fan (he did his undergraduate work at Georgia State). His first year after law school, Morehead became an assistant U.S. Attorney at the Department of Justice, but that happened to be when Herschel Walker arrived at Georgia.
“So I managed to travel back to Athens constantly during that first year, which probably got me in a little bit of trouble from time to time, with my other responsibilities,” Morehead said, smiling.
Since rising in the hierarchy at Georgia, Morehead said he has often traveled to away football games, a responsibility he knows he’ll have more of now. Fundraising will be a big part of his job, and there are funds to be raised from fans.
On other athletics matters, Morehead is starting out cautious. The school’s drug policy for student-athletes is one exception. Morehead reiterated his support for a stringent testing and discipline policy and said he will ask fellow SEC presidents to adopt a uniform standard.
“I think every president and every chancellor in the Southeastern Conference should have the same sort of standards that we have,” Morehead said. “But I would not be in favor of the university lowering our standards. As Coach Richt put it, I would be in favor of other schools coming up to where our standards are on this subject.”
Speaking shortly before the NCAA announced its ruling on Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, Morehead was careful not to weigh in when asked about the perception of inconsistent rulings by the NCAA.
“It could be that different facts lead to different outcomes,” he said. “And so I haven’t studied each case closely enough to say that each case is like the other case; it’s hard for me to tell you that the outcomes have been inconsistent.”
But eventually, Morehead may feel a bit more empowered to speak out.
“In the first year or two, in a role like this one, you have some time to sit back and learn and listen,” Morehead said. “There are a lot of great presidents and chancellors in the SEC that I’m looking forward to getting to know better, to learn from them, and I’m hoping I’ll be able to contribute something to those conversations, as well.”