Seize those “Bernard King Moments” and Enjoy

I had the honor of speaking with Bernard King in NYC the night he broke the Madison Square Garden single-game scoring record of 54 points.

Given that UT’s basketball team is now ranked number one in the nation, it occurred to me that an excerpt from my new book about the previously untold story of my involvement in saving Bernard King’s college basketball career might be of interest to my readers . . .

Over the years, I have experienced many proud moments, but none greater than the rescue of an eighteen-year-old kid from the clutches of incompetent school administrators, misguided investigators from the National Collegiate Athletics Association, and unscrupulous basketball coaches smarting over the loss of a star athlete in a recruiting battle.

The story of Bernard King is a classic tale of a poor kid who used his exceptional talents as a basketball player as his ticket out of a New York City housing project in the heart of a ghetto. Even in his early years in high school, King became a magnet, drawing the attention of scores of college recruiters. Tennessee’s Stu Aberdeen was relentless in his attempts to persuade King to sign with the Volunteers, and he ultimately prevailed, much to the chagrin of the other recruiters.

King entered UT in the fall and made a smashing debut as a freshman starter with 40-plus points in the first game of the season. While the rising star was attracting great attention in Tennessee, some of the disgruntled recruiters who had lost the battle were quietly trying to convince the NCAA that King did not have the high school grades to be eligible to play at a Division I school. Somehow, they were able to secure a transcript that actually showed a grade point average below the required 2.0.

With that transcript in hand, the NCAA informed Tennessee officials, and the university’s president immediately directed that King be pulled from the lineup and that Howard Aldmon and I immediately go to New York to investigate. It was quickly a classic NCAA case of a star athlete being guilty until proven innocent.

Aldmon and I knew we were up against tremendous odds, given the presence of a transcript, the power of the NCAA, and the persistence of aggrieved recruiters from a couple of major colleges. We also knew we were walking into the lion’s den of public scrutiny, particularly with the New York City media. We took several precautions, tape recording every conversation with high school officials, working in tandem so that we had two witnesses to every action and conversation, and taking copious notes about everything we saw or did.

My background as a journalist was a great asset. While cooperative and friendly, the school officials were extremely cautious, volunteering nothing and qualifying answers with little detail. They knew that an aggressive media was also watching them. It typically took multiple follow-up questions to get even the most elementary fact on the table.

Such was the case with one of the major and most pivotal disclosures we were able to uncover in the three-day investigation. In answer to a direct question as to whether King had taken any evening or summer courses that may not have been reflected in the transcript that had been bootlegged to the NCAA, the high school officials looked at one another and then one of them stated that King had taken nine hours of courses over the summer between his junior and senior years. When asked why the passing grades in summer school had not been reflected on the transcript, they responded that it had apparently been an oversight. Never mind that the high school had previously certified to Tennessee officials that King had the requisite 2.0 average.

During our visit, we also discovered that some of King’s grades in the school’s official records had not been accurately reflected in the transcript. Some were higher, and some were lower. The net result was that at the end of the three days, school officials handed us an official, certified transcript reflecting exactly a 2.0 average. With tape recorders rolling, we asked repeatedly if the school officials were certain that the transcript being handed to us was a true reflection of King’s academic record. Yes, it was, they assured us.

Throughout the three days in New York City, we maintained close contact with Dr. Earl Ramer, the university’s longtime faculty chairman of the athletics board and a well-respected former two- time president of the NCAA. He advised us on every step we took, particularly on documentation that would be needed.

We left New York City for the return trip to Tennessee with mixed emotions, relieved yet anxious about the ordeal we had just experienced. Several times on the flight home, I was tempted to do my own calculations on the cumulative grade point average, but each time I decided to wait. Only after I was at home did I pull out a calculator and punch in the grades of all the courses taken by King. Then, as I hit the “total” button on the calculator, I held my breath for the result. When the screen displayed a 2.000000, I wanted to scream with joy. The next day a full, written report was hand carried to Dr. Ramer for submission to the NCAA. King returned to the basketball court, and immediately he again lit up the scoreboard.

King went on to become an All-American basketball star at the university and then became one of the dominant National Basketball Association players of his era. Aldmon and I were relentless in our search for the truth, and to this day I steadfastly believe that justice was done.

Over the years, members of our family have often heard the words “Bernard King moment” to describe a personal achievement. At age fifteen, grandson Blake exceeded expectations and made the varsity basketball team as a freshman. A few weeks later, our then eighteen-year-old grandson, Harris, was awarded a free trip to Yokohama, Japan, by winning a national competition in the popular card game Magic. Both succeeded against all odds. And in my retirement years, I have had the opportunity to watch grandson Ben achieve the 1,000-point club during his high school basketball career, to take pride in granddaughter Nicole earning her college degree and gaining multiple promotions in her first job, and marvel at youngest grandson Brady emerging as a starter offensively and defensively on his school football team.

-adapted from Journal of a Fast Track Life, Chapter 13, © 2018 Charles E. Smith. All rights reserved.

Always Do what You Say You’re Going to Do

Without any question, I strongly believe that integrity is the cornerstone of successful leadership in any environment. Would-be leaders who lack integrity are ticking time bombs. Their credibility is certain to crumble. They are destined to self-destruct.

My official chancellor picture on the UT Martin website.

However, there is another dimension of integrity that is often overlooked in leadership training. Stated simply, it is not enough for the leader alone to be a person of impeccable integrity; the entire organization must function in a way that supports and reinforces the leader’s commitment to integrity.

The importance of this point was brought home to me in a startling and revealing way in the early days of my second chancellorship, at UT Martin. At one of my weekly “dutch treat” luncheons –which I used to maintain open communications with faculty, students, alumni, and staff – a faculty member asked me a relatively simple question.

He wanted to know whether a faculty member who was promoted in rank would receive both a merit increase in salary and the promotion stipend that I had just instituted. (That campus had never given faculty any financial reward for promotion in rank.)

My answer was simply yes, with the added observation that anyone worthy of promotion in rank would clearly deserve a merit increase.

That luncheon occurred in June, shortly before our governing board acted on salaries for the next fiscal year. Seven months later, I received a long, hand-written letter from the faculty member who had asked me the question at the “dutch treat” luncheon. It was a letter I shall never forget.

In the very first paragraph the faculty member reminded me of his question and my answer and then quickly informed me that I had not done what I said the administration would do. He had been promoted but had received only the newly implemented promotion stipend. Not one cent of merit pay increase had been given to him.

I was shocked, dismayed, disappointed. My reaction was quick and forceful. A meeting of senior staff was promptly convened. The letter was shared with each staff member. I asked how it was possible that this could have happened, since every one of the senior staff had heard my response to the faculty member’s question.

The response I received from the senior administrator responsible for faculty raises shook me. I shall never forget his words: “Chancellor, we heard what you said, but we simply assumed that was just rhetoric at the podium.”

I was livid. My response was swift and clear. “Folks,” I said, “I am relatively new on this campus. You may not know me as you should. But let’s be clear about one thing: no matter how I say it – via policy, memo, or informally at the podium – I mean what I say, and I expect actions to be taken by staff that comply.”

The senior administrator then asked what I wanted done.

Should he direct the dean to correct the error and award the faculty member who wrote the letter the merit increase?

“The first thing I want you to do,” I told him, “is to provide me with a printout of all faculty who received promotions so that we may determine if additional faculty members were treated the same way as the one who wrote me.”

The printout revealed that seven faculty members had received promotion supplements but no merit increase – seven men and women, who for seven months had believed that their chancellor had not done what he said he would do.

The frightening part of this story is that had the faculty member not written the letter, I would have never known, and to this day my integrity would be questioned in the hearts of those who had been denied what I had promised.

My directive to change all seven salaries sent shock waves across the campus, strengthening the credibility of the administration and making clear to senior staff that we were going to do what we said we would do.

From that day forward, I was ever alert to breakdowns in the organization that might damage credibility. Monitoring systems were put in place to ensure that promises were kept and commitments were fulfilled. The lesson I learned was that keeping your word is not a solo act in a large organization.

-adapted from Journal of a Fast Track Life, Chapter 8, © 2018 Charles E. Smith. All rights reserved.

True Friends are Hard to Find in Politics

  John Jay Hooker (L) and myself on my first day as editor of the Nashville Banner.

In my lifetime, I’ve seen firsthand several true friendships formed and sustained relationships in the corridors of power. One stands out as a gold standard of what can be achieved when mutual trust, respect, and open communications are alive and well in a relationship. My reference point is the friendship of Winfield Dunn and John Jay Hooker, which lasted over four decades. It was a most unlikely alliance, forged between two men who waged a tough and competitive fight for the governorship of Tennessee in 1970. Dunn won, and in doing so, shattered a storybook dream for Hooker.

Dunn’s name was not on the political horizon when I met with Hooker and his campaign team in January 1970. At that time, Hooker was the odds-on favorite to win the governor’s race. No Democrat appeared likely to launch a competitive challenge in the primary. On the Republican side, shoe magnate Maxey Jarman was the presumed nominee-to-be. Thus, when I accepted the offer to become Hooker’s press secretary in early 1970, the campaign focus was on Jarman.

The plan was to run a personality contest, pitting the youthful and charismatic Hooker against the aging senior citizen Jarman. All seemed to be in order to deliver Hooker to the governor’s office. Then in April of 1970, the relatively unknown Dunn threw his hat into the Republican primary. His entry attracted very little attention. The smart money was still on a Hooker-Jarman general election. The polls at that time supported that notion.

In the meantime, Dunn had other ideas. In his memoir, he wrote that his initial impression of Hooker was that the Democratic candidate was a charismatic and intelligent individual who would be a tough adversary if both made it to the general election. However, he was not intimidated.

                                                   Governor Winnfield Dunn

In those early days of the primary campaign, Hooker was clearly impressed with Dunn, even noting more than once on the record to reporters that Dunn was an impressive candidate with a great chance at winning. In retrospect, there is great irony in Hooker’s prognosis. Still, inside our campaign tent, Jarman was the one we expected to win the GOP primary.
Suddenly, on primary election night in August of 1970, lightning struck. While Hooker won the Democratic primary convincingly, Dunn upset the favorite Jarman by piling up a huge vote advantage in Memphis and Shelby County, his home area.

I shall never forget the ride with Hooker from our campaign headquarters to the Nashville hotel where the victory celebration was scheduled. The new Democratic nominee for governor was despondent, telling me with great candor that he knew in his bones that we were going lose to Dunn. His few words on that short ride in downtown Nashville proved prophetic: “Pal, Winfield’s win has taken away the greatest advantage we had. Like me, he’s young, charismatic, and articulate, but he doesn’t have my baggage.” By the time we made it to the victory celebration, he had regained his composure and delivered his typical rousing speech.

Clouds of concern, however, continued to hang over our campaign as we moved into the fall of 1970. The critical moment came in October when Hooker and Dunn engaged in three back-to-back debates, starting in Nashville in the wee hours of the morning, moving to Springfield courthouse in mid-day, and concluding at the Jackson courthouse in late afternoon. It was obviously an exhausting day, particularly for the candidates.

For reasons I never understood, our schedulers had booked Hooker to speak at a union event in Memphis that night. I was designated to fly alone with Hooker from Jackson to Memphis. It was a moment I will never forget. For most of the flight, Hooker was totally silent, deep in thought, with a serious look of concern on his face.

Shortly before we landed, he leaned toward me and slapped me gently on the knee. “Pal,” he said, “the debates today confirmed what I’ve believed for several weeks. Winfield is tough, a very strong debater. I tried my best today, but I couldn’t put him away. We are going to lose, my friend.”
Less than a month later, Hooker’s prediction came true. He lost by less than a percentage point, but the dream had been shattered.

Hooker was crushed, but when he took the podium to concede to Dunn, he regained his composure and delivered a gracious and memorable salute to Dunn. It was the end of a very tough and emotional campaign but the beginning of a respectful and genuine friendship between two heavyweights that would span more than four decades.

The true strength of their friendship became more visible in Hooker’s final year of life. In June 2015, Hooker was scheduled to make what would be his final public appearance at a committee hearing before the Tennessee General Assembly. Confined to a wheel chair and grappling with terminal cancer, Hooker still was able to display his trademark tenacity and his ability to articulate clear and emphatic constitutional arguments, this time about the right to die.

The Hooker family had invited my son, Chip, and me to join them for the event. When we arrived, we noted that Hooker’s former wife, Tish, and their children were seated on the front row. Seated next to Tish was Winfield Dunn. For Chip and me, it was a defining moment, a moment that spoke volumes about the value and joy of a true friendship. It was a moment we shall never forget.

In opening his testimony that day, Hooker acknowledged Dunn’s presence at the hearing and thanked him for his friendship over the years. He had warm praise for Dunn and called his administration the most honest he had witnessed in his lifetime. He also half- jokingly noted that he (Hooker) deserved credit for creating the Republican Party in Tennessee by losing to Dunn.

Following the hearing, Dunn rushed over to Hooker’s wheelchair and leaned over to give him a long embrace. Watching that moment was heartwarming and brought tears to my eyes.

Seven months later, Hooker died. Preparatory to a public memorial service, a private, invitation-only event was held at the home of Hooker’s brother Henry. About twenty-five close friends gathered to pay their respects. When I walked into the home, the first guests I saw were Winfield and Betty Dunn. As we embraced, tears were flowing from his eyes, as they were from mine.

I’ve known every governor of Tennessee since Frank Clement. While all of them had many good qualities and successes, I don’t believe any one of those other governors ever developed or maintained a friendship relationship with the general election nominee they defeated.

That’s what made the friendship something special, something worthy of praise, respect, and replication.

I was deeply grateful and touched to see Governor Winfield Dunn attend my book signing party at Parnassus Books last September. He walked in just as I was telling the crowd this story about him from my book. This picture was taken right after I presented him with an autographed copy. Thank you, Governor! (photo courtesy of Dana Coleman)

That’s what made the friendship something special, something worthy of praise, respect, and replication.

-adapted from Journal of a Fast Track Life, Chapter 25, © 2018 Charles E. Smith. All rights reserved.