UCF President John Hitt not above criticism for NCAA mess

UCF President John Hitt has always stood above the fray, untainted by the criticism and corruption that big-time college football and basketball coaches so often endure.

Hitt's legacy is secure as one of the country's premier college presidents, a man who in 20 years on the job has helped turn UCF from a no-name commuter school into one of the nation's most resounding higher-education success stories. He now presides over a university that is the second-largest in the country and was recently ranked by U.S. News & World Report as one of the nation's best "Up-and-Coming" schools.

But for the first time in his career, Hitt is actually getting hit from all sides because of a massive NCAA cheating scandal that has landed UCF's football and basketball programs on five years of probation. Some within UCF's own athletic department have questioned Hitt's handling of the situation. One national columnist even wrote that Hitt "doesn't deserve to keep his job" and should be fired. Such a contention is ridiculous, but there's no question Hitt should receive his share of the blame for the scandalous state of UCF's athletic program.

"It's a lot more fun to be president some times than others," Hitt admitted during an exclusive interview with the Orlando Sentinel Tuesday, "and this is not an especially fun time. … It goes with the territory. You may not read it on sports blogs, but there's no shortage of criticism for any university president. … I certainly regret what has happened, and the whole university is embarrassed by it, but I think we have handled it in the right way. People can criticize all they want, but I think we've done what we thought was right, and I'm content to live with that."

Hitt's biggest gaffe during the entire ordeal is that he chose the wrong man to lead his athletic department and stuck with him for too long. Keith Tribble was hired as UCF's athletics director in 2006 and had his contract extended a couple of years later even though it was clear to many that he was in way over his head.

Tribble failed as a fundraiser and did not have a good relationship with UCF's big-money boosters. He failed as an employer and did not have a good working relationship with football coachGeorge O'Leary. He failed as a leader and was fired amid the NCAA investigation for breaking rules and providing false information to NCAA investigators. Tribble's lame excuse for breaking rules was that he didn't know what the rules were.

In hindsight, Hitt admitted Tuesday, he should have put an independent investigator on the case much sooner. If he had then, perhaps UCF could have avoided some of the more stringent penalties it received from the NCAA.

"When the story first started to break … I called and asked, 'Is there anything to this?' " Hitt recalled. "I was assured everything was fine, and I accepted that. As it turns out, the guy who gave me the assurance – Keith Tribble -- was involved in it. When you have a guy who makes what an athletic director makes these days, it's hard to credit him when he says, 'I didn't know what the rules were.' "

Hitt later added, "I've never seen a situation where the institution didn't count on the athletic director as the personification of institutional control. If you want to be charitable to Keith and say he just didn't understand [the rules], then fair enough. But it sure got us into a bunch of trouble."

Tribble certainly deserves the brunt of the blame for UCF's athletic woes, but Hitt must endure his share, too. He hired Tribble to run an athletic department that is now swimming in debt and is having trouble selling football tickets. It was Hitt and his insurance company lawyers who made the flawed decision to go to trial in the wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of former football player Ereck Plancher – a decision that cost the school tons of bad publicity and a $10 million verdict. It was Hitt who just two years into O'Leary's tenure decided to give the coach a lucrative and ironclad 10-year contract extension.

All of these decisions now are being chided and chastised.

When it came to criticism, John Hitt used to be way above the fray.

Now, he is right in the middle of it.

Welcome to big-time college athletics, Mr. President.

mbianchi@tribune.com. Follow him on Twitter @BianchiWrites. Listen to his radio show every weekday from 6 to 9 a.m. on 740 AM.

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