Jim Harris Column: Arkansas Chancellor White Stepped Into Athletic Issues Too Much; Now He Departs

University of Arkansas chancellor John White lost many of his supporters, and most of the state's media, when he detailed his propensity to equivocate during his testimony in Nolan Richardson's lawsuit over his 2002 firing by the school.

In responding to a questioner, White said, he didn't answer a question as asked but answered it in the way he wished the question had been asked.

In other words, he's not forthcoming, and he's fine with that. He's even mendacious. Neither of those characteristics would seem ideal for the leader of a public institution of higher learning.

But this is the University of Arkansas we're talking about. The former athletic director admitted he flat-out would lie and support his coach publicly even if he privately felt otherwise about the employee. The former head football coach left a trail of deceit concerning how he operated his program and ran his staff all the way to Oxford, Miss., where the country club set in the Ole Miss Grove can discuss it over toddies.

If White hadn't lost the majority of the Board of Trustees over the course of the past five years since the Richardson testimony, most jumped his ship in late November when the chancellor bungled the Houston Nutt resignation press conference in Fayetteville.

White actually made one of the best decisions for the University in years when he unlocked the "golden handcuffs," as he termed it, and allowed Nutt to depart the UA with all his money intact - cash that Nutt had earned through annuities along with a good deal more that would have been due the coach had he been terminated. That allowed Arkansas to move on with its business athletically and end almost two years of embarrassment brought on by the coach as well as his banner-flying and booing detractors who were never going to support him again, even if he managed to knock off a No. 1 team every season.

But Arkansas fans, and likely most of the trustees, had to be angered that White managed to let Nutt take his loaded wallet across the river to Ole Miss, an SEC West Division rival. Meanwhile, White was quoting himself and made much of himself in his brief takeover of athletics. Then he passed the baton to his athletic director hire, Jeff Long, who pinch-hit a home run in landing Bobby Petrino as head football coach. The night Petrino was introduced, White conspicuously made his appearance that night short and sweet.

And then he seemingly disappeared.

White's moves toward athletics were regularly misunderstood, or his attempts to be helpful in improving the department only ended up alienating everyone in it and many supporting it. His push for the women's athletic department to hire a woman basketball coach over a successful men's coach was probably one of his dumbest moves in 11 years, but it would largely be forgotten with everything that happened on the men's side since 2002.

Prompted by the University of Georgia's then new president Mike Adams pushing aging Georgia athletic director Vince Dooley to the sideline, but not wanting to throw a university resource immediately on the scrap heap, White suggested setting up a committee to find the eventual successor to Frank Broyles. Broyles and Board of Trustee pal Jim Lindsey immediately spun that as White's wanting to move Broyles to pasture sooner rather than later. Broyles and Lindsey put a move on White that sent the chancellor backpedaling off to Hilton Head for an extended vacation, and Broyles got a five-year contract to boot, pushing his employment into his ninth decade of life.

This, of course, followed White's and Broyles' combined effort to push the outspoken Nolan Richardson out of the basketball office. Richardson's recitation of how White handled the coach's firing in the chancellor's office was classic, nearly Shakespearean drama, with White sounding totally oblivious to the inner workings of the athletic department.

White, when he needed Broyles, moved on Richardson. But soon enough, Broyles came to the realization how shaky his relationship with White truly was. White would misjudge his reach five years ago, but then saw long-awaited opportunity with the trustees' help to have Broyles resign in February 2007.

White would grasp Stan Heath's hand and look him in the eye last March in Atlanta and tell him, point blank, that Heath was still his man as basketball coach. Several people within earshot confirmed that. Two weeks later, White was baffled that Heath could have thought that he was assured any job security when Broyles was given the OK to fire him.

Add Stan Heath to the list of people who would conclude that when John White's lips moved, he likely wasn't being truthful.

The mystery of UA athletic mysteries in 2007 was, just what did John White tell Dana Altman over dinner the night Altman was hired as UA basketball coach, the night before Altman suddenly backed out to return to Creighton? Was White's discussion, and the ensuing national embarrassment, just an effort to submarine Broyles' last hire as athletic director? Recall how a supposedly smooth transition from Stan Heath to then Texas A&M coach Billy Gillispie became a fiasco when at least eight prominent coaches publicly turned the job down before Altman rode in, then out. White then had to tell Broyles to remain in Augusta, Ga., and watch a golf tournament while he hired a search firm to do the job right, bringing in John Pelphrey. Maybe White felt a little betrayed by Broyles in the whole Heath mess when Altman, rather than the promised Gillispie, arrived.

Gosh, now we're feeling a little empathy for what White might have had to endure trying to run an academic institution amidst Razorback Inc.

Dr. White probably could have taken a lesson from former UA chancellor Dan Ferritor: cheer on the team and let the athletic administrators do their job, unless they start to do something really stupid, and then bring in the UA Systems president for a sit-down with the athletic heads to avert said stupidity. Outside of that, let the men's and women's athletic departments clean up their own messes and raise their own money. You, meanwhile, keep glad-handing the folks who might pony up big bucks for the business school or new chemistry lab or poultry building. And, for gosh sakes, when the alumni in California or Texas gather, don't stand in the corner like you wish you were thousands of miles away. Hoist a Coke at least and make some UA alum feel like he matters to his school and the people who run it. Meanwhile, don't hold grudges with others who were better athletes than you were and who get more publicity than you do.

But most of all, be upfront. Be forthcoming. Answer the question like it was asked, not like you wished it had been asked.