Have you ever heard the fable of the scorpion and the frog? It goes like this: there was once a fierce and powerful scorpion feared by all because of the danger of his stinging tail. One day he heard of a great treasure and set out to claim it, but on his way he came across a river he could not cross. He saw a nearby frog and called out to him.
"Let me climb upon your back and swim me across the river and I'll give you some of my treasure," he said.
"No," the frog said. "I've heard of you and I know that if I let you climb on my back you'll sting me and I will die."
"You're wrong," the scorpion said. "Yes, if I stung you you would die, but that would mean I would sink into the river and drown. Take me across the river and you'll be rewarded."
The frog, thinking this over, realized the scorpion was right. He agreed to the proposal, let the scorpion climb on his back and waded into the river. As he swam forward he began to imagine the treasure that awaited him on the other side, but suddenly a sharp, stinging pain jerked him back to reality. Just as they reached the deepest part of the river the scorpion had struck and stung him.
"Why.... why did you sting me?" the frog asked. "Now I'll die and you'll drown too."
"I know," said the scorpion. "But I couldn't help it, it's my nature."
I've been thinking about that story a lot over the past few days as I've contemplated the fallout from Robert Burton's letter to Jeff Hathaway.
Burton, of course, is the scorpion. He is a powerful man who wields his money and influence in the same way a scorpion uses its tail. However, his power is not enough for him so he decides to pursue a great treasure (UConn's football success, bankrolled by him).
However, he can't do it alone, so he enlists a defenseless frog, Hathaway, who should know better than to put Burton in a position to hurt him (he did something similar at Syracuse), but gets in over his head anyway and doesn't deal with the scorpion like he needs to.
And so, on their journey together, Hathaway doesn't pay enough attention to Burton and before you know it, Burton strikes and they both begin to sink.
Make no mistake, Jeff Hathaway deserves to lose his job. On Tuesday I listed my complaints about Hathaway's job performance, but perhaps a summary would be helpful: Since Hathaway took over in 2003 donations to the athletic program have fallen, ticket sales for two incredible basketball programs have plummeted, the athletic department and basketball team have been beset by scandal (Monaco Ford, men's basketball players stealing laptop's from women's basketball players, Nate Miles) and overall fan support has eroded.
We often talk about UConn fans not coming out to games or showing support because they're "spoiled." That, frankly, is bullshit. The Yankees and Red Sox don't sell less tickets because they're continually successful. I don't know anyone who has gotten sick of the NFL because it's consistently fun to watch. The reason fan support has dropped off is because fans aren't courted like they need to be. In 1998 Sports Illustrated wrote this: "There's reason for hope in Hopeville, Conn., and in Bridgeport and Hartford and everywhere else in the basketball-loopy state that coach Jim Calhoun calls 'a mini Kentucky.'" Can you, in your wildest dreams, imagine that sentence being written today? Of course not. The reason fans don't show up is because they don't feel appreciated and the athletic department doesn't come to them. Don't tell me it's just a "Connecticut" thing either. There is nothing to do in Connecticut between November and March besides watch basketball. The fact that fan support has dropped off is a reflection of the athletic department's failure to sell a product that should all but sell itself. Oh, and we still don't have a basketball practice facility.
All of that though came before the Burton mess. This whole letter thing is the last straw with Hathaway. He shouldn't be fired because he hired Paul Pasqualoni, which in the long run may turn out to be a good decision (and is certainly preferable to the Burton-backed Steve Addazio). But he should be fired for his incompetent handling of the football program's biggest donor. Hathaway's job, at the end of the day, has two requirements: making sure his coaches win and making sure they have the money and resources they need to do so. He's not doing the second half. This Burton disaster is a national embarrassment. People just don't ask to have their names taken off buildings -- so when it does happen, people sit up, take notice and say, "damn, something is really wrong there," and it is.
That takes care of the frog element of the story, so how does Burton fit in as the scorpion? It's simple really, ask yourself this: What does Robert Burton really want? I think his letter makes it clear there are two things he is after. First, he wants Hathaway to be replaced and second, he wants to be able to be involved in college football in a big way. By sending his letter, he has made it so that he's not going to get either.
Yes, Hathaway deserves to lose his job, but UConn absolutely cannot fire him now. As bad as this whole thing is -- and it is horrible -- it would be worse if Hathaway was fired anytime in the next year. Doing that sends a clear message to donors: We're for sale, and if you don't like what we're doing, pull your money and we'll listen to you. UConn can't have that. A good athletic director has to speak with donors and make them feel wanted, appreciated and consulted. However at the end of the day he needs to be able to make the right decisions for the school. The only way that happens is if it is clear the school will back him over any donor. Sure, Philip Austin could fire Jeff Hathaway today, but that puts the next guy in a lose-lose situation. Two or three years from now, UConn is going to have to replace a Hall of Fame basketball coach. The new hire will be staggeringly important, and there are a lot of people who will want a lot of input. If UConn sets a precedent that hiring and firing decisions are up to the highest bidder things will get ugly. So Hathaway should be fired, but can't be fired, at least not for a year or two until this blows over.
As for Burton's second goal? His desire to be involved in big time college sports? Forget about it -- he's done. Sure, schools still would like his money. UConn is currently scrambling to get him to leave it in Storrs. But UConn, or any other school, is going to be very careful of the amount of access he gets and that'll be made clear up front. If you were an AD would you take Burton's money right now knowing that the next hissy fit could be only months away? He might be able to donate, but he is definitely not going to be anyone's most important donor.
So now they're both done -- Hathaway has failed at his job in the most public and embarrassing way possible, and deserves to be canned. He may not get fired right away, but he won't have anywhere close to the power or clout he had before and everyone knows it. Burton, meanwhile, has shot himself in the foot by insuring that UConn can't fire Hathaway and killing his own influence. They're stuck together now and neither of them is happy about it.
The real question is this: If Burton is the scorpion and Hathaway is the frog, where does the athletic program fit in? It wasn't a character in the story, but I can't help but feel it might be in danger of drowning too.