What I mean to say is: Yes, Adams was both good and bad for the University and its athletics department.
Critics could have (and have had) a field day with Adams – particularly when he reached into the world of athletics. Jim Harrick and Damon Evans were primary examples that the people Adams put in place in high-ranking, high-profile positions who were not ready to be there. Those two eventually embarrassed the University nationally in ways that were as unique as they were stunning.
Harrick had run afoul of the NCAA before being hired by Adams at the turn of the century. Perhaps Adams should have known better. Evans was not prepared to run an athletic department the size of Georgia's when he took over – if that wasn't clear in 2004 it was clear even before he was arrested on a DUI charge in 2010 that Georgia was free falling in athletics (but did anyone care?). Adams most certainly should have known better. (Just think: Greg McGarity was more qualified than Evans to be AD five years before he actually took that position)
Both Harrick and Evans, in the end, were terrible hires, and the blame falls on Adams for both.
Still, Adams will be remembered most for his dismissal of Vince Dooley. That action was the catalyst for the ire of most Bulldog fans – I can't say that it was for me, but the fallout from it was unnecessary, and should have been handled much better. The blame falls on both Dooley and Adams, but Dooley was gone, and Adams was there to take nearly all of the public criticism.
But Adams correctly sacked Jim Donnan after he failed to move the football program out of the mid-level of the SEC and couldn't figure out how to beat Georgia Tech. The Bulldogs were also-rans in the 1990s before Adams hired Mark Richt on Christmas Eve 2000. (But even the decision to fire Donnan came with some strings attached – witness the $250,000 so-called "secret deal" which only came to light years later)
Beyond athletics, Adams' spending was the target of an audit completed by Deloitte & Touche in 2003. It's never a good thing, no matter the outcome, to be audited because of trustees' concerns – even University Foundation trustees. It shows, well, a lack of trust.
Adams was president at Georgia when the institution became a top 20 public school nationally. The academic profile of the University of Georgia rose substantially under his watch. The new School of Public and International Affairs started under Adams. A medical school at the University of Georgia, the likes of which is not very popular in Augusta (where Medical College of Georgia is), was started under him. He has also been steadfast about starting a college of engineering at Georgia, which, once again, is not very popular off Techwood Ave in Atlanta (if only Tech had the political clout to prevent it… which they don't). Athletics hemorrhaged (and continues to hemorrhage) money due to TV and media contracts during Adams' tenure.
Adams' critics will say Georgia was going to take off academically in the late 1990s no matter who the president was; that the lottery had set it up that no matter who stepped in, that person would benefit from the über competitive nature that free in-state tuition eventually would create.
That's a very compelling argument, but Adams didn't do anything to screw that up, and he should get credit for that. Sometimes leadership is about knowing when not to do something. The University of Georgia being as top-notch as it is today has as much to do with Zell Miller's lottery as it does anything else.
The lesson to be learned (and for the record it is not being learned around the country) is that university presidents should try their best to watch over, but at the same time, stay out of athletics. What exactly does that mean? Athletic directors are there for a reason – to direct athletics. Too often presidents spend political capital on sports, which is not their primary function, and it almost always seems to drag them down. They are there to be the president of an institution – not the general manager of its sports properties.
In terms of their primary function, a president should hire and fire an athletic director and give that person advice on if they should hire or fire coaches – but leave it at that. It should end there. We know that was not the case with Adams, and we know that's not the case at most schools.
We also know that of all of the heartache caused by and to Adams the bulk of it was from athletics. And one has to wonder - if you are the president of a college - is athletics-related heartache something that's really worth it in the end? Consider that the University of Georgia's FY 2012 budget is $1.3 billion; Georgia's athletic association budget? $90 million. One is more important in the real world than the other, but sometimes that's hard to tell. After all, CBS isn't televising anthropology class live from Baldwin Hall, and no one in the art department runs to class with silver britches on.
Adams could have separated himself from Evans had the split with Dooley not been so messy. He could have had a better transition had his pick not been so green. But neither of those things happened and Adams was married to Evans, and on July 1, 2010 that created tremendous heartache.
In the end Adams' number one flaw in the realm of athletics (and perhaps during his overall tenure at Georgia) was that he hired Evans, someone who was not nearly ready to run an athletic department. Evans would have been perfectly fine at running a business. But no one should confuse being an athletic director with being a business owner as they are two vastly different things. (A business owner, for instance, would never have something called "women's track and field" that never had a surplus of money; for an athletic director that's just one of many sports handled on a day-to-day basis.)
It only took Georgia five years under Evans' leadership to move from a top ten athletics program to barely in the top 20 nationally. And while that was a huge slip the only thing many Georgia people care about, football, took a big slide the longer Evans was around... was that a coincidence, or is that suggestion putting too much blame at his feet? Either way the fact is that Georgia athletics were worse at the end of Evans' tenure than at the beginning.
Adams' problem wasn't that he let/forced Dooley to leave. It's that he didn't follow Dooley with someone who understood how to run an athletics department.
Athletics at schools like Georgia are about winning – not money. Money is merely the byproduct of a winning side; if you win the money will take care of itself. The product at Georgia (in terms of athletics) is the Bulldogs. The revenue generated from the Bulldogs is NOT money… it never has been - that's the big lie of college sports right now. The revenue generated are the trophies in the hallway, the rings on fingers and the bragging rights all year long.
If the new president at Georgia understands that, he or she will do just fine.