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Mike Ward out — is Vols AD Currie cleaning house?

Another key member to Dave Hart’s tenure as athletic director for Tennessee is gone.

The university announced in a Monday release that senior associate athletics director Mike Ward is stepping down in the summer after more than five and a half years with the Vols’ athletic department.

Mike Ward’s departure will be the fourth big player from former athletic director Dave Hart’s time at UT. Chris Fuller held Ward’s position before leaving to be Syracuse’s deputy athletic director in November. Likewise, former executive associate AD Jon Gilbert left in January to become Southern Miss’s athletic director before former senior associate AD Mike Vollmar resigned last month.

What does it mean?

For starters, it looks like new athletic director John Currie is cleaning house and paving the way for his own trusted right-hand people. If that’s the case, the resignations are killing two birds with one stone for Currie — Hart’s remaining impact on UT athletics seems to be declining each day as his people leave.

Mike Ward’s resignation is an interesting one already, but even more so when you see what he was involved in during his time in Knoxville.

The release says Ward was “integral in the decision to transition to Nike … including both contracts and rebranding.”

Well, that’s an interesting point to make, considering that Nike got a relatively cheap deal out of the Vols when considering the legacy of the program compared to other Nike schools with similar prestige.

Tennessee’s deal with Nike over eight years was worth about $35 million.

For comparison, Michigan inked an 11-year deal worth $112 million the following year (including a four-year option that could push those numbers up to $169 million). That deal couldn’t stick up to Texas’s 15-year, $250 million agreement with Nike, and both trail the biggest apparel contract ever — Ohio State’s 15-year, $252 million deal that begins in 2018.

Further than that, the Nike deal included eliminating the Lady Vol brand in all but women’s basketball, enraging a portion of the Vol fanbase to the point of protesting. While the Lady Vol brand may not have been near as powerful as it was (and is) in Lady Vol basketball, the move really didn’t elimination confusion or move Tennessee sporting teams closer together.

Ward’s other crucial role, as touted by the email release, was serving as the athletic department’s legal liaison and Title IX liaison. Out of the frying pan and into the fire for these accomplishments? As the Title IX liaison, Ward no doubt pulled some hairs while dealing with the lawsuit that alleged the university violated Title IX when handling sexual assault cases, especially those related to student athletes.

Despite the lawsuit being settled for $2.48 million back in July of 2016, the university and athletic department faced plenty of flack for allowing UT’s image to float in uncertainty in the public’s eye as court dates loomed.

The low deal, loss of the Lady Vol brand and Title IX lawsuit all hurt Hart’s reputation with the fanbase, something that Currie is no doubt taking into consideration as he looks around the athletic department. If he’s cleaning house, he’s being bluntly obvious about whose guys he is going to get rid of.

Even after all of that, we aren’t saying that Currie is on some noble quest to renegotiate the Nike deal or bring back the Lady Vol brand. However, it seems like Currie is preparing the Vols to go in the direction he wants to go in as quickly as possible.

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