Turning point: New Vandy AD Turner Brings Fresh Approach
Life is full of twists and turns, paths taken and intersecting. Sometimes, we are surprised by where we are led and where we are going.
That’s the underlying theme of my Feb. 15 Nashville Ledger profile of new Vanderbilt athletics director Malcolm Turner. He is an accomplished sports marketing and consulting executive who graduated from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and who also has a law degree from Harvard.
From all appearances, from all I have learned about him, Turner is just the right man that Vanderbilt needs to take its athletics programs to new and higher levels of achievement on and off the playing field.
One thing that surprised me in his first press conference with local media on Feb. 3 was that he’d never been in Nashville before the summer of 2018. After David Williams — who made history as the first black AD in the Southeastern Conference — announced his retirement in September, a search for his successor was launched and Turner was quickly identified.
Turner’s hiring was announced in December, he took office on Feb. 1 and at his press conference talked about the unusual path that quickly brought him back to Nashville.
“I’d always heard wonderful things about Nashville and was here last summer (2018), my wife (Jessica) and I, for the first time, for some social functions and really had always heard so many wonderful things about the city of Nashville, and just really fell in love with it,” Turner said.
“And who knew at the time — fast forward — that we would be relocating? But again, Vanderbilt and friends of mine who have attended here generally associated with it certainly always spoke highly of it, but I had already admired this place from afar for a very long time. And I just think the opportunity against the backdrop of the growth story that’s unfolding with the city of Nashville just makes for a wonderful opportunity.”
But the twists and turns got stranger still.
On Feb. 8, exactly a week after having a first-day-of-office breakfast with Turner, Williams went to the Pancake Pantry for breakfast with family. Vanderbilt was throwing him a retirement party/appreciation later that evening, but he wanted to start the day in the company of those closest to him.
Then tragedy struck. He collapsed at the table, the victim of an aneurysm. Services were Feb. 15.
It marked a bittersweet first couple of weeks in office for Turner and the Vanderbilt family, a time of new beginnings and sad farewells. The thoughts and prayers of all Nashvillians and Vanderbilt fans have been extended to the Williams family. Vanderbilt paid tribute at its first men’s basketball home game after Williams’ death by placing a bouquet of yellow roses in his customary seat and holding a moment of silence. More tributes will follow.
I tried to reflect all this triumph and tragedy in my introductory profile of Turner, and the main story itself took many twists and turns.
For starters, I got the assignment in the middle of January from my Ledger editors, Cindy Smith and Lyle Graves. Instructions were to just introduce Nashville to the new AD, his business and academic background, his plans for Vandy.
First twist: I didn’t know that Turner’s mother — Dr. Henrie Monteith Treadwell — was one of three students who desegregated the University of South Carolina in 1963. He talked about her influence at the press conference and I was able to track her down for a few comments on what she taught Malcolm at an early age, mentoring and guiding him through the years.
So her story became part of his story, and I was going to write it from a Black History Month perspective.
Then came the tragic turn of Williams’ death at age 71. Turner spoke eloquently at an impromptu press conference on how Williams had impacted his life even though they’d only known each other a couple of months.
And that became the story — two mentors in Turner’s life, one so early and one so recent, that led to the remarkable intersection for Turner and “the Vanderbilt way,” a phrase that Williams so frequently used.
And that, come to think of it, would be a fitting memorial for Williams, a fitting legacy for Turner.
Rename a street, or a roadway, or even a path on campus in Williams’ honor: Vanderbilt Way. (It wouldn’t be a first; I Googled and there is a Vanderbilt Way in Sacrament, Calif.)
One final twist: I’ve known Tommy Smith for decades, first by reputation and then meeting him when he was an assistant basketball coach at Middle Tennessee State University under Bruce Stewart. I was covering the Blue Raiders at the time and we got to know each other.
Our paths went different directions. His eventually led to the NBA G League, where he served as vice-president … under Turner, the commissioner. I emailed Tommy, we talked and I learned they were best friends. He was at the same Vanderbilt game I attended, but I didn’t get a chance to chat in person with him.
Hopefully, that will change soon.
Life sure throws some twists and turns at you, and I like to think it’s a blessing when our lives intersect.
UPCOMING EVENTS: On Feb. 19, The Tennessean, my home for 36 years, is hosting a public farewell for its departure from 1100 Broadway. The public is invited (6-10 p.m.).
Dwight Lewis, one of my longtime Tennessean colleagues, has two upcoming events to discuss his new book “Temple’s Tigerbelles: An Illustrated History Of The Women Who Outran The World.” There will be a film presentation on Feb. 16 at the Tennessee State Museum at 2 p.m., then he will be at Parnassus books on Feb. 24 at 2 p.m.
I will be appearing at the Main Street Festival in Franklin with number of local authors April 27-28. You can also get a copy of Vendetta Stone at Mill Creek Mercantile in Donelson, or order one at Parnassus.
And as always … thanks for reading.