Over-spending or budget conscious? Why Vanderbilt athletics director Malcolm Turner was forced to resign

Adam Sparks
Nashville Tennessean

Vanderbilt athletics director Malcolm Turner was forced to resign amid accusations of lavish spending, but the university may have reneged on its initial promise to support his expansion of athletics expenses.

That’s the two sides depicted by multiple sources, including current and former Vanderbilt athletics department employees, many of whom directly interacted with Turner in the course of their jobs.

Turner, a first-time collegiate athletics director, resigned Tuesday, just one year after taking the job. He was an outside-the-box hire intended to transform Vanderbilt athletics with his expertise in financial growth. Instead, sources said his spending and the university’s thriftiness were a bad mix.

Sources told The Tennessean that Turner spent too much university money on a personal car service and unnecessary charter flights, extra athletics department staff members, a renovation of his office, a personal security guard for basketball coach Jerry Stackhouse and multiple consulting firms employed to do the job he was hired to do.

Turner, a former NBA G League president, blew through much of a $17 million reserve fund that predecessor David Williams had built up over years, sources said.

“Internally, people thought, ‘Wow, this must be how it’s done in the NBA. They must print money there,’” said one source, who worked directly with Turner in the athletics department.

Other athletics department sources said the university gave Turner leeway to spend in ways that previous Vanderbilt athletics directors had not in order to implement bold athletics strategic and facilities plans.

They said miscommunication and poorly defined parameters led to Turner’s exit once Vanderbilt returned to its fiscally conservative ways after the resignation of Nicholas Zeppos, the chancellor who helped hire Turner, last August.

“Zeppos told him he could have the tools to build a rocket ship to the moon,” an athletics department source said. “Well, it turned out to be a tricycle because Zeppos left, and everybody freaked out.”

Another source said, “When Zeppos left, I think they turned the tables on (Turner). He said (less athletics spending) was not what he agreed to, so he kept doing what he was doing.”

Who is to blame for Turner’s abrupt exit?

All sources said Turner spent money in ways Williams never did, but they disagreed on where blame should lie.

Turner, when asked via text message about accusations of lavish spending, declined comment and referred to his initial statement in the university news release.

“At the onset of this next critical phase of key athletics initiatives and after considering certain family commitments important to me, I have elected to pursue new opportunities,” Turner said in the release.

When asked if the university forced him to resign or owed a buyout to his contract, Turner did not respond. Interim chancellor Susan Wente and members of the Board of Trust declined comment through a university spokesperson. 

Candice Storey Lee was named interim athletics director Tuesday. At her introductory news conference, she said, “We are going to be fiscally responsible. That’s a value of our department and our university. We’ve got to take care and be good stewards of the resources we have.”

Consulting firms, car services, charter flights

Sources said Turner excessively used charter flights when commercial flights were available.

One instance was an interview with Stackhouse, who was an assistant coach with the Memphis Grizzlies at the time. Turner took a car to Memphis and flew back to Nashville on a charter flight.

He also regularly used a car service around Nashville. Two sources said Turner preferred to have a driver so he could work in the car. That’s consistent with the management style Turner displayed during an exclusive interview with The Tennessean on his first day on the job.

Turner likes to type notes on his phone immediately after a conversation and email those bullet points to the person to whom he just spoke. But athletic department employees said Turnerused the car service as if he still worked for the NBA.

Sources said Turner was also provided a car to drive by Vanderbilt. His contract is not available to the public because Vanderbilt is a private institution. But it's common for a university to provide a car to its athletics director.

Tennessee athletics director Phillip Fulmer receives two leased cars for him and his immediate family to use, or he can receive $1,700 per month in a car allowance.

Turner also expanded and renovated his office. But that was part of a larger renovation to McGugin Center, which also included a committee room, Olympic sports weight room and the athletes’ cafeteria.

Turner employed multiple consulting firms. They included Korn Ferry to hire Stackhouse, Deloitte to create the athletics strategic plan and Perkins and Will to do an audit of facilities. Sources said tasks of the consulting firms overlapped and did the job Turner was hired to do. Korn Ferry, a popular search firm, also found Turner for the athletics director job.

“It seems like a ton of money was spent, but there’s not much tangible to show for it,” one source said.

Lee said the athletics strategic plan that Turner promised for the past year will be unveiled “very soon,” but that it will merely be “a first step,” toward major facility upgrades. 

Why did Stackhouse have a security guard?

Multiple sources confirmed that a Vanderbilt campus police officer, specifically tasked with guarding Stackhouse, traveled with the basketball team for the first four road trips of the season, which included SEC games at Auburn and Arkansas.

That’s uncommon in SEC basketball because, per conference policy, host schools already provide a uniformed police officer as security for visiting teams at the arena. 

Former Vanderbilt basketball coach Bryce Drew, who Turner fired in March, confirmed via text message that he was not provided a security guard. Stackhouse did not respond to a request for comment on the reason for extra security.

Sources said the security guard did not accompany the basketball team to Vanderbilt’s past two road games at South Carolina on Jan. 25 and Kentucky on Jan. 29. Turner’s resignation was announced on Tuesday, but sources said he was out of the job before that.

On Feb. 1, Turner did not attend Vanderbilt’s home basketball game, where the 1993 SEC title team was honored, or the annual baseball banquet to celebrate last year's national championship team.

Turner also provided Stackhouse with four more members on his coaching staff than Drew had. The new positions include special assistant to the head coach, chief of staff, senior advisor to the head coach and director of player development and quality control.

Where is the money going?

Athletics department employees said they were frustrated by Turner’s compartmentalized communication and that he spent much of the $17 million reserve fund.

Vanderbilt Athletic Director Malcolm Turner sits in his office on Tuesday, August 27, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. Turner will begin his first football season as athletic director, and is working to solve problems with home football game attendance. He will try to improve the gameday atmosphere which includes a new tailgating service, renovated restrooms and a new video board.

However, Turner did make minor facility upgrades in his short tenure. Vanderbilt Stadium got a new video board and bathroom renovations. Memorial Gym got new lighting and sound systems. Hawkins Field got new baseball turf.

“Yes, all those things were needed,” a source said. “But those things don’t equal $15 (million) to $20 million.”

Williams had regular staff meetings, but Turner rarely did. That left athletics department employees uninformed about projects until Turner announced them to the public in his “Inside McGugin Center” open letter on the Vanderbilt athletics website.

“There were times when those letters would be released and people would be walking around the halls (of McGugin Center) saying, ‘Oh, so this is what we were doing,’” a source said. “We would learn about the big projects at the same time everybody else did.”

Stackhouse and football coach Derek Mason said they had more communication with Lee than Turner. Lee is a three-time Vanderbilt graduate, a former basketball player and a long-time administrator, last serving as deputy athletics director under Williams and Turner.

“Candice was in every one of those meetings (about football facility projects),” Mason said. “She and (assistant athletics director for football) Jason (Grooms) were most vital to what we were doing.”

Stackhouse added, “I probably spoke to Candice more than I did Malcolm, honestly. Quite frankly, there is probably nobody better to know how to navigate the waters here at Vanderbilt and get things done than her.”

Where does Vanderbilt go from here?

Vanderbilt has not announced a search for a new athletics director. New chancellor Daniel Diermeier will take the helm July 1. Lee did not provide any information about the process to name a new athletics director.

Candice Lee is introduced as Vanderbilt’s interim athletic director at Memorial Gym Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020 in Nashville, Tenn.

"That’s a conversation, perhaps, for another time," Lee said.

The new athletics director will inherit a department with numerous problems. The basketball program just snapped the longest SEC losing streak in league history. The football stadium has not been renovated since 1981, while all other SEC stadiums have undergone numerous face-lifts.

Before Turner arrived, university administrators had undercut efforts to raise funds for a stadium project to focus on building other campus structures. And then Turner resigned amid accusations of over-spending one year after making promises of a new era of Vanderbilt athletics expansion.

A week ago, the SEC announced its annual revenue payout was $45.3 million per school, including Vanderbilt. Available financial reports do not reveal where Vanderbilt spends its SEC revenue payout.

“There is an irony in the AD being let go for spending too much money the same week you get a $45 million check,” a source said. “But that’s Vanderbilt.”

How Vanderbilt's athletics expenses compare to other SEC schools

Vanderbilt has the smallest enrollment of any SEC school, and it is the league's only private institution. Vanderbilt's operating expenses in athletics are dwarfed by the 13 public schools, according to available information.

In the 2017-18 fiscal year, the annual operating athletics expenses of the SEC's public schools ranged from Alabama’s $166.5 million to Mississippi State’s $89.8 million. The average was $134.6 million.

Those figures were obtained by USA TODAY Sports through open records requests of the public schools’ financial reports to the NCAA. Vanderbilt, as a private institution, is not required to provide access to those reports.

Vanderbilt reported $74 million in athletics annual operating expenses for 2017-18 fiscal year to the U.S. Department of Education. The methodology is different from NCAA financial reports in that it does not include any possible debt service expenses for Vanderbilt.

Dan Wolken and Steve Berkowitz of USA TODAY Sports Network contributed to this report. Reach Adam Sparks at and on Twitter @AdamSparks.