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'I felt he was what we needed.' MTSU coach violates school's nepotism policy as son hired for job

Athletic director: 'It's not uncommon in athletics'
Posted: 4:05 PM, Mar 03, 2021
Updated: 2021-03-04 11:30:53-05
Rick_and_Brent_Stockstill.jpg

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (WTVF) — Middle Tennessee State football coach Rick Stockstill violated the university's nepotism policies as he led a hiring process that resulted in his own son getting a coaching job, a NewsChannel 5 investigation discovered.

Still, school officials defended the hiring of Brent Stockstill as a wide receivers coach, arguing that nepotism is nothing new in college coaching.

"It's not uncommon in athletics for that to occur," said athletic director Chris Massaro.

"You see that across the country, and it's been across the state."

NewsChannel 5 Investigates, through a request under the Tennessee Public Records Act, obtained a Zoom recording where Coach Stockstill interviewed his son for the job back in December.

"Why should I hire you?" the father asked.

The son replied, "I think the first thing is: I love football."

A few weeks later, Coach Stockstill announced that he had hired his son and former star quarterback for the job coaching the team's wide receivers.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked the father, "Was he hired because he was the best person for the job or because he was the coach's son?"

"He was hired," Coach Stockstill said, "because I felt he was what we needed in this program."

That despite a state law that says “no state employees who are relatives shall be placed within the same direct line of supervision ... of another relative.”

The athletic director said that, to avoid running afoul of the state’s nepotism law, he was the one who technically decided to hire Brent Stockstill.

"He was by far and away the best candidate of the Zoom interviews that I watched," Massaro said.

"Are we hiring him because his last name is Stockstill? My answer to that is no. Then if you don't hire him is it because his last name is Stockstill?"

What about the state law?

"There's a process that we can go through at the university to get that approved, and we did that," Massaro added.

But Middle Tennessee State’s nepotism policy is also clear: “No employee shall participate in the process of review, recommendation, and/or decision making in any matter concerning hiring ... of a relative.”

In fact, the Zoom video shows the job interview was clearly the father's show.

None of the four other assistant coaches had any questions for the boss' son.

Written evaluations submitted by all the coaches after the job interviews show the head coach was rooting for his son.

"He was by far the best candidate and who I want to hire -- not b/c of his name but b/c he is the best coach," the father wrote.

An MTSU internal review, completed after NewsChannel 5 Investigates began asking questions, concluded that the hiring of Brent Stockstill violated university conflict-of-interest policies against "self-dealing."

"Situations in which an employee can appear to influence, or actually influence, a University-related decision from which that person, or a member of that person's family, stands to realize a personal financial benefit is self-dealing and a conflict of interest," the policy manual states.

Still, instead of disciplining the coach, the University developed a "mitigation" plan designed to address the conflict of interest. It provides:

"Coach Stockstill may direct activities of all football staff members and provide such general direction applicable to all staff members that may also include Brent. However, Coach Stockstill shall not provide direction that is individually and solely applicable to Brent."

"Brent's evaluations shall not be conducted by Coach Stockstill or anyone that is supervised by Coach Stockstill under his (Coach Stockstill's) direct line of supervision."

"Brent's performance evaluation will be conducted by Director Massaro."

So how will that work?

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Coach Stockstill, "Is Mr. Massaro out on the athletic field supervising your son?"

"He will be, he can be, yes, sir," the father responded.

In 2018, Middle Tennessee also let its women’s basketball coach Rick Insell hire his son Matt as an assistant coach under similar circumstances.

The athletic director defended the practice.

"I don't believe we are violating state law more so than Tennessee has when they've done it, Tennessee Tech when they've done it and other schools have also done it," Massaro said.

School officials pointed to former Tennessee football coach Lane Kiffin, who hired his dad as defensive coordinator; women’s basketball coach Kellie Harper, whose husband is one of her assistants; the UT volleyball coach and her assistant coach husband; as well as husband and wife softball coaches.

MTSU later provided a three-page list of other examples of nepotism in the college coaching world.

But critics of nepotism reject suggestions that it's appropriate because "everybody does it."

"The idea of 'well, it's always been this way' is not an intellectually satisfactory idea," said American University law professor Jeremi Duru.

Duru wrote the book Advancing the Ball about the struggle for African-Americans to break into the coaching ranks of the NFL.

"There’s a real concern generally around restricting the pool that you look to when you are looking for a hire, and nepotism is about as restrictive as you can get," Duru said.

In Division 1 college football, the NCAA says whites make up just 37 percent of the student athletes.

But a whopping 82 percent of the head coaches are white.

"One thing that we often lose sight of," Duru said, "is when you hire people that are similar to you, the more similar they are to you, the greater the extent to which they have the same blind spots that you have."

Brent Stockstill got the job with no real on-the-field coaching experience of his own.

"It's disingenuous to say 'him being my son has nothing to do with it,'" said former Middle Tennessee State offensive coordinator Tony Franklin.

Franklin coached the younger Stockstill and believes he’ll be a "great" coach someday.

But he also rejected the notion that there was no one more capable of doing the job than the coach's son.

"I know so many small college coaches that are phenomenal, they can't get into Division 1," Franklin said.

"They ask me all the time: how do I do it? I say, 'Well, the best way is for your father to be the coach. Then you can get in.' I say, 'Otherwise, good luck.'"

MTSU records show Brent Stockstill will make $65,000 a year - the same as several other assistant coaches who've been with the program for years.

University spokesperson Andrew Oppmann provided the following statement:

MTSU’s Conflict of Interest Committee (COIC) evaluates conflict of interest disclosures, determines whether a conflict of interest exists, and if so, determines what, if any, actions may be required to manage, reduce, and/or eliminate an employee’s conflict of interest (see Section VII(F)(2) of Policy 12). The committee, in a report dated Feb. 24 (which we sent you), determined the hiring of Brent Stockstill, son of Head Football Coach Rick Stockstill, was a conflict of interest under MTSU Policy 12.

Sections VI (A) of Policy 12 explains, “Employees should avoid situations where the self-interests of the employee diverge from the best interests of the University (conflicts of interests). In addition, Section VI(C)(1) describes “Self-dealing” conflicts of interests as: “Situations in which an employee can appear to influence, or actually influence, a University related decision from which that person, or a member of that person’s family, stands to realize a personal financial benefit is self-dealing and a conflict of interest.”

In the after-action report, the COIC said it understood that Rick Stockstill participated in the interviews of all candidates for the position, including Brent’s. The committee noted that the department addressed the conflict by having other assistant football coaches participate in the interviews and submit interview notes and evaluations of each candidate. Athletics Director Chris Massaro reviewed these evaluations, as well as the available recorded interviews. From this, Massaro made the final hiring decision and forwarded that selection to President Sidney A. McPhee for approval.

Normally neither the athletics director nor the president would be involved in a hire at the assistant coach level. In this case, however, their involvement was necessary to help manage the conflict that had been created by Rick Stockstill’s participation in the process.

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