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Middle Tennessee State Skirts Nepotism with Loophole

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Middle Tennessee State University athletic director Chris Massaro claims he technically hired wide receivers coach Brent Stockstill, not Brent's father and head football coach Rick Stockstill — thus avoiding violation of state law that prohibits nepotism in state employee hiring.

The younger Stockstile was named to his position in January.

"He was by far and away the best candidate of the Zoom interviews that I watched," Massaro said, as reported by CBS affiliate WTVF in Nashville. "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?"

When asked about the state nepotism law, which states “no state employees who are relatives shall be placed within the same direct line of supervision ... of another relative," Massaro added, "There's a process that we can go through at the university to get that approved, and we did that."

WTVF's NewsChannel 5 Investigates obtained a Zoom recording of Rick Stockstill interviewing his son in December. 

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

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

That exchange prompted WTVF chief investigative reporter Phil Williams to tweet, "This is what it looks like when a father interviews his own son for a college coaching job — even when his university (MTSU) prohibits employees from participating in the hiring of their relatives."

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

An MTSU internal review 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.

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 or 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."

When asked by WTVF if Massaro is out on the athletic field supervising his son, Rick Stockstill stated, "He will be, he can be, yes, sir."

It's not the first time MTSU has flirted with nepotism, allowing women’s basketball coach Rick Insell to hire his son Matt as an assistant in 2018.

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 WTVF with a three-page list of other examples of nepotism in the college coaching world.

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

"One thing that we often lose sight of," Duru told WTVF, "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."

In January, 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?" Rick Stockstill responded, "He was hired because I felt he was what we needed in this program."

The Zoom video shows the job interview was clearly the father's show, according to WTVF. None of the four other assistant coaches had any questions for the boss' son, and written evaluations submitted by all 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, as reported by WTVF.

WTVF further reports MTSU records show Brent Stockstill will make $65,000 a year — equal to the annual salaries of 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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