When Dave Hart accepted the job as the University of Tennessee's new athletic director a year ago, the program was a mess. The once-proud football team had descended into consistent mediocrity, made worse by having three coaches in three years between 2007 and 2009. The men's basketball program had just suffered through the ignominious last year of Bruce Pearl's tenure as head coach. A two-and-a-half-year NCAA investigation had just been completed, which resulted in two years of probation and minor recruiting penalties. And a series of off-the-field incidents, topped off by a 2010 brawl between football players and off-duty cops at a Cumberland Avenue bar, had seriously damaged the school's reputation.
"I was certainly aware that it had been a tough five years or so, and I've said that publicly, more than once," Hart says now. "That's well-documented. We need to move on."
But that's proven harder than Hart might have expected. The tumult of the previous five years continued well into the first year of his tenure: Women's basketball legend Pat Summitt retired after almost 40 years as head coach in April, just months after announcing that she has been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease; the merger of the men's and women's athletic departments has raised questions about Hart's commitment to gender equity; the recent misconduct of starting quarterback Tyler Bray and the dismissal of All-SEC wide receiver Da'Rick Rogers have kept the football team's bad-boy image in the headlines; men's swimming coach John Trembley was fired in January for allegedly sending sexually explicit e-mails from his UT computer; and a new study released last month showed that the athletic department lost almost $4 million in the 2011-12 fiscal year.
Most immediately, head football coach Derek Dooley is facing intense pressure to turn around his team's fortunes after two consecutive losing seasons. If the 2012 football Vols can win seven or eight games, it will be a big step toward getting the program back where fans assume it should be. If they don't, Hart will have tough decisions to make, and even more turbulence ahead of him.
Hart was hired to turn around a big-money college sports program that was mired in controversy, bad press, and sub-par performances on the field. The question then was, can he do it? A year later, the question might be, can anybody do it?
Hart has quickly adapted to his new identity as a Vol. He's incorporated a suitable amount of orange into his wardrobe and developed a command of Vol tradition and folklore. But unlike his two immediate predecessors, Doug Dickey and Mike Hamilton, each of whom had long-standing affiliations with UT before taking the job, Hart's only link to East Tennessee before he was hired was that his son, Rick, served as athletic director at UT-Chattanooga. In fact, Hart arrived on the Hill straight from one of Tennessee's most-hated rivals, Alabama—his alma mater—where he served as executive director of athletics, the second-ranking position in the department. (There's even a conspiracy theory floating around that Hart is a mole, planted here to destroy UT from within.)
The 63-year-old Hart differs from Dickey and Hamilton in other ways. Dickey, a former Florida quarterback who had also been head coach at Tennessee, was part of a now-extinct generation of coaches turned administrators. Hamilton was a fund-raiser, an elevated middle manager who presided over a wave of expansion and capital projects. Hart, who served as athletic director at East Carolina and Florida State before Alabama, is a career sports bureaucrat who has spent a lifetime in big-time college sports wheeling and dealing. He's been at the top as college football and basketball have changed from regional pastimes into billion-dollar enterprises.
And it shows. Hart's spacious office above UT's recently completed football training center looks like any other corporate corner office, except that it's just a few feet away from a 120-yard indoor practice facility. The decor is sleek but Sharper Image-generic. Hart is, ultimately, a bit of a corporate-minded cipher, focused in public on "progress" and "leadership" and "moving forward."
He's a masterful glad-hander and glib interview subject, sometimes speaking at length without giving any real information away. His response to July reports that Tyler Bray and his roommate had damaged a UT student's car by throwing beer bottles off their apartment balcony is a minor masterpiece of surgically precise evasive language, engineered to sound like an expression of responsibility at the same time it fends off legal or ethical liability: "The student-athletes that we're accountable to help grow are 17 to 22 years of age. Sure, we're disappointed any time one of them makes a poor choice. But we also know they're 17 to 22 years of age, and we all made some bad choices when we were that age. Having said that, that has been appropriately addressed internally and we've moved on."
But there have been hints that Hart's slick public persona masks a steely professional ambition—one inclined toward control, but not necessarily stability. Two of Hart's personnel moves in streamlining the men's and women's athletic departments have resulted in public acrimony. Bud Ford, who retired from the sports information office after 45 years in December, filed a claim in the spring accusing UT of breach of contract; he says his agreement with the school included a position as sports historian after his retirement. And Debby Jennings, who served as Pat Summitt's media relations director for 35 years, claimed, through her attorney, that Hart fired her as punishment for her complaints of pay discrimination and harassment. Last month, in a News Sentinel story, JoAnne Degraf, a former Florida State softball coach, called Hart a "bully," especially to women, during his years in Tallahassee.
Then there's the makeup of Hart's new administration. The consolidation of the men's and women's athletic departments follows a long national trend; in fact, UT is one of the last major programs to merge the two departments. But there is concern that women's sports will take a backseat to revenue-producing men's athletics, especially now that Summitt, a fervent advocate for women athletes, is semi-retired. Of the 15 positions eliminated during the merger, 12 were held by women. Only one woman currently serves on Hart's seven-person executive staff, and there are just two women on his 16-person senior administrative staff. With Summitt out and long-time women's AD Joan Cronan now in an advisory role, the future of a program that blazed trails for women in sports appears to be in a state of flux at best, and imperiled at worst.
Hart insists there's no reason to worry about gender equity, despite the lack of women's representation on his senior staff.
"There'll be no erosion as it relates to our commitment to women's athletics, to our priority on women's athletics," Hart says. "We have a long and proud history in that regard. ... Being one program, we're not divided by gender to the point that it becomes a stumbling block to maximizing communication and maximizing exposure for the total program, so I'm very pleased. I know there's some angst out there, and I understand that. And that's to be expected. Change is hard. It's innately hard for all of us to change. But I think it can be overstated in the sense of some unfounded trepidation. But we're getting there and I'm very, very pleased with the progress."
The defining game of the 2011 football season for UT fans was the November loss to Kentucky. It was an unforeseen loss, even for a bottom-of-the-league team that had barely survived Vanderbilt in overtime a week before. Tennessee had beaten the Wildcats 26 years in a row, and Kentucky started a converted wide receiver at quarterback. The 10-7 defeat in Lexington was a humiliating end to Dooley's first two seasons—his combined record for those two years was 11-14, 4-12 in the SEC. Dooley himself described his team as "lethargic" and "uninspired" after the game.
That loss set off a still-active round of fan and media speculation about how many games Dooley would need to win in 2012 to keep his job. Hart has resisted that formulation, instead insisting that the only standard he will hold Dooley to is his "progress" in comparison to the last two seasons.
"I never ever have given one second's thought to, okay, last year we won X, this year we've got to win Y," he says. "That's not part of it. No two environments are ever identical in nature when you're coming in as a new coach, because some coaches are really lucky to inherit programs on a really solid foundation with a pretty high level of talent. Others not so much. It can run the gamut from one end of the extreme to the other. The new coaches here, they inherited, for the most part, very difficult rebuilding jobs. So that's the number-one criteria when you assess how are we doing, what kind of progress are we making. It has nothing to do with any number of wins, it has to do with continuing that building process."
Conventional media wisdom has the team better than last year but still not very good; the SEC Media Days poll from July predicts the Vols will finish fifth in the SEC East, ahead of only Kentucky and Vanderbilt and directly behind conference debutante Missouri. But fans, based on talk radio and message boards, are more optimistic, especially after the Vols' season-opening win over North Carolina State on Aug. 31—some cautiously so, some recklessly picking UT to win as many as 10 games. (That optimism might make the general mood in East Tennessee a little more serene than it was at the end of last season, but it could ultimately work against Dooley. If you expect him to win six games, seven is a bonus. If you expect him to win 10 games, eight is a letdown.)
"We're better," Hart says. "I have the opportunity to see it every day—to see the growth, to see the improvement. Most people obviously do not have that insight. I'm excited about the foundation that Derek has put in place. I feel very, very good about the staff that he's built. ... I've seen the chemistry of this staff at play, I have witnessed the ratcheting up of the intensity level, the expectations, the work ethic—it's different, it's different in a very positive way. So I think even though people don't have that first-hand visible assessment that they can make, I think they're sensing that."
When Hart's predecessor, Mike Hamilton, hired Lane Kiffin to replace Phillip Fulmer in 2008, he essentially staked his future to Kiffin's. When Kiffin bolted to Southern California a year later, boosters and fans alike turned on Hamilton. (He survived two more years, but was fired in the wake of the Pearl scandal.)
So far, Hart doesn't seem to face the same kind of pressure. All three major men's sport coaches—Dooley, basketball coach Cuonzo Martin, and baseball coach Dave Serrano—are Hamilton hires, so Hart's fate is not directly tied to their performances. Yet. But he was brought in to fix a mess, and another round of the coaching carousel would likely be seen as a sign of a continuing problem, not an improvement.
Hart seems to understand the challenging circumstances that Dooley and his staff face. He also recognizes that recovering from the disappointments and embarrassments of recent years will take more than a season or two. His vision for the future of UT sports—the one he talks about in public, anyway—doesn't include traditional benchmarks like division or conference championships, signature wins, national rankings, or postseason appearances. "I think people know where we're going and what their role is in the journey," he says. "I think they also know we have a steep hill to climb. We do have challenges here, but we also have terrific opportunities here, and I think the collective gratification at the end of the day that we will all feel when we have scaled the hill we're climbing is priceless."
If that hill is a national football championship or a Final Four appearance, the climb could take half a decade or longer. In fact, it may never happen. Despite the assumptions of hardcore fans, there is no guarantee that UT will ever return to the glories of the 1998 national football championship or the number-one basketball ranking Pearl led his team to in 2008. The competitive standards of college football and basketball get fiercer every year, and the financial stakes have never been higher. Every year that Dooley and Martin spend catching up to the successes of their predecessors is another year that top-flight schools have to recruit bigger and faster players, develop innovative schemes, and add on to 100,000-capacity stadiums—in short, to stay ahead of schools like UT.
Still, Hart has one last nugget of upbeat reinforcement for the Vol community: "I think we're all on the same page, which is critically important to realize your goals," he says. "I think we're moving in a great direction with positive energy. That five-year tough ride created a lot of negative energy, and we're coming out of that and were moving forward with positive energy."