Dave Hart stood on stage inside Thompson-Boling Arena last spring and praised iconic Tennessee basketball coach Pat Summitt.
Hart then stood up for Tennessee; for the preservation of longstanding SEC football rivalries and made clear his stance on maintaining the Vols' annual gridiron date with Hart's alma mater, Alabama, upon the league's expansion from 12 to 14 teams.
Rather averse to the spotlight in the 13-plus months since his hiring as UT's vice chancellor and director of athletics after the end of the Mike Hamilton era, Hart at times shows a keen ability to talk a lot without revealing too much when he does grant interviews.
Why does this matter? It doesn't.
Today, Hart is steering his flagship program in a new direction. Sooner, not later. The Derek Dooley experiment is over; so, too, is this dark chapter of a season Saturday when the Vols' underwhelming 2012 campaign concludes inside Neyland Stadium against Kentucky.
It's a crossroads moment for an athletics program growing far too accustomed to earthquakes on Rocky Top; Hart saying so himself.
"First of all, as you well know this will be our fourth football coach in six years. This is not what I wanted and I don't think this what we really needed relative to stability versus more transition," Hart said. "We have had 12 presidents since the year 2000. We now have four football coaches in six years. We need stability. But we need to find stability through a process that we are engaged in now. We have challenges, we have some competitive disadvantages that have been identified, that everyone in our campus has been working to overcome, together. We have some academic competitive disadvantages that we are eliminating. These are all historical in nature. This has been the case for some time, we are now beginning to address and rectify some of those disadvantages. That are real in nature."
It's a crossroads moment for Hart as well. He must get the support he clearly believes he is being assured.
He must get the money, whatever it takes, to make the hire he deems.
"We are not going to let that be a detriment to securing the best coach we can," Hart said of financial challenges. "I have talked to (UT Chancellor Jimmy Cheek) at length about that. We have a 1.9 million dollar reserve, which in the SEC is unheard of. We complete against people who have reserves of about 50-100 million dollars. We are in a tough position financially.
"The chancellor doesn't want us to be at a competitive disadvantage of any nature whether it be financial, or academic or in any other arena where we are trying to compete and get back into the top of that pyramid. We are in a tenuous position, at a crossroads with our athletics program. But, we have people who understand that and are committed to helping us overcome those obstacles. That won't be a detriment, is it a concern? Yes it is a concern."
Hart must get this right. The former Crimson Tide basketball player knows well what he envisions from his next football coach.
"Obviously, we want a coach who knows how to be successful, who has had success and knows the difficulty of climbing the ladder in the SEC and can appreciate and identify what that takes," said Hart, who at times choked back his emotions during his 30-minute Sunday afternoon media session. "We want somebody with integrity. That is important. We just had our probation extended as you are well aware, we don't have a margin for error. We have to have a culture of compliance. That is the number one priority in our athletics department.
"The profile is one that you would expect it to be. Some of the people we will approach they won't want to engage until their season is over. Some people have a false sense that we are late, we are not, we are fine, I have done this many times. People need to take a deep breath. The door is not closing on our opportunities to find the right person."
With the formal dismissal of Dooley, Hart is moving toward hiring a football coach who will be "Hart's guy" to get the proud, $100-million-funded athletics program's "front porch" healthy.
If Hart makes the right hire, the $5 million price tag of dismissing Dooley and potential $9 million overall staff purging, as well as whatever is promised the program's fourth head coach since 2008, will be a bargain.
If Hart makes the wrong choice --- and let's be clear: every indication is that Hart possesses every ounce of requisite fortitude to make this decision with little to no external influence; he intends not to use a search firm --- then it will be his undoing at Tennessee, and quite possibly the closing act on the long and storied career of the 63-year-old college administrator.
Hart's fundraising records are unimpeachable; Bobby Bowden is previously quoted as touting Hart as a "builder" of athletics programs.
Yet Hart doesn't have a long track record of hiring football coaches but does own experience in hiring coaches across multiple sports.
In his first post as an A.D., Hart tabbed Bill Lewis to replace Art Baker at East Carolina. A few seasons later after Lewis led the Pirates to an 11-1 record, Hart had to hire Steve Logan to replace Lewis.
Logan won enough games to rank as the Pirates' all-time winningest coach and posted just four losing seasons in 11 years.
At Florida State, Hart was instrumental in having Jimbo Fisher in the chain of command to assume Bowden's mantel.
Hart, of course, doesn't have to find a coach to target a spot in Tennessee's record books. He merely must find one who can take a roster that's far too talented for a seven-loss season and develop it to win some meaningful games, as well as ones that used to be meaningful only for their automatic nature. See Kentucky, 2011. See Vanderbilt. 2012.
If a new coach can unite the fan base from the outset, even better. Winning, however, is the only universal model for athletic symbiosis.
"I have been doing this a long time. I have done a number [of coaching search]," Hart explained. "It is a pretty important hire. I think any leadership position hire is critically important. Because of the visibility, it makes it extremely important. Your head football coach is the face of the program, just like the head basketball coach and in our case the head women's basketball coach. The Lady Vols basketball coach is very important. Not only in our community, but state.
"So it is very, very important."
It's Tennessee athletics at a crossroads, a spot it finds itself all too frequently. It's Hart's time to lead the Vols across the path.
...More... To continue reading this article you must be a member. Sign Up Now for a FREE Trial