November 24, 2012
Hart's task: Deliver brighter days
Dave Hart strode into the undercarriage of Neyland Stadium less than an hour before kickoff Saturday, the venerable home of Tennessee football rarely ever as tepid as it was on this season-ending, deceptively sunny afternoon.
Hart donned dark sunglasses and an old-school, black letterman-style Tennessee jacket. The tone fit the theme of this period in Volunteers football.
Empty seats, empty bowl plans, empty expectations. Now with Jim Chaney's victorious cameo as interim head coach completed courtesy a 37-17 win against Kentucky, emptiness atop the football program.
Where Hart goes from here will be a fascinating, multi-million dollar move. There were millions on the line Saturday, with numerous Vols --- Tyler Bray, Justin Hunter, Cordarrelle Patterson, Ja'Wuan James and Dan McCullers among them --- indicating they've got potential decisions to make in terms of trying to get paid to play this game.
There were other dollar figures who couldn't speak; concession stands along the west-side concourse closed as early as anyone could remember --- some five minutes remained in the game --- and copious stretches of cold empty bleachers dotted Neyland Stadium.
So maybe those items spoke volumes.
Tennessee is hemorrhaging money and respect right now, even as so many Volunteers seniors continued to earn it on this day. The Vols haven't won enough and haven't been a late-season factor in an SEC divisional race since 2007; they're closing in on the longest SEC championship drought since the league's inception.
That's not particularly to the fault of this group of small, resilient seniors who took commands at various points from five different coaches since they signed with the Vols.
Ben Bartholomew, a third-generation Vol with unique perspective, offered his hope for Tennessee's football future.
"I think if we can just someone here who can get us back to playing Tennessee football - hard, physical football -- we'll be back there dominating everybody like we used to," Bartholomew said.
Aspiring to one day be a coach, senior defensive back Prentiss Waggner also chimed in.
"I think they just need to get an aggressive-styled coach. Just a players' coach; I think a players' coach would be great for guys on this team because we have a whole bunch of personalities," Waggner said. "So to get a guy that is a players' coach and has sort of a players' mentality and players' personality would be good."
Senior wideout Zach Rogers, who this season enjoyed a career renaissance and should be afforded an opportunity to a spot next year in camp with an NFL team, also assessed the program's state and what Hart's charge should be in restoring first relevance and respectability and then championship aspirations.
"I just think it comes with confidence, comes with winning football games," said Rogers, who scored the Vols' first touchdown against the Wildcats on this day in a game UT would never trail. "I know with me, we haven't had the greatest season, haven't had a lot of wins. I think once this program kind of gets the ball rolling again, kind of gets some stability here, I think it will be really good for those guys and once they get some wins, I think they'll keep the ball rolling pretty well.
"Just a guy [to coach] that knows the traditions and wants to keep Tennessee where it's supposed to be, you know? I'm not going to critique any coaching that's been here throughout these past four years, but we just need a guy that believes in everybody and believes in the system."
Hart gained belief this week. Without ever mentioning a name, Tennessee's 13-month vice chancellor and director of athletics last Sunday served notice that the culture of Volunteers' athletics needed change.
By Tuesday, Hart publicly received the money --- $18 million, for now --- that he already had been assured would be available to fix this program marching forward.
If Hart can do that, he would be in line for a wardrobe change. For an orange jacket shines much brighter than black, and it's time that Tennessee's future does the same.
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