Outlining a number of challenges facing college athletics and particularly the University of Tennessee, Dave Hart shared his vision for the Vols' athletics future Tuesday during a speech and question-and-answer session with the Maryville Kiwanis Club.
Hart, UT's Vice Chancellor and Director of Athletics since Sept. 2011, also insisted that nothing had been tabled in the master plans for Neyland Stadium renovations --- he was asked specifically about East Side renovations --- or other projects, but he maintained that enhancing student-athletes' experiences remained top priority. Hart did not provide a timeline of when Neyland Stadium enhancements might resume.
Hart again outlined the need for a volleyball practice facility and renovated locker rooms inside Thompson-Boling Arena for both the men's and women's basketball programs, pausing to marvel that Pat Summitt could've won eight national championships despite locker rooms not remotely on par with most of the SEC, according to Hart. He was introduced by esteemed State Sen. Doug Overbey, who noted Hart's job as head of a major college athletics program was as tough as any in the South and likened it to hard everyday work like managing and maintaining power lines --- something Hart joked he felt he had tangled with at times in his work at UT.
"Our financial position will not deter us at all from our pursuit of comprehensive excellence. We won't allow it to cut into the fiber of that mission. And again, we're fine," Hart emphasized. "One of the things we have to do initially is be better stewards of our own resources. So that's where it starts. And we're doing that, and we'll continue to do that.
"You're referencing our facilities master plan. We have not taken anything out of our facilities master plan. What we have done, is we've prioritized.
What I usually find, and found here, is that where the student-athletes walk is areas where a lot of work still needs to be done. And that's what I found here. We have two of the finest venues in all of college athletics, in all of sports for that matter, Neyland Stadium and Thompson-Boling Arena. As it relates to the stadium, the amenities, the aesthetics, not that we can't enhance it, and as you say we still have two sections of the stadium that we want to turn our attention to.
"But not before we upgrade the men's and women's basketball locker rooms. You know it was amazing to me that when I first went into our ladies' basketball locker room, for Pat to have won eight national titles. If I took you all on a trip around the Southeastern Conference, and into the other locker rooms, you'd be shocked. You'd be shocked. So we're going to upgrade those.
"We have not built and new residence hall on the campus of the University of Tennessee for 40 years. You need a minute to absorb that. Forty. We're building one now, one is under construction. And you know we've got the Stokely (Athletic Center) footprint. Stokely is coming down, as you all know. We are in conversations with the Chancellor and appropriate people at the University, as to what to do with that footprint.
"We have the smallest outdoor football footprint that I've seen, with the possible exception of Duke. We need more outdoor fields. We need to partner with the University, in my opinion, to consider to have meaningful conversation about our residence hall. Now we don't know. The University has a lot of needs. Obviously we have needs for new residence halls at our university. Significant needs."
Revealing he still uses and old-school Franklin planner and insisting "We'll get where we all want to go" in UT athletics, Hart also reaffirmed that the UT athletics department will retain all additional revenues from the Southeastern Conference's upcoming renegotiated television pact with ESPN, CBS and the potential advent of the SEC Network. He was asked how the department would get out from under the numerous contractual obligations left from the buyouts of coaches and administrators no longer at UT. Tennessee has absorbed more than $10 million in contract buyouts in the past five years.
"The perception and the reality, there was a huge divide between our financial position and our real position and the perceived position. The perceived position was that we were plus with money. And the real position was that that was not the case.
"Now I'm not concerned about that long term, because we do have a strategy. It'll take us where we want to go. But to give you that example, which again has been made public in nature, our reserve was under $2 million. Now for a Southeastern Conference athletics department, that's unheard of. Because we compete against people that have financial reserves athletically of $50 to over $100 million.
"One of the things the Chancellor has done, two things he's done, he took revenues, athletic revenues that we've been transferring as a gift, a portion of a larger donation back to the university. But the gift portion, he returned three years of that gift portion to us so we could stabilize. And then he has committed to allow us to keep in the athletic revenue, all of the new money, once we've renegotiated our television contract through the Southeastern Conference. So that will enable us to have a firm footing financially to move forward. But that was, as I told Doug, probably the biggest surprise. The specific thing you're mentioning, of course we're legally bound and contractually bound to pay those buyouts, but it was a big number, you're correct. Both in the number of people and the financial number was pretty significant in nature."
Hart also said that "technology" is college athletics' biggest opponent right now and that he would not rule out an eventual 16-team playoff in football, noting that folks for a long time dismissed the notion of even the four-team model that goes into effect in 2014. Hart said he believes "nothing is off the table."
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