April 30, 2014

Putting the 'Power T' in unity

The moment was a big one.

In ways, perhaps, even a defining one for University of Tennessee Vice Chancellor and Director of Athletics Dave Hart. It was nearly a year ago, but Monday it was still fresh on Hart's mind when I asked him how his program had embraced the 'One Tennessee' theme despite continued struggles to win at a championship level in most sports.

"Yeah, there have been several of those moments," Hart said on Monday when asked what had crystalized the athletics department's vision of unity. "I think relative to combining the program [from separate men's and women's athletics departments] when the softball team returned from the World Series, I thought that was a defining moment. Because we didn't organize that; we didn't say, 'Hey, at such-and-such time, let's everybody get together.' That was, I thought, one of many defining moments. I see it a lot. I see it a lot because I'm here every day. I see the change for the better. I see the collective effort. I see the collective gratification for how far we've come. We had to get our arms around a lot, but we've come a long way and a lot of good things are happening."

Leading the welcome wagon a year ago was football head coach Butch Jones. The same Jones who spoke with the softball team and challenged them before they headed into regional play by asking them to all sign a softball. A ball co-head coach Ralph Weekly kept in his pocket in post-season play.

Despite another losing season in football and another coaching change, Hart, to borrow a line from Jones, has never felt better about his athletic department. Hart said it when he introduced new head basketball coach Donnie Tyndall. But it's not just in press conferences or interviews that he's saying it. Standing at midfield for the Orange and White Game watching the VFL flag game, Hart sought me out to talk about a couple of different topics, but the conversation quickly turned to the synergy in his department. A synergy Hart reenforced on Monday when he sat down with VolQuest.com.

"I think internally, and that's where it had to start. I attribute it to everybody being on the same page and moving in the same direction," Hart said of his department's togetherness. "To get our football program healthy and to accomplish that 'One Tennessee,' everybody has to buy in. That's essential, and that was not instantaneous in nature. I think we had to build trust. I think we had to open lines of communication, first internally and then externally. I think we had to prove to people that this was not lip-service. That for us to get where we wanted to go, everybody had a role. Fans had a role, the administration has a role, campus administration has a role, all of our coaches. Our program's combined now. We don't have meetings that are totally separate. Everybody is in the meeting. So I think a lot of those facets have unfolded and been solidified. And I think the majority of our fan base and our alumni base sees that it's real and they want to be a part of the recovery. And that's what it is. It's a program that is still in a recovery mode, still building the blocks or as Butch would say the bricks that are necessary to build the house back up."

Hart, his staff and members of the athletic department deserve a lot of credit for buying in, but credit should also be given to Jones for being the catalyst or the mason, if you will, of that building.

At Tennessee, football reigns supreme. It always has and it always will. That's not to say you can't win in other sports. You can; Tennessee has and the Vols are committed to doing so again. But the reality is that for all things orange and white, football sets the tone.

And while Jones and his staff work to try and return the Vols to on the field glory, one of his biggest accomplishments to date is leading Hart's 'One Tennessee' mantra. It's Jones who was at postseason basketball games on the road for both the men's and women's program. It's Jones who had Dave Serrano over to his house for dinner to pick his brain at the first of the year and was in Serrano's dugout to congratulate the Vols' baseball skipper earlier this season. It's Jones who recently requested some time with Master's low amateur Oliver Goss to visit with him about his experience.

It's Jones who asked for score updates on games in both basketball and baseball from the media at the end of a spring practice last month.

And it was Jones who a year ago was front and center to meet the Weeklys and their softball team as they returned from Oklahoma City in Hart's pointed out "moment of togetherness."

Tennessee football must get healthy. It's been Hart's plea since his arrival. It's something everyone in his athletics department understands and is on board with. Healthy football is a financial must for everyone to succeed. But for Hart it's not an understanding that's met with resistance, thanks in large part to his football coach. A program leader whose desire for success in all things Vols has all the leaders in orange laying bricks on the same house for the first time in a long, long time.

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