Dave Hart was on his new job less than 10 minutes before he showed he had his finger squarely on the pulse of public opinion. Immediately after his introduction as Tennessee's new director of athletics, and before he'd fielded his first question from the assembled media, Hart addressed the 'Alabama' issue.
Hart's qualifications for the job are difficult to question. He had a highly successful 12-year run as the athletic director at Florida State from 1995-2007 where he oversaw an athletic department that captured 35 ACC titles across 10 sports.
That's probably not the first detail that jumps off his bio page from a Tennessee fan's perspective. Rather his background as a former Alabama basketball player in the 1970's and his role as the Executive Director of Athletics for the Crimson Tide for the past three years are of immediate interest to Tennessee fans.
Hart wasted no time in meeting that concern head on.
"I want this to be perfectly clear. I am absolutely totally committed to the University of Tennessee. I wanted to say that early because I didn't want you all to be injured tripping over one another to ask the Alabama question," Hart said, addressing the elephant in the room and displaying a sense of humor at the same time.
"I wanted to go ahead and get that on the table. I look back to Saturday. Nick Saban is an alum of Kent State and I did not see much mercy being shown by Nick at the stadium on Saturday because he's the head coach at the University of Alabama. That's where his job is, that's where his loyalties lie, that's where his passion is and this is where my passion is from this night forward."
For his part, Cheek downplayed any role Hart's Alabama ties had in the decision.
"I think you always, in a search for any particular position, go after the very best person in the country that you can go after and try to convince them to come here. That was not a consideration," Cheek said on the topic.
Resplendent in a bright Orange tie offset by a stylish dark suit and showing off what sounded like a legitimate southern drawl, Hart looks the part of an SEC athletic director. If Tennessee fans can get past the 'Bama-background,' Hart thinks they'll find someone ready to embrace the tradition and passion embodied by Tennessee athletics.
Hart, whose son Rick is the athletic director at UT-Chattanooga, indicated that he and his wife Pam were anxious to put down roots and join the Tennessee family.
"We're not transient people, and I say this in a very positive vein and our history would verify that. It was hard for us to leave East Carolina. It was hard for us to leave Florida State, and it was hard to leave Alabama," Hart said. "But each time we left we immediately knew who we were, where we were and what our passion would be. That's already transpired. Our passion is for the University of Tennessee.
"I understand. It's like respect. Respect is not granted. Respect is earned. I understand that in some people's minds that's an issue because of the nature of the rivalry. The history. I do understand that. I don't think though that people should react as vigorously as they might in some corners. It will take time to prove yourself and that will occur in time."
For the Vols' athletic department, Hart's hire will hopefully put to bed one of the most tumultuous years in the history of the University. With a divisive NCAA investigation resolved last month with what has to be considered a 'best-case-scenario' outcome, the focus in Knoxville can finally shift towards the future.
That's the theme that new men's head basketball coach Cuonzo Martin was focused on Monday evening.
"I think it's great for the university so you can push forward. Obviously the fan base, they can settle a little bit from the standpoint we have somebody. Now I just think as an athletic department we can all move forward," Martin said after Hart's introductory press conference.
"I think the one thing about the University of Tennessee is you have great coaches across the board. That is impressive from a university standpoint. I think he'll do a great job, he'll hit the ground running, get to know everybody from the head coaches to the assistant coaches and I think everybody will be excited about it."
With Hart in place, the department finally can start building towards some continuity. Toward that goal it's likely a benefit that none of his head coaches could possibly be very set in their ways.
Derek Dooley, beginning his second season in Knoxville, is the 'Dean of the Athletic Department,' while neither Martin or new baseball coach Dave Serrano have coached their first game for the Vols.
"I think it's exciting," Hart said of the opportunity to work with three relatively new head coaches in his major men's sports. "I think you can look down the road five years and be talking about three of the greatest coaches in the country. I think you've got three young people who have all the right things that you need to be successful in terms on their priorities, the way they organize, they're going to be demanding in a positive way. I think the future can be very, very bright in that regard. That's an exciting element of taking this position.
"I have not had a chance to get face to face with those coaches, but that's a priority for tomorrow."
The decision to hire Hart closes a three month search that featured more than a few fits and starts. Cheek stressed strongly that in spite of the sometimes sordid nature of the search, the the culmination was everything he could have hoped for.
"The first time I talked to him I knew within five minutes that he was serious about Tennessee," Cheek recounted.
"He's got very high character, integrity, honesty. That comes through very well when you sit down and talk to him. I think our fans are really going to be proud of him as our athletic director and vice chancellor as they get to meet and know him."
SHUFFLE ON DECK?
While Hart obviously wasn't ready to go into any specifics about what plans he may have for the department when it came to personnel matters, he didn't deny that some changes may be forthcoming.
"There's a lot of discussion and ground to be traveled relative to building a leadership team. I think this, and I feel very strongly about this, what separates really good corporations, really good organizations from great ones, it always comes back to people," Hart said when asked if he had any individuals already in mind he would like o bring aboard.
"Always. You look at an athletic team, you name the sport, that might be struggling and suddenly new coach is infused into the program, same players, different, better results. Corporations will tell you that. It always comes back to people. There will be a very fair assessment process to go through, and then we'll make those types of decisions."