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VOL. 132 | NO. 25 | Friday, February 3, 2017

Hart’s Tenure as AD Has Been Mostly Good for Vols

BY DAVID CLIMER, Nashville Sports Correspondent

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While we wait – and wait and wait and wait – for the University of Tennessee to hire its next athletics director, let’s ponder the man who soon will walk out the door.

Tennessee AD Dave Hart, left, will never be as beloved by University of Tennessee faithful as Peyton Manning, center, and Phil Fulmer, but he did get a listless athletics department back on the path to success.

(Ruth Dudley/Tennessee Athletics/UTsports.com)

Dave Hart is leaving the UT athletics department better than he found it. He got things back on solid financial footing. He brought a measure of stability.

Yes, there were missteps, including but not limited to the whole Lady Vols fiasco and the hiring of Donnie Tyndall as men’s basketball coach. But his overall performance has been positive.

Say what you want about Hart. It won’t matter. He doesn’t care. He has the thickest skin of any UT administrator since Doug Dickey, the athletics director in 1985-2002. If you’re in that position, it helps to have the exoskeleton of a lobster.

Those who have worked with Hart say he is immune to criticism. He takes it with a shrug.

On Hart’s watch, it has been his way or the highway. The turnover in the athletics department over the last five years is a testament to that. Hart set a course and expected everyone to pull in the same direction. If not, your services are no longer required.

Hart’s unflinching, often-aloof management style does not suit everyone but it was needed in the aftermath of Mike Hamilton’s tenure as UT athletics director. While Hamilton did some good things in his eight years at UT (the renovation of Thompson-Boling Arena from a glorified airplane hangar to its current state as a college basketball palace being chief among them), his overall performance was lacking.

Hamilton gave us Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley. He also gave us Bruce Pearl, which was very good before it turned very bad. He oversaw a facelift of Neyland Stadium. Hamilton, whose background was in fundraising, is a good, caring person but did not have the vision to keep UT sports on the fast track in a rapidly changing world.

After him, UT needed a bad cop. Hart was more than willing to oblige.

Hart’s greatest accomplishment was getting UT sports back in the black. It wasn’t easy. He ran his department like the big business it had become, an approach that had been lacking prior to his arrival.

In 2013, Sports Business Daily reported that the Big Orange was in the red – to the tune of $200 million. The financial deficit, which began spiraling out of control on Hamilton’s watch, was due to rising costs and a succession of bad football seasons that hit the department right where it hurt – in the budget.

Among the items on the ledger: almost $8 million in buyouts to make Dooley and his staff go away after the disastrous 2012 season.

When you operate with such single-minded purpose, it tends to put up barriers between you and the fans. When Hart was hanging out in the lobby of the team hotel the morning of a football game, you didn’t expect there to be a big group-hug with the orange-clad horde. He maintained a distance, and so did the fans.

That’s simply the man’s style. He is an administrator, not your best friend. He deals with the big-time boosters that contribute heavily to the cause. He maintains a distance from everyone else.

The best athletics directors are able to do it both ways.

Before he retired in October and assumed a role as consultant, Jeremy Foley of Florida was the best in the business. He was equally comfortable working the room at a Gator Club meeting and handling all the executive decisions that come with the job.

The most visible thing an athletics director does is hire coaches, and Hart has been hit or miss.

For the better part of three years, it looked like Hart’s hiring of Butch Jones as Vols football coach was a home run. But an underperforming team this season leaves Jones facing a crossroads in 2017, when he’ll be working for a new athletics director.

It often is forgotten these days but Jones was far from Hart’s first choice for the job. Hart tried to hire Charlie Strong, who was then at Louisville, and made a pass at Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy before targeting Jones, who had finished his third season at Cincinnati.

When Cuonzo Martin exited for California, Hart offered the men’s basketball coaching job to Michael White but was rebuffed. He wound up hiring Tyndall, then the coach at Southern Miss, who had NCAA sanctions on his record when he was coach at Morehead State in 2010.

Tyndall’s past again caught up to him. When the NCAA leveled serious charges against Southern Miss for alleged rules violations during Tyndall’s tenure, Hart fired him. Given his background, Tyndall never should have been hired at UT, but at least the Vols didn’t have to pay a $3 million buyout since he was fired for cause.

As for current events, the jury is still out on Hart’s hiring of veteran Rick Barnes as Tyndall’s replacement. Barnes, who had many years of success at Texas before he was fired, has had his moments at UT – including victories over Kentucky in each of his two seasons – but has yet to break into the top tier of the SEC.

From where I sit, Hart’s biggest mistake concerned the renaming of UT’s women’s sports teams. At some point, Hart became obsessed with the concept he called One Tennessee – a singular marketing brand where everything falls under the same heading and the same Power-T logo.

On the front end, he followed through with an edict from his bosses to consolidate the men’s and women’s athletic departments under one roof. He stepped on some toes in the process but it was a prudent move. It has streamlined the UT athletics department.

But Hart couldn’t leave well enough alone. It was his decision to remove the “Lady” from all women’s teams – except the basketball team. The move made no sense. Why let one women’s team retain the name Lady Vols while the other eight women’s sports teams became Vols?

It is always wise to pick your fights. This was a fight Hart never should have picked. The name “Lady Vols” has become a brand, mostly because of the success of the women’s basketball program. Why change it?

I wouldn’t be surprised if the next UT athletics director rolls back Hart’s executive order and reinstitutes the Lady Vols name on all women’s sports at the school.

We will never fully know Hart’s role in the events surrounding the retirement of legendary women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt. Some believe Hart put pressure on Summitt to retire after the 2012 season.

If so, it was the right call. Summitt had fought through the season bravely while coping with the devastating effects of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease while Holly Warlick handled most of the head coaching duties.

Summitt announced her retirement on April 18, 2012. After several months of deteriorating health, she died on June 28, 2016 at the age of 64.

When Summitt retired, Hart did the right thing by elevating Warlick into the head coaching position. It was a just reward for the way Warlick handled things during that tumultuous 2012 season.

Moving forward, however, Warlick needs to get the Lady Vols back into national championship contention or her days may be numbered.

But that will be a decision for the next athletics director to make.

Reach David Climer at dclimer1018@yahoo.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer.

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