How’s the transition been?
“The transition’s been very, very good and that’s been driven by the people. The people here have just been fantastic. They’ve been extraordinarily helpful in terms of the transition. I think people realize transitions are complex in nature. You’ve got the personal transition, you’ve got the professional transition. We have some really, really special people in this department and beyond. This is a fantastic community and it doesn’t take you long to understand that, and my wife and I feel very proud to be a part of the athletics department, the university and the community that we now live in and just the city of Knoxville.”
Easier to move from another SEC school than it is from another conference like the ACC and Florida State?
“You know, there’s no substantial difference. There’s more similarities than there would be differences. It really doesn’t matter point-to-point so much. Now, I think your question is somewhat about the fact that I’m very familiar with the Southeastern Conference. I’m a product of the SEC as a student-athlete and have always held a great respect for the league and for just the University of Tennessee. When I was early in my career, Tennessee was one of those jobs that if I could ever be to Knoxville and sit in the chair of director of athletics at the University of Tennessee, that would be a very proud moment and sure enough. That opportunity has presented itself and it is indeed a very proud moment.”
Now that you’re here, what have you learned about Tennessee that you didn’t know as an outsider?
“One of the things I said earlier, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the people’s willingness — ’cause people are busy, we live in a white water world now — and yet people have taken time to welcome us, Pam and myself, my wife and myself. If anything, they’ve gone to great lengths to make us feel very much a part of the community and feel welcomed and that’s not only been appreciated, it’s been very impressive and noticeable. Certainly the passion of our fan base is one of the reasons this job is so attractive. People here support our programs and they’ve supported our programs through the good times and bad and that too is very impressive. They care. Athletics has always been a rallying point for a state, for a region, and that’s especially true here at Tennessee, and that’s been a very impressive component of the transition. There’s passion here and it’s very genuine.”
Did you have a short-term list of priorities when you first took over?
“I think so and that’s a very good question. Yes, there’s a 30-day plan, then a 60-day plan, then a 90-day plan, literally. In terms of priorities, you’re keeping a lot of balls in the air, you’re juggling a lot of things. Even if you were not in transition that would be true. So you have to prioritize and you do have to build that plan. One of the priorities was to know everyone. That was my number one priority. To work inside-out. Sit face-to-face with our coaches and staff and then to meet people in the community. A very, very gracious and classy gesture was the reception that was put together for Pam and I. There were hundreds of people there, many of whom we were meeting for the first time. Some of those priorities I just articulated, just building relationships. The beginning of building relationships. Having a verbal exchange with people where you’re getting input and you’re getting to know about them and they’re sharing their views and their priorities because I think ultimately, I think all that is leading toward a common direction and what is our direction going to be and putting a leadership team in place and something that I wanted to do towards the end of that 30 day window so that we can begin building that leadership team so the staff knows who they are and people who are important to us know who they are. Get them in place. Now that’s not completed but we’ve taken some important steps towards building that leadership team.”
Where is the merging of the men’s and women’s athletic departments in its process, and will fans notice anything different going forward?
“I think all the differences will be positive in nature. Obviously the announcement has been made about the programs merging. That’s not completed. We’ve got work to do relative to the merging of the programs. Part of that getting in front of people is to get their insight and to talk to them about that. That’s down the road. In terms of completion of the merger, that’s down the road. We’ve got to get the leadership team in place first, but those steps will take place once dialogue has taken place, and there’ll be a lot of that before we reach a final completion relative to the programs truly being merged.”
What are the advantages of merging the programs?
“We are moving towards being Tennessee, one program. That will never take away from our focus and our priority on women’s athletics, on the pursuit of excellence, on the comprehensive excellence goal being put in motion. What I want is what everyone wants and that’s our teams to achieve at a very high level. We want to raise the bar across the board. We want people to reach higher. No matter how good you are, when you stop learning, you should maybe just get a backpack and head overseas because if you’re not learning, you can’t possibly contribute to the overall improvement of the program. We all learn every day. That’s why input is good, that’s why a common direction is a necessity for us getting to where we all want to go and march in that direction. We have a lot of history here. We have great tradition here. That’s a component most programs do not possess because that happens over many, many years. A lot of people here — coaches, players, student-athletics, administrators, donors, fans, alumni — everybody contributed to reach that tradition and history. We have an obligation to uphold that and build a bridge from the past to the future. We’ve had a tough four years and it’s been well documented. We have wounds to heal and that’s part of the total process of moving in a common direction, merging the programs, going back to being Tennessee. We’ve had some terrific moments in our history and we want to use those moments to catapult us to the future.”
Was moving forward not possible while the NCAA investigation was taking place, and is it now possible with coaches in place?
“I think that’s part of the healing process, to be candid about it, because it’s difficult when you have an atmosphere that’s not positive. It’s hard to make progress. Positive energy drives a lot of corporations, businesses, departments in a very good direction. Negative energy, often times, creates an environment that results in that entity becoming somewhat dysfunctional, and you can’t get where you want to go in a dysfunctional environment. A lot of things can contribute to that — and I’m not saying we were dysfunctional — I’m saying that can easily happen to an organization if there’s not positive energy present.”
Do you think there’s ever been an athletic department that’s gone through so much in such little time?
“As I said, it’s been a very difficult three-to-four years. This university is deserving of a new beginning, if you will. A new beginning to return to the past because we have so much history and tradition and such a passionate fan base and alumni base. Collectively, they deserve for the good times to come back. We have coaches in place who will play an integral role in getting us there. But it’s going to take time. We have at least three coaches who are very new in Derek Dooley, Cuonzo Martin and Dave Serrano. We have a lot of positive things at the University of Tennessee and a lot of programs that continue to achieve at the top of the pyramid, both in our league and nationally. We want to reach a point where all our teams are achieving at that high level.”
What are your impressions of Derek Dooley so far?
“I really like Derek Dooley. Derek Dooley is a great person and a heck of a football coach. He’s the right person to lead this program and to accomplish some of the things we’ve talked about. He’s also due a break, a good break, we’ve had some tough breaks. But that’ll all happen. Derek and his staff will continue to recruit well and continue to make progress towards climbing back up to that position we were accustomed to for many years in football. Derek can get us there. Now, we have to help him. What Derek needs is assistance. He needs positive advocates. He needs people who understand that this is not a quick-fix, this is going to take time.”
Is all this conference expansion good for college athletics?
“Well, I don’t know that that’s even the primary issue. It’s a good question and it’s a fair question and it’s been played out and debated in the media for several months now. I understand that, but by the same token, I never felt in following this evolution over the years that we had reached a destination and this is further evidence of that. It’s like post-season football, I’ve watched that evolution as well. One day the dust will settle and we’ll have a post-season football environment that remains constant and conference realignment will have reached its final stage. But we’re not there sitting here having this conversation.”
Tennessee playing Alabama on Saturday, this game has to have special meaning to you?
“Well, only in the sense that I’m a month into the transition. As I’ve said, that’s just like East Carolina, just like Florida State, my wife and I had wonderful experiences every place we’ve been and we loved every place we’ve been and we love now having the chance to be a part of this family and represent this program. I don’t take that lightly. We’ve been lucky and this is an opportunity that we remain very, very excited about. I’m a Tennessee Vol. Yes, I’m returning to one of those places where I worked and where we have a history, but it won’t have any impact on who we represent, I can assure you of that.”
It doesn’t hurt your son is the athletic director at UT-Chattanooga?
“That’s been unique to have a son who’s an athletic director at another school in our system. It’s probably very rare but we are rare in the sense that our family, we have a history and a legacy that’s important to all of us to uphold because my father was a director of athletics, I’m in that role, my son is in that role. We have three generations of athletics administrators, which is pretty unusual in its own right.”
Hart wants to promote ‘positive energy’ at UT
How’s the transition been?