The world of Tennessee athletics is the most visible element of the total university structure.

No one is more aware of this than UT athletics director Dave Hart. Hart sat down with Daily Beacon assistant sports editor Austin Bornheim and myself to communicate his vision for the future of the athletics department.

"We want to pursue comprehensive excellence in every sport we have, men's and women's," Hart said. "We want to compete for championships in the SEC, which when you compete for championships in our conference, you do compete for national titles as well because it's such a competitive league."

But championships are not his only focus. He said the coaches, players and his administrative staff are all anxious to see the programs succeed on more than a competitive level.

"When I say we want to achieve comprehensive excellence, I'm not just talking about the competitive arena," said Hart. "We want to achieve at a high level everything that we do, not just the competitive arena."

But just as athletics are the most visible aspect of the university, the competitive side is the most visible element of the athletics program.

"The competitive arena will become the most visible, because as fans come to any of our games, that's what they see, that's what their eyes see," Hart said.

He said it comes down to impersonal relationships between fans and the coaches and the players they support.

"They don't get enough opportunities, and we're trying to create more, where they can see our student athletes as people and as students outside of that competitive arena," Hart said. "We have some outstanding young people in this program."

Hart said he is focused on the athletic department's role in the university's total structure.

"(The athletic department is) not the most important, it shouldn't be and we're not, but clearly, we're the rallying point," Hart said. "We're the emotional hot button, if you will."

Hart said this can be a positive for the department.

"That's great because people take pride when athletic teams are succeeding on the national stage. We have alumni all over America who feel very good about that," he said. "We want to get back to the point and we have many programs who are doing that and have done that very consistently."

But the programs are not where Hart wants them to be at this time. The good news is, he sees growth internally.

"We have challenges which are also opportunities. We had a tough five, six year run, but we've tried to put that in the rear view mirror and say 'this is where we are, this is where we want to go and let's talk about how we get there,'" he said. "I'm real pleased, particularly internally, we have everybody moving in the same direction with positive energy, focused on our goals."

Part of that change and forward motion has come from combining the men's and women's programs into one, making the goals and aspirations of each conjoined for the common good.

"We were two separate programs for a long, long time. We've merged those programs, respecting the past and respecting the hard work it took to reach some of those milestones that the men and the women were able to achieve," said Hart. "As I talked to all of our student athletes, our coaches, our staff, people are energized and excited that that merger has taken place. I feel very good about it. I feel good about the fact that we have a lot of outstanding coaches here who are working hard to help us reach our goals."