Dave Hart had his blinders up all the way back to Knoxville. The 175-mile drive back from Tennessee's unexpected, season-ending loss to Kentucky wasn't enough time to let his emotions simmer from a performance he still describes as "unacceptable."
Hart's focus on the big picture wasn't in the right place at that moment, he admitted Thursday. That's one of the reasons why UT's vice chancellor of athletics didn't think it'd be appropriate to speak with football coach Derek Dooley or offer the coach a public vote of confidence after the uninspired, 10-7 nightmare loss to the Wildcats, the program's first since 1984.
"Nobody was more upset than the guy you are looking at," Hart said in an interview with the News Sentinel on Thursday, the first day in which he's sat down with reporters since the end of UT's 5-7 football season.
"When I've been around that level of disappointment, I don't talk to the coach for at least 24 hours, sometimes 48 hours. I don't have anything good to say. I can't be encouraging at that moment. I'm feeling what a lot of people are feeling at that moment because it hurts, it's embarrassing. You're human."
As the supervisor of UT's 20 varsity sports, Hart doesn't have the luxury to feel like that for long. A cool-down period might have been in order during the immediate aftermath of the abrupt end to Dooley's second season at UT, but the stewing couldn't drag into the days and weeks of important meetings with his highest-paid coach.
Hart has since had a number of "candid conversations" with Dooley and — dating back to when he took over at UT in October — said he talks with the coach "very often." Just like he would in meetings with the golf and volleyball coaches, Hart voiced his opinion on what he liked, didn't like or questioned.
The final decisions, Hart stressed, were left up to Dooley.
"I've never done it differently. I'm always honest with coaches and worked hard to develop candid and honest relationships with coaches where
you do build a level of trust," Hart said. "I've never told a coach 'You need to get rid of Assistant X or Assistant Y.' I've offered my opinion, coaches have always received that well and oftentimes they've initiated that.
"The coach knows better than I know because he's in the meeting rooms, he's at practice two and a half hours a day, he's in the weight room. But I also try to observe and offer my opinions, but I've never mandated that."
In the weeks since the season finale, Dooley has replaced wide receivers coach Charlie Baggett with former Vol Jay Graham, who will coach running backs, and seen tight ends/special teams coach Eric Russell leave for a similar position on new coach Mike Leach's staff at Washington State.
Time remains for even more staff turnover in what has been a hectic offseason in college football. Whoever Dooley has alongside him in 2012 will provide the backbone of a team that, because of youth and a lack of leadership among the players, has yet to show it has "the key elements that you need to build championships," Hart said.
That's why Hart isn't hanging a desired win total over Dooley's head in what will be his third of a six-year deal with the Vols.
"It's not about win totals. It's about progress," Hart said. "It's about progress in a lot of different arenas but progress between the lines matters.
"I think Derek Dooley has all the qualities that you need, all the skill sets you need in a head football coach. Derek is a young coach, (men's basketball coach Cuonzo Martin) is a young coach What young coaches need more than anything is a positive advocate and a candid advocate that they know, 'Hey, this person's trying to help. I've got to do my part, this person is going to do his part and we're going to build this together.' "
The effects of attrition and an overall lack of talent on a roster after back-to-back years of coaching changes are certainly real, Hart said. The situation Dooley inherited differed significantly from what a number of new coaches across the country will find themselves in next year, and that's something Hart said he considers when evaluating the results of his tenure.
With every passing year, though, those inherited circumstances provide less and less of a reason for why the product on the field is what it is.
"I don't think you can keep using excuses. We're not young anymore," Hart said. "That shouldn't even be a point of conversation anymore. We're not young. We're not inexperienced anymore.
"You just have to put all those things in the rearview mirror and keep looking forward."
Hart said his goal to "get football healthy" because it's "the engine to the train." Remedying it, he said, goes well beyond what Dooley can do.
"We've got to give Derek Dooley and that staff and those student-athletes all the pieces that are necessary to build that puzzle into a championship product," Hart said. "We've got some shortfalls in those areas that need to be addressed. We've got to fulfill our obligation."
Even with attendance falling to new lows in 2011, Hart said he applauds the UT fanbase's patience during what he describes as a "rebuilding mode" not only for football, but as well as men's basketball and baseball. He called it "rough waters" for one of the country's top-grossing athletic departments, which is also in the process of major structural changes during the ongoing merger of its long-separate men's and women's divisions.
"A lot of the adversity that we are facing is a byproduct of the tough times that we've gone through," Hart said. "We're developing a plan to get through the rough waters. They'll smooth out but not before the ship tilts and rocks."
To a UT fanbase that has rocked and tilted more than it's celebrated during the past four years, Hart said he understands the negativity that's swirled since the Kentucky loss. He gets it because even he wasn't above briefly contributing to it.
"I know it's hard for others to see it, but I see it every day. We're moving," Hart said. "We've got a direction that we're putting in place and we're moving in that direction.
"We've got a long way to go to get to that level of consistent success. We're in the pursuit of excellence. We're going to make comprehensive excellence our priority."