Before he officially started as athletic director at Tennessee, Dave Hart reached out to Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long to pick his brain about the process of merging two long-separated, male and female departments.
Like Hart is now, Long was tasked with merging the Razorbacks' two factions when he was hired to replace Frank Broyles in 2007. The complexities of bringing two departments under one roof certainly aren't lost on Hart, and he's made it clear that he was wide open to feedback.
Though it's unclear just how much Hart plans to take from Long's playbook, he appears to have borrowed at least one idea.
Earlier in the month, Hart and members of his tight-knit leadership team, the UT administrators who will guide the program through this complicated and important process, escaped from the office and retreated to an undisclosed location in the city. There, the groundwork was drawn up for what one, cohesive UT athletic department will stand for and how that plan will be executed during the two to three months after the holiday season.
"Our plans for what our priorities are going to be, what is our mission, what is our vision statement, what do our core values look like?" Hart said in an interview with the News Sentinel. "It doesn't do us any good just to put those on a piece of paper. Can we live them? Will people understand them? Will they know that this is who we are?
"It's important we know that, that we know where we're going, that our fanbase and alumni know where we're going and all of our coaches and student-athletes know that we are going to be student-athlete centered."
Six months after he started at Arkansas, Long took his key staff members 155 miles off campus to a resort atop Petit Jean Mountain, according to a
2008 ArkansasSports360.com article. Similarly to how Hart talks now about UT's future, Long called the meeting an "advance" because the future was all that mattered.
"Whether it is an athletic department or Fortune 500 company, organization and communication are the key to success," Long told the website. "We've created some new lines of communication. We've worked very hard to do that."
Throughout his first three months at UT, Hart opened up those lines of communication through a long series of one-on-one meetings with about 60 members of the athletic department. Lasting roughly an hour apiece, the meetings, which focused on similar talking points no matter who was on the other side of the table, provided Hart with a sense of what he could consider as the program's "strengths and weaknesses."
"I got to know people, they had an opportunity to get to know me," Hart said. "It really helped me gauge whether I was missing the mark or on the mark with what my eyes were seeing.
"It was very, very productive and beneficial."
Asked if there was the potential for consolidating the number of employees in the $100 million athletic department, Hart said, "we're looking at all of that because you have to." No dramatic turnover came out of Long's reorganization at Arkansas, but there were plenty of title changes.
At UT, Hart will see longtime women's athletic director Joan Cronan shift into her new position as a senior adviser to Hart and chancellor Jimmy Cheek in July 2012. Hart is still in the process of naming a replacement to Cronan, but it's clear the responsibilities of the position will differ. Whomever it is will join senior administrators Chris Fuller, David Blackburn and newly hired Jon Gilbert and Mike Ward — both of whom worked with Hart at Alabama — as members of Hart's leadership team.
The only employee known to be on his or her way out from UT is longtime media relations director Bud Ford. The 45-year veteran had planned to retire at the end of the year and assume a role as the department's part-time historian, but that position has since been eliminated.
"We were separate programs for so very long," Hart said. "We have a lot of duplication as you might imagine, so we have to assess that and say 'OK, we want to be one program.' "
The goal of "comprehensive excellence" won't be lost when the merger is completed, Hart said. "Erosion," he said, is not an option.
"I think one artificial fear might be, if we're going to be one program ultimately, will that take away from our level of achievement and success in women's athletics?" Hart asked. "Absolutely not. It will strengthen it. We won't allow erosion to take place, we won't allow a lesser priority on the total program.
"I think we have some exciting opportunities in that arena as well and that's what we'll spend the next two or three months working toward bringing that to conclusion."