Mike Strange visited with University of Tennessee Vice chancellor/athletic director Dave Hart on a wide range of topics.
Q: Roughly 20 years ago when you were at East Carolina, you had a list of five schools you might be interested in. Why was Tennessee on that list?
A: Because I thought Tennessee had the fundamental ingredients to be a consistent winner on the national scene, with the tradition, history, passion and resources. I wanted to live on the Eastern Seaboard, that region of the country, because I think you also find the passion in that part of the country.
A: I did. I interviewed him for about three hours. We were in a search and Phillip had serious interest. But my fear, and I told him this, was I was looking for stability. My fear was Phillip would come and be there a year or two, maybe three at the most, and then leave for greener pastures. He had the opportunity here within that three-year window so that proved to be accurate.
Q: You were on the sideline for one of UT's great moments, the Fiesta Bowl. What was that night like for you over on that Florida State sideline?
A: I have that image of Peerless Price indelibly etched in my mind, going down the sideline, beating Mario Edwards, who was a heck of a player and played a lot of years in the NFL. That was the difference in the game. It was a great game. What I remember about that trip was the two fan bases getting along so well. There seemed to be a genuine level of respect between the fan bases, because when you're in Phoenix for a week you have a lot of opportunities to intermingle. That was a really positive experience.
Q: When you came here in September, you said you were aware there were wounds for a number of reasons. Here we are in May. Have those wounds been healed at all or did football make them worse?
A: Fair question. Football certainly didn't make them worse. Football was all about the Kentucky performance, not so much about the season in total. I think we are beginning to heal, I do. I think we have a direction. That was a major component in the healing process, It was incumbent on us as an athletic leadership team, administratively, to develop a direction. I think we've done that. I've enjoyed being out on the Caravan. That's a fair litmus test to where our people are and I think they're excited. I think they very much are looking forward to the fall and I'm certainly looking forward to the fall.
Q: To what extent are those wounds affecting donations and season-ticket renewals?
A: Not as much as you might think. I think what I was referencing was the four-or five-year run that has been so very difficult. And I've stopped talking about it because our focus is forward and not in reverse. I think if the good Lord had wanted you to worry about what happened yesterday he'd put eyes in the back of your head. So we're focused on moving forward, but we also understand what got us here. I think you have to have an appreciation for that as you do move forward. So I don't think really it's anything more than just what I articulated.
Q: You're fresh from the Big Orange Caravan. What did you take away from that?
A: It's just a verification of what I already knew in the sense of that passion i spoke of earlier. We are so fortunate to have the fan base that we enjoy here. Because they are passionate, they are loyal, they love this university, they bleed orange and white. For us to have two of the biggest venues in college athletics with Neyland Stadium and Thompson-Boling, and to see the atmospheres created in those venues by our fan base, it'll give you chill bumps. I don't think anybody else can enjoy what we have here with 21,000 for basketball and over a hundred thousand for football. That goes back to your very first question. It's a verification of what I thought about the University of Tennessee at that time.
Q: There's a sense that in football things are going to get better this year. Did you pick that up from the Caravan?
A: I did. Our fan base is also very knowledgeable, and all fan bases are not necessarily. I think some of the prongs of the rebuilding that they're very cognizant of include we have coaches who inherited significant rebuilding jobs, including Derek Dooley. It takes some time to find your way through that maze. I'm really impressed with Derek's staff, and I know we had an inordinate amount of turnover with seven new coaches. But at the end of the day, when you look at the staff now, we lost some good coaches and I want to say that because it' a fact, but this group collectively I like their energy. I think we have ratcheted up, clearly, the intensity level, There seems to be a lot more urgency, enthusiasm. I see our players as I go about and to a person, the players have noted those differentials. They're excited about that. I think for that reason and others, our fan base is looking forward to the fall.
I don't think I answered your question about tickets and erosion and we have that. I think that transcends Tennessee. I know it does. That's kind of a common thread around the country. What I always say about that, it goes back to our venues. If you research this, you would find only a handful or so of schools who have a stadium that seats over a hundred thousand. You would have only a handful of schools that can seat over 20,000 in basketball. So even though, clearly, we'd love to have, and that's one of our goals, to get back to capacity crowds in those venues on a regular basis, but when you have do have 90-plus and do have 16-plus in Thompson-Boling, that's a real tribute to our fan base. I don't know if there are more than 10 schools in both basketball and football who can seat more than 12 in basketball and more than 75 in football.
So you have to keep that component in mind. Having said that, we have, like a lot of people, experienced some erosion and we're working hard to upgrade the fan experience. That's a constant. It's like fund-raising, it's perpetual in nature. We always have to have that in mind. How can we make the experience better for the fans who come to Neyland Stadium and come to Thompson-Boling?
Q: How did the football summer camp at Milligan come about? Have you budgeted that?
A: We have. We'll spend more to go there, but it's worth the investment in my judgement. Because I think that Derek's making a very good decision. And that's a one-year situation. We don't have any plans moving forward to go off campus. But I think it makes a lot of sense this year. Because we will have a lot of distractions and they're doing a terrific job on what is going to be a really fantastic facility. And it will elevate us. But we'll have a lot of things going on as we try to make that transition. And personally, not speaking in terms of what Derek may see as the priority benefit from this, but I think one of the benefits with seven new coaches and a new scheme, I just like the fact that our football staff, which is still very new, will have an opportunity in a very controlled environment to begin those preparations for this coming fall. I think there's a benefit in that.
Q: The academic performance last fall has gotten a lot of negative publicity. When you saw those numbers, did you think, '"How can this happen?"
A: No one was pleased. I'll say that first and foremost. By the same token it was a bad semester and when people ask me about it my answer is I'm focused on what's happening in the spring semester, not on what happened five months ago. That's where everyone's focus has been. We're going to have a very good semester.
Q: SEC expansion is affecting the schedules and rivalries. Are you concerned about the Alabama football game or tat maybe you're not going to play Kentucky twice a year?
A: First of all, on the football side, it has been a very constant focus for me to do all that I can to maintain the Tennessee-Alabama football rivalry. I dont think we can allow conference realignment to eliminate tradition. There's not a more traditional game than that football game. You're talking about the General and the Bear, all the great games. When you look at football in the South, and I'm biased, when you define football you're talking about football in the South, that passion, that responsive fan bases and full stadiums. We can't afford to not maintain that rivalry.
In basketball with 14 teams, and we're still working our way through all of this in both sports, hopefully we'll come out of Destin with resolutions for all this. But in basketball, I'm sure everybody around the table would like to maintain some elements of the old schedule and everyone would love to have Kentucky home and home from a ticket standpoint. But for us, because of that rivalry, bordering states and so on, it's an important rivalry. It remains to be seen, though, whether it will be feasible at the end of the day, based on which of the alternatives wins the day. It'll be difficult to keep each component that 14 schools want kept in place. That's going to be a balancing act that some balls might have to hit the floor.
Q: What would be your input as Tennessee athletic director about expanding to nine SEC games in football and to 18 games in basketball to have more contact in the rivalries?
A: I'm in a minority there. We talked about everything. We didn't leave anything off the table. We have very open, good conversations. At the end of the day, the great thing about our league is sometimes people have to forego their personal preference for the betterment of the league as a whole. We're not going to play nine games, at least not initially, and maybe never. I understand why coaches wouldn't like it. I wouldn't either. It's the 5-4 (home-away) that's so very difficult and I totally understand that. Having said that, I hope that we'll keep that on the table for meaningful discussion purposes down the road.
Again, in basketball, same thing at play. Kentucky, as an example, traditionally plays such a strong non-conference schedule. Some of those games are going away. I can understand particularly in some instances where going to 18 would be tough. So if we ever go to 18, it will erode some of those non-conference national spotlight games. But that's where this balancing act becomes difficult. You have to give up something at some point to get where you want to go. The nice thing is, no decisions have been made in that regard, but everything is one the table for discussion.
Q: Aside from the SEC what's your feeling about basketball scheduling. The Lady Vols have played anywhere, anytime. Is that OK, or do you like on-campus games?
A: I do like on-campus games but I think there's a value in the other model. Pat (Summitt) built the best women's basketball program in America and it was very much her philosophy to go play whoever had the courage to play Tennessee. And a lot of people didn't. I think now Holly (Warlick), as she settles in, will have to make some decisions going forward about what her philosophy is going to be, relative to scheduling.
I've always been supportive of what coaches wanted to do, not to the extent to where it waters down too much, because I'm a proponent in football of playing one really good game, preferably against a top-25 team, preferably early in the season, because of the exposure, before you get into the league, even though our conference is significantly tougher, When you play in our league you're in battle every Saturday. There is a balance that has to be struck there. But I always listen to coaches and their desires and their philosophies. To the extent possible, we try to arrive at a palatable landing spot as it concerns scheduling.
Q: The SEC school year is about over. It wasn't a great year for Tennessee. What's your feeling as you review this first year?
A: Our goal is pretty obvious and that is to pursue comprehensive excellence in every sport we have. That's not going to change. We've tweaked our mission statement. That's very much a part of our mission statement. We won't take our foot off that accelerator, because we want to achieve at the top of the SEC pyramid and do likewise nationally. When you achieve at the top of our conference, you're achieving at the top of the national pyramid. So that's our goal. We'll do our part administratively to make sure that we never cut into the fiber of our coaches' opportunity. We're going to insulate them from a facility standpoint and a resource standpoint, and our expectation then is to be successful. I have fundamental standards and expectations from every employee in our department. I've never wavered on those. If we're going to affect positive change in our organization then we have to do so now and stay consistent with that philosophy because now we have a terrific history here. If we're going to prosper in the immediate future and beyond, then we have to affect change now.
Q: In baseball, what positives do you see?
A: Dave Serrano. Dave Serrano is outstanding and he's got a good staff and there is no doubt in mind we will turn the baseball program around. I mentioned earlier, we have coaches who inherited major rebuilding challenges. Football, men's basketball, baseball and even Holly, losing five seniors and only nine players on the roster, not to mention following the greatest coach who ever coached the sport of basketball. So even Holly to a degree has a rebuilding job.
I see it every day. I'm very cognizant of the jobs these coaches are doing and the challenges they are facing. And while we live in a white-water world, microwave society, everybody wants it and they want it right now, there are a lot of variables when you are rebuilding a program that must be taken into account. That's the reality. Because no two situations are ever alike. Dave will turn the program. I said it before the first pitch was ever thrown, and we got off to a pretty good start, but I kept saying to fans who were so excited, "this is great but the reality is Dave faces a significant rebuilding job.'' And that is the reality.
Q: Men's track has had a great tradition here but has declined the past four years. What needs to happen there?
A: We've got to do an assessment, not unlike we do with every sport, of where we are in each of our sports, what our strengths and weaknesses are. And we're holding everybody accountable across the board. There's no one who works in our department who's not going to be held accountable. Coaches know that. Administrators know that. We want positive energy because that's the only way we'll be able to get where we want to go. We need people to approach their tasks with enthusiasm and positive energy. I'm pleased we're much more down the road moving in that direction. So it won't be any different than any other sport. We'll just have to access the strengths and weaknesses and go from there.
Q: When you came in I thought your coaching lineup was set for a while. Are you surprised you've already hired three coaches in less than a year?
A: Yes, in a sense. When you do come in, you invest a lot of time and energy in an assessment period. There are always surprises in any transition. That's just inherent to the nature of the transition. None of them have deterred my enthusiasm or our direction to get where we want to go as an athletics program.
Q: You've done some streamlining. There's a concern in some parts that in doing this some veteran people. like Bud Ford, Debby Jennings and John Painter, have been washed out. The concern is who will be the keepers of the tradition? Who will be the tellers of the tale, of this rich history?
A: There's no concern on my part because that's such a fundamental core element of who we are. My expectation is the entire staff will be very cognizant and that will be a standard staple in how we sell the University of Tennessee. We've set an aggressive and intense focus on getting better. But I don't get into personnel matters because I don't think it's appropriate. But as I said, everyone is being held accountable, to be efficient, to be productive, to move in the same direction and I'm really pleased that I see that happening.
Q: In going forward in that same direction, you still value bringing that tradition with you?
A: Absolutely, we have to. Because, again, that's what we have that a lot of people we compete against maybe don't. That goes back to the conversation about those five schools. We're very fortunate to have a rich history and a rich tradition. Were' moving forward off of that platform.
Q: There's discussion about the criteria for retiring numbers (in football). Is there any thought to revisiting that?
A: Yes. We are in that process. We are revisiting that. But that's one of, gosh, several numerous assessments that we've undertaken. At least twice we've had extensive conversations about that as a leadership team and we'll continue to examine that.
Q: Besides this beautiful football project, what does your facility priority chart look like down the line?
A: We've not taken anything off the table from the original facilities master plan, probably from the last five years is what I'm referencing. Nothing's come off the table, but we've assessed each and every component of that master plan. We've reshuffled the priorities, based on need, immediacy, and what we've tried to do is build a strategic plan. But from a fund-raising, development perspective and an implementation standpoint of what's realistic and what do we need to happen this year and the next three-year window, five years, 10 years, 15 years. We're approaching it from a more systematic tone right now and so we do feel good that we've got our arms around it.
One of the things we also are working diligently on is building a strategic financial plan in those same time frames. Because my concern financially is that we only have $5 million and change in our reserve. We have not done anything to reduce our debt service for all the facilities we do have and we enjoy some outstanding facilities.
I also wanted us to put a major focus, in my mind an urgent focus, on putting the student-athlete at the core of everything we're doing. Give you one example, we're going to address as soon as we can the men's and women's basketball locker rooms. We have the country's best basketball arena, in my opinion, and it's the envy of our peers. And yet when you went to our basketball locker rooms you kind of enter a little bit of a time warp. I'll use Pat's program. When you go in the Lady Vols locker room and you consider that we've won eight national championships, it's not reflective of that. And so what I wanted our staff to do early on was begin assessing where we are by looking at a student-athlete perspective, by looking at where they go every day. Where they live. Where they eat. Where they train. Where they get academic support. Because those are areas are the areas our fans and donors rarely get to see but for those young men and women, for the next four or five years of their lives, that's where they spend all their time.
In some instances we are exceptional in that regard. If you go over and look at soccer and softball, from fan amenities to student-athlete areas, it's absolutely exceptional. but we have other areas where that's not necessarily the case.
And we've got to get football healthy. I've said that many times. Because that's the engine that drives the entire train. That's where the passion core lies. So we've got to recognize where our weaknesses might be. This facility is going a be outstanding. The football facility will take us to another level. But there are other components, if we can prioritize those and tie those to the football training center that will give us an outstanding foundation for many years to come. But there are other components that are missing that we've got to address.