Take the elevator to the top floor of the Lawson Center before strolling across the glass walkway overlooking the indoor football field on your way to the Tennessee athletic department's executive offices and the conclusion is inescapable: The Vols have gorgeous facilities that must be among the nation's best.
"No," says Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart forcefully. "We've got a lot of work to do."
"We have some innate challenges," Hart said. "Each year that those disadvantages remain on the table, you set yourselves back."
If that's surprising to you, well, Hart's been doing a lot of wake-up calls since he arrived from Alabama as UT's athletic director one year ago. He said the gap between perception and reality has been one of the most difficult challenges of the job.
The perception: Tennessee's athletic department is flush with cash and financially healthy. The reality, according to Hart? "We are carrying the largest — by far — debt service in the conference and the smallest — by far — reserve in the conference."
The perception: Tennessee's facilities are on par with the best in the SEC. Even when the new Football Training Center is completed, that won't be the case, Hart said. "We've got a long way to go, and we've got a lot of priorities that have to be put in motion."
So as No. 1 Alabama (6-0, 3-0 SEC) arrives to face struggling Tennessee (3-3, 0-3) at Neyland Stadium on Saturday (TV: ESPN, 7 p.m.), what optimism can Hart
possibly offer? One more perception he wants to correct: The gulf between Alabama and Tennessee — once equals in the college football world — is impossibly wide.
Hart scoffs at that notion. "This is a cyclical game ... Alabama weathered some tough years. They're reaping the rewards now." With hard work, he said, Tennessee will do the same.
Hart, 63, no longer feels like the new guy at Tennessee. His office is fully furnished, even if it doesn't look quite lived-in. Business and sports books are set out on the coffee table. Mementos from his years as an athletic director adorn the walls. It's not clear if his diploma from the University of Alabama made the trip to the new office.
"I spent 12 years at East Carolina and 13 years at Florida State, and nobody asked me one time about being from Alabama," he said with a smile.
While Alabama is Hart's alma mater and most recent employer, his experience as an administrator was shaped elsewhere. But his three years at Alabama coincided with the Tide's resurgence as a national football power, and Alabama offers the most compelling template of how to build a national power in the cutthroat SEC.
"Certainly, when you win two titles in three years and you're the No. 1 team right now, that's obviously the program right now that people look to," Hart said. "I was fortunate to be a part of Florida State when that same phenomenon was occurring there. For a while it was Oklahoma in that role, and that's still an outstanding program. But there's no question that (Alabama coach) Nick (Saban) has done a terrific job in building that program back to a championship level."
How to replicate that in Knoxville? The first, Hart said, is recognizing Tennessee's strengths but being honest about weaknesses.
The Vols lack the football-rich geographic base of other programs, so the importance of repairing the financial situation and catching up in facilities is magnified.
"All of our challenges can be overcome and will be overcome, but first we have to be realistic about what they are," Hart said. "To me, that's the easy part. And then we have to build strategic plans to achieve what we want to achieve. And the toughest thing is that we have to do it with urgency."
Alabama wasn't always at the top of the football mountain, nor was Hart's old boss in Tuscaloosa, longtime athletic director Mal Moore, always a beloved figure.
Moore, who took over the department in 1999, shuffled through coaches Mike DuBose, Dennis Franchione, Mike Price and Mike Shula before hiring Saban after the 2006 season. In that eight-year span, the Tide endured NCAA probation and finished better than .500 only half the time.
"Mal has done an incredibly good job. Mal weathered those tough years we talked about, and he not only weathered them, but he discovered that he was a heck of a fundraiser in that period," Hart said. "Because it was a tough period for the university at that time."
The tough period was nearing an end by the time Hart was hired at Alabama in 2008. The Tide went 41-5 during the three years Hart was on campus. He managed virtually all day-to-day affairs of the department.
"Mal Moore's one of the finest people I've ever met in my entire life," Hart said. "And he knows how strongly I feel about him as a person. When Mal told me, 'I'll give you the authority to run the program on a day-to-day basis, and I know you can do it and I trust you to do it,' I had no doubts that would be case. And that's how it unfolded."
When Hart came to Tennessee last fall, he brought two administrators with him from Alabama, including Jon Gilbert, UT's executive senior associate athletic director and Hart's top lieutenant.
In the past year, the department has faced lawsuits for discrimination and hurdles associated with merging the historically distinct men's and women's athletic department.
Meanwhile, the football program has continued its slide. The Rock, an unscientific barometer of community sentiment, has displayed messages calling for the ouster of third-year coach Derek Dooley. Empty seats continue to be an issue at Neyland Stadium. The student section failed to sell out for even Saturday's Alabama game, something that would have been unthinkable in the past.
"I'm competitive to a fault. I'm not proud of that, but that's kind of in my DNA," Hart said. "So nobody's more upset, believe me. I just can't display it like some people can.
"But I wouldn't want to work in an environment where there was no passion. You just have to understand that. What I have to do is see the big picture — because I see it everyday. Most people see it on Saturday, I see it seven days a week. I have to view the big picture, and that's what I've always done."
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.