My first reaction to Tennessee’s hiring of athletic director Dave Hart: How can he distinguish himself?
By juggling the administrators beneath him? By putting an elevator in Lindsey Nelson Stadium?
By tweeting incessantly?
Hart’s options were limited when the former Florida State athletic director signed on with the Vols in September of 2011.
Athletic directors make their mark by the firing and hiring of coaches. And Hart had no apparent targets.
But a seemingly settled landscape changed quickly.
First, tragedy struck Tennessee women’s basketball. Second, failure struck Tennessee football. Again.
And Hart had to make crucial changes.
You can’t judge the hiring of a coach based on one season, let alone half of an offseason. But you can say, “so far, so good.”
Last year, when illness forced legendary women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt to retire, Hart replaced her with longtime assistant coach Holly Warlick. He also kept Summitt involved in the program as a head coach emeritus.
Warlick‘s first team exceeded preseason expectations. The Lady Vols won 27 games and reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament. She was named SEC coach of the year after leading her team to the regular-season conference championship.
She also signed one of the top recruiting classes in the country. Based on the high expectations for that class and three returning starters, the Lady Vols have been ranked third in one early top-25 poll for 2013-14.
No one expects coach Butch Jones’ first Tennessee football team to get anywhere near the top 25. Qualifying for a bowl would be a feat.
But Jones has excited UT fans with his energy, enthusiasm, accessibility and fast start in assembling the 2014 recruiting class.
Jones wasn’t Hart’s first or second choice. And a coach with a track record for success in the SEC or at a higher level nationally would have been preferable.
However, that doesn’t make Jones a bad choice. Moreover, his hiring at least indicates Hart has an understanding of the type of coach UT needs.
In a matter of months, Jones has connected better with fans than Dooley did in three years. Winning over fans isn’t a substitute for winning games, but it constitutes progress.
Hart has something else going for him besides the early returns on his most prominent coaching hires. Alabama conspiracy theorists no longer have a platform.
When Hart left a prominent administrative post at his alma mater for the UT job, it wasn’t so farfetched to think he might return when athletic director Mal Moore retired. But after Moore died in March, Alabama quickly replaced him with former UT football coach Bill Battle.
Now, it’s likely this will be Hart’s last stop as an athletic director. And he already has made two hires that could have an impact on UT sports after he has retired.
The evaluation of those hires could change drastically, of course. Warlick has to prove she can maintain a program at a high level. And Jones’ performance will be measured over years, not months.
But so far, so good.