'Road to recovery'

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When he was named Tennessee's athletics director last September Dave Hart assumed a once-proud football program that was coming off consecutive records of 5-7, 7-6, 6-7 and on its third head coach in three years.

He assumed a men's basketball program that was in utter chaos — traumatized by a lengthy NCAA investigation, a 30-point first-round loss in the NCAA Tournament and the firing of its entire coaching staff.

He assumed a women's basketball program that was reeling from the tragic news that its iconic leader, Pat Summitt, would see her role diminished by early-onset dementia.

He assumed a baseball program that was coming off the firing of its head coach following one of the worst four-year runs in program history.

He assumed a women's athletics department that was being merged with the men's department, requiring that several employees be sacrificed as part of a streamlining effort.

Basically, Hart inherited an athletics program that was hemorrhaging. Although it remains under intensive care, the new AD at least appears to have reduced the blood flow from gushing to a manageable trickle.

The football program, despite a 5-7 record in 2011 and the departure of seven assistants, seems poised for a winning season in 2012.

The men's basketball program rallied from a 10-12 start to place second in the SEC under first-year head coach Cuonzo Martin.

The women's basketball program, with assistant Holly Warlick handling most of the bench coaching, won the SEC Tournament title and reached the NCAA Tournament's Elite Eight.

The baseball program, despite a late-season collapse that produced a losing record, seems to be on the right track under proven winner Dave Serrano.

Despite a rocky start on Rocky Top, Dave Hart appears to have bandaged most of the serious wounds in his first eight months as athletics director.

"I think we've still got a lot of work to do but I am pleased that we're making progress," he said recently. "Everybody's pulling in the same direction, and I think we're on the road to recovery."

Obviously, that recovery has been a painful process. Most painful of all was seeing Summitt step down last month after 38 glorious seasons as the Lady Vols' head coach.

Pat Summitt's stepping down as head women's coach was an emotional time for many, including Hart.
(Danny Parker/InsideTennessee.com)
"Extremely tough," Hart said. "Very emotional day. When we got to the press conference — I know how it affected me, and I think it affected a lot of people the same way — because you knew the finality of it. That made it a very emotional day."

Softening the blow somewhat is the fact Summitt will remain affiliated with the university as basketball coach emeritus.

"She's just a great, great lady, obviously, and I think she's excited about her new role," Hart said. "She'll be very much a part of what we do this coming year."

Hart also hopes another ex-UT coach will drop by the athletic director's office from time to time ... former football head man Phillip Fulmer.

"Absolutely, and that's what I've stressed to him," Hart said. "I've known him a long time. I tried to hire him one time when I was at East Carolina. I said, 'Phillip, if you come to East Carolina I'll be in a search again next year.' Sure enough, that next year he was named head coach at Tennessee. I've known him a long, long time and I really have enjoyed being around him and his wife."

Fulmer compiled a 152-52 record at Tennessee during a career that recently landed him in the College Football Hall of Fame. Current head man Derek Dooley, 11-14 after two seasons, has a long way to go to match those numbers. He and Hart seem to have a good bond, however, which is a positive development.

"I think it's very, very important," Hart said. "I have thoroughly enjoyed Derek in every respect. We have a very, very good relationship. We communicate on a very regular basis, and I think that's very important."

It's no secret that football is the money sport at Tennessee. If the new athletics director can get it fixed, his next eight months should be a bit smoother than his first eight months on the job.

"People have been terrific," Hart said. "I feel good about the foundation we were able to make progress with in these eight months. I think we have a good direction. I think people are excited and moving in the same direction.

"We've got a hill to climb but we'll get up the hill."

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