Heading into the 2011-12 school year, the University of Tennessee needed three things to happen for its athletics department to commence its march back toward the pinnacle of collegiate athletics.
1. The possible sanctions needed to be handed down from the NCAA so that the programs affected could move forward.
2. A replacement for Mike Hamilton as athletics director needed to be named.
3. Most specifically geared toward football, the Volunteers and second-year coach Derek Dooley need to earn a signature victory over one of the current Southeastern Conference powers.
As of Aug. 24, the NCAA not only came through finally with word to Knoxville, but it announced that no further sanctions were necessary. The sigh of relief from the bullet dodged was enough to spin Dorothy and her house in Kansas back into the sky.
With road trips to Gainesville, Fla., and Tuscaloosa, Ala., as well as LSU visiting Neyland in the coming weeks, the football program will certainly have its opportunity to make good on No. 3.
The news that arrived with the bevy of rain clouds over east Tennessee was met with a ray of hope and progress as Tennessee chancellor Jimmy Cheek welcomed Dave Hart onto Rocky Top as vice chancellor and director of athletics.
No. 2? Check.
"We're on the right path upwards," Cheek said at the Stokely Family Media Center. "We have the NCAA violation out. As Dave said, they took our penalties, did not impose any additional penalties and commended the institution for what we did to cooperate with them in that whole process. We're very pleased that they did not impose any other penalties. We have that history behind us.
"What we have to do is look to the future and I think our future on the academic side and the athletics side is very positive. I think having this last piece, the new vice chancellor and director of athletics, is a critical part so that he and his team can focus on being the very best athletic program we can in the country. And, at the same time, the very best academic program that we can have in the country."
From Cheek to former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden to Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner John Swofford, people who speak of Hart most often describe him with words like integrity, honesty, sharp, proven leader and superb values.
|Tennessee chancellor Jimmy Cheek introduced his vice chancellor Monday evening.|
Bringing in Hart from Southeastern Conference rival Alabama shows that Cheek and the search committee fell right in line with what they sought throughout the process — someone with athletic director experience that also understands the importance of revenue-generating programs like Tennessee football.
As some diehards in Big Orange Country may moan and groan about Hart's ties to Alabama (former Crimson Tide basketball player), remember this: No family tree that doesn't branch off will ever compose nature's sweetest blossoms.
Hart made it clear early into his speech Monday night that he and his wife Pam are "not transient people" and he is in Knoxville to make a home, not build a springboard.
"I want this to be perfectly clear. I am absolutely, totally committed to the University of Tennessee," he said.
While Hart is in place to learn from director of women's athletics Joan Cronan (before she retires next summer) and from women's basketball coaching legend Pat Summitt, he can also lead a host of coaches still learning their way around The Hill from Dooley to men's basketball coach Cuonzo Martin to baseball coach Dave Serrano.
"You could look down the road in five years and be talking about three of the greatest coaches in the country," Hart said. "You've got three young people that have all the right things that you need to be successful, in terms of their priorities, the way they organize, they are going to be demanding in a positive way. I think the future can be very, very bright in that regard, so I think that is an exciting element of taking this position."
Serrano rejoined the Tennessee family on June 15 after compiling a head coaching record of 289-159-1 between three seasons with UC Irvine and four more at Cal State Fullerton.
"Yeah, I was a little confused when he said young when he was talking about me," Serrano said, jokingly. "No, it was exciting to hear. We are going to work extremely hard to make him very proud in the seat he sits."
Serrano, 46, was an assistant with Vol baseball in 1995-96, helping the program to the College World Series in '95.
"It's a big piece, the final nail I think in the whole foundation," Serrano said of Hart's hire. "We've had the basketball change. We had two years ago a football change. A baseball change. Now, the athletic director. My hope is: all that's done, let's move forward and get Tennessee athletics back to where it needs to be in all sports."