BRISTOL, Tenn. — Two kinds of people exist in this world: Those who take risks and those who avoid risks.
Dave Hart left a secure position at Alabama to become athletics director of a floundering Tennessee program. He’s a risk-taker.
Butch Jones “went for it” on fourth down three times in the final quarter of Tennessee’s recent game with Georgia – succeeding each time. He’s a risk-taker.
Bruton Smith gambled that he could turn Bristol into an auto-racing Mecca. He’s a risk-taker.
The confluence of these three risk-takers in Knoxville over the past few months led to the ultimate risk/reward venture: A Tennessee-Virginia Tech football game to be staged Sept. 10, 2016 at 150,000-seat Bristol Motor Speedway. The so-called “Battle at Bristol” is almost certain to attract the biggest crowd in college football history.
Located two hours southwest of Blacksburg and two hours north of Knoxville, Bristol is the ideal neutral site for a Vol-Hokie matchup. Still, this monumental event was 17 years in the making. Former Tennessee athletics director Doug Dickey passed on the opportunity numerous times. So did successor Mike Hamilton. Hart, being a visionary kind of guy, was intrigued.
“It’s a one-time shot to be a part of an event that may never be duplicated … ever,” Hart said following a Monday morning news conference on the Speedway infield.
Also intrigued was Jones, another visionary kind of guy. Once speedway officials resolved a few logistical concerns, the deal was struck two weeks ago.
Tennessee governor Bill Haslam couldn’t attend the news conference but did a masterful job of summarizing the situation in a pre-taped video clip.
Citing speedway officials Marcus Smith and Jerry Caldwell, Hart and Virginia Tech counterpart Jim Weaver, plus Smith and Virginia Tech counterpart Frank Beamer, Haslam added: “After nearly two decades of asking ‘What if,’ you answered ‘Why not?’”
Hart said he was unaware of the reasons predecessors Dickey and Hamilton passed on the football/speedway marriage.
“Having only been involved in this negotiation, I don’t really know where the hurdles that were insurmountable might have existed,” the Vol AD said. “But there was a collective willingness to prioritize this and make it happen.”
Despite his zeal, Hart realized several times during the negotiations why Dickey and Hamilton decided the gamble wasn’t worth the risk.
“It wasn’t an easy trip that we took,” Hart said. “There were times when you said, ‘Well, no wonder this has never happened.’ But we got through those rough spots, and this is a great day – a great day for these two universities and a great day for Bristol Motor Speedway.”
Once Hart bought into the idea of playing at the speedway, selling the open-minded Jones on the plan was easy.
“Butch was immediately on board,” Hart said. “His first response was, ‘Man, that would be unbelievable for recruiting, Dave, if we can get that done.’ He’s on board. We’re trying to get into markets and venues that are important to us from a recruiting perspective.”
Simply put, you couldn’t buy the kind of exposure this game will bring with Donald Trump’s money.
“You can’t put a value on the exposure,” Hart said. “That’s important to us as we rebuild this football program. That’s a staple in our strategy. We want to maximize the exposure of our program. We have all of the history and tradition to do that. As we rebuild it – and Butch is well about that task – these kind of announcements are important. That’s why we were so focused on doing all we could to make this happen.”
Initial discussions between Hart and Speedway officials began last February. They picked up in the spring, after Jones served as official “starter” for the facility’s Food City 500 auto race. The head man is thrilled that those talks have come to fruition, enabling the Vols to be part of such a high-profile event.
“That’s the vision we talk about with our athletics program and our football program,” he said. “That vision to constantly move forward and now to make this a reality and be a part of college football history is just another example of what’s going on at Tennessee.”
Jones already has a 2013 team that is making steady progress and a top-five recruiting class committed for 2014. Monday’s announcement is another step toward getting Tennessee football relevant again.
“It adds to the momentum,” Jones said. “People around the country see we have a lot of work to do but they can see the progress we’re making in all areas – with our current players, recruiting, anything and everything. It’s an illustration of where we’re going at Tennessee.”
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Dave Hart, per the university
Butch Jones, per the university
Promo video, per Bristol Motor Speedway