Now it’s a matter of the Volunteers making similar strides on the field.
Tennessee placed 40th in the 2013-14 Directors’ Cup standings, its worst finish in the 21-year history of the award given annually to the nation’s top college athletic program. The football team endured a fourth straight losing season.
“It will go up, but it takes time,” Hart said in an interview with The Associated Press. “You can’t have significant rebuilding going on and expect instantaneous results.”
The rebuilding efforts are symbolized by the construction all across campus. Stokely Athletics Center, the former home of the men’s and women’s basketball teams, is being torn down along with the Gibbs Hall dormitory. Three football practice fields, a parking garage and a new dormitory for both the general student body and student-athletes will go in their place.
A new volleyball practice facility is being built along with a television studio to accommodate the SEC Network.
“We’re in an exciting period of growth at the University of Tennessee — and it transcends the athletics department,” Hart said.
It’s not an overnight process. When he arrived in 2011, Hart took over a program that was facing budget challenges and entering a transition period as Tennessee consolidated its men’s and women’s athletic departments.
Hart also noted some coaches “inherited significant rebuilding efforts” and cited football coach Butch Jones and baseball coach Dave Serrano as examples. Jones has stabilized a football program that had undergone plenty of upheaval since Phillip Fulmer’s 2008 exit. Tennessee’s baseball team made the Southeastern Conference tournament for the first time since 2007, though the Vols missed an NCAA bid.
One of Tennessee’s biggest 2013-14 success stories was somewhat bittersweet. Although Tennessee reached the NCAA tournament regional semifinals in men’s basketball, coach Cuonzo Martin faced fan unrest for much of the season and unexpectedly left for California.
“It was a tremendous run, and yet because of the immediacy of the transition in coaches, we never got to really celebrate that to the level most people would have,” Hart said. “That is an element of that transition that was troubling to me, only because I felt really bad for the players and for Cuonzo and his staff, that we never got to fully celebrate that.”
Tennessee had other reasons to celebrate. Mikelis Libietis and Hunter Reese won the men’s doubles title at the NCAA tennis championships. The softball team reached an NCAA super regional. The women’s basketball team won the SEC tournament and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament before losing in the regional semifinals.
Hart believes a couple of his recent hires can produce more highlights. He says new track coach Beth Alford-Sullivan, who arrived from Penn State, can rejuvenate a slumping program once ranked among the nation’s best. He praises new men’s basketball coach Donnie Tyndall’s recruiting tenacity and engaging personality.
But the Vols have taken their biggest steps off the field.
Tennessee had 12 teams post a collective grade point average above 3.0 in the spring semester, the first time so many programs had reached that benchmark since the school began measuring the GPA for each sport in 2003.
The football program posted its highest single-year score ever in the Academic Progress Rate, which the NCAA uses as a real-time academic measure of each Division I team. Tennessee’s APR was low enough to put it at risk of facing penalties before making that dramatic improvement under Jones.
“We had major issues in some areas of our academic arena,” Hart said. “Not only have they been corrected, but we’re excelling there now.”