published Tuesday, July 17th, 2012

Wiedmer: UTC's athletic director job far better than when Rick Hart arrived

  • photo
    University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletic director Rick Hart stands in front of a collage of team portraits inside McKenzie Arena in this file photo.
    Photo by Staff File Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Rick Hart hadn't been the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletic director very long when he approached chancellor Roger Brown with a fairly significant question.

"Can I really run this department with the money I have?" Hart asked.

Replied Dr. Brown, presumably with a grin, "That's why your fundraising skills are so important."

Six years later, Hart is officially the AD at Southern Methodist and Brown again is searching for someone special to oversee, in the chancellor's words, "the front porch of our house."

But what most excites Brown as the Mocs look for their next leader is the order that front porch is in.

"Like night and day," he beamed when asked the difference in what Hart inherited from Steve Sloan and what he leaves behind.

"We're completely out of the penalty phase of NCAA sanctions [for small-potatoes recruiting violations]. Our teams are routinely scoring near 1,000 on the APR. And we have a stable budget, largely because of what Rick did but also because of the student athletic fees.

"When you put all of that together, I think we're going to have a very impressive national pool of candidates for this job."

This doesn't mean UTC is suddenly the Texas of mid-majors, obscene green routinely flowing into the fourth-floor offices of McKenzie Arena.

Coaches may no longer need three signatures and a medical emergency to be issued a pack of copy paper -- true story: A former Mocs basketball coach actually traded game tickets for copy paper one winter -- but budgets always will be tight at mid-to-low majors such as UTC.

Still, as interim AD Laura Herron noted Monday afternoon, "In my 19 years here, through four ADs and two interim ADs, this is probably the best shape we've been in."

Yet as good as Hart was, as important a hiring as his replacement will become, the quiet good work of quality folks such as Herron -- who won't seek to replace Hart -- and senior associate AD Matt Pope, who will apply for the job, also has had a profound impact on the school's resurgence.

Herron came to UTC as an athletic trainer. After being forced to replace three compliance directors in three years, Sloan asked Herron if she'd take the job.

"He bribed me with a raise," she said with a smile.

Overwhelmed in the beginning because of a lack of support staff, Herron now is one of four full-time employees who deal with compliance.

"When Rick first got here he probably spent 60 percent of his time on compliance," Herron said. "That won't be a problem now. We're in a good place. No one has to come in and save us."

Pope has been a part of the program for 11 years. When Sloan retired in 2006, he was named interim AD. As Hart began to draw praise for postive changes at UTC, he always was quick to link his fellow University of North Carolina grad to those successes.

The public may not be aware of Pope's worth, but Brown and other administrators don't take him for granted.

Another factor in Pope's favor is what Brown said about what he was looking for in Hart's successor: "I don't see any need for a dramatic change in direction."

He does see the fairly swift forming of a diverse search committee to interview the candidates to replace Hart. Also expect to see Brown retain a search firm to provide an initial list, though the chancellor and the committee may add to that list.

And while Brown doesn't expect to finalize this hiring before the start of football season, a new AD almost certainly will be in place by Thanksgiving.

Until then, Herron said, "I hope [the UTC athletes] see no difference in the way things are run. We've already scheduled a meeting with them on social networking, what they should and shouldn't do. But mostly we want everything to keep running just as it has."

Well, there is one change Herron may suggest.

"Fridays may become Tuxedo Day," she said with a grin. "We need to dress up a little more around here."

You get the sense it hasn't quite sunk in yet.

Recalling how a certain UTC women's basketball coach backed out of a move to East Carolina, Herron said, "I told Rick it was OK to pull a Wes Moore [regarding the SMU job]."

Then there was UTC football coach Russ Huesman's plea to his SMU counterpart, June Jones.

Said Huesman: "Please don't hire [Hart]."

Or maybe he's merely opposed to wearing tuxedos on Friday.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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