KNOXVILLE — Not surprisingly, much of Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart's nearly 30-minute interview with the Times Free Press on Thursday afternoon centered around the early direction of the Volunteers' football program under first-year coach Butch Jones.
Yet there's no shortage of topics of discussion for a man in charge of an athletic department that's operating with a $95 million budget for this year.
From facilities and student attendance at football games to the upcoming basketball season, here's a recap of what Hart touched on during the half-hour session in his plush office inside the sprawling Neyland-Thompson Sports Complex.
A reserve fund of less than $2 million dwarfed by conference rivals. An annual debt nearing $200 million. The $3.98 million deficit posted two fiscal years ago.
Some of the recent financial numbers for Tennessee's athletic department have been staggering and alarming, but Hart is confident the worst is behind.
"It's more stable in the sense, particularly, of our strategic plan," he explained, "to not only get out of what was a bad financial and a surprising financial position -- a poor position that was surprising -- but I think more importantly, we have a very good plan."
Hart said chancellor Jimmy Cheek has been "absolutely terrific" in "walking step-by-step" with the athletic department as it tries to build its low reserve fund.
Less than a week after Tennessee fired Derek Dooley with one game left in his third season as football coach, the university announced it would relieve the athletic department of $6 million of its own revenue it normally commits to the university for the next three years.
In 2012-13, the athletic department transferred just $1.285 million to the university. That number was $6.392 million in 2011-12.
According to the financial update it released two days before the Vols' 2013 season opener against Austin Peay, the athletic department spent $10,393,320 related to changing football coaching staffs.
The reserve fund remains less than $2 million, Hart said.
"We're in another tough financial year this year," he said. "There's no question about that, because we don't have any new revenues from the SEC and won't until probably 15 or '16, relative to the SEC Network. We know we're in another tough year.
"We've cut $10 million out of our budget over the last 22 months. There's no else in the conference going in that direction. Everybody's moving in the opposite direction, but I'm pleased and feel very confident that we'll be fine. This is a short-term problem; it's not a long-term issue."
Hart took over as Tennessee's AD a little more than 26 months ago, and he said he looks back at where the department was then and where it is now with "collective gratification."
"I think that without a doubt that collectively we've made a lot of progress, and I'm excited -- excited about where we are and even more so about where we're going," he added.
It's not all been nice and easy, though.
The consolidation of the separate men's and women's departments resulted in the elimination of a handful of positions. There are a couple of outstanding lawsuits from former employees aimed at Hart and Tennessee. In the past two weeks, the feud between the Pride of the Southland Band and the athletic department has gone public.
Such public-relations hits are simply part of the job for Hart.
"Any time you're striving for change, positive change, then you can expect that that will not always be met with hand-clapping enthusiasm from everyone in the organization, because you're changing a culture, in many respects," he said.
"That's a difficult thing to do, and we're rebuilding our football program. That takes time a lot of energy, which Butch Jones has certainly brought to the table. It takes all of the above, it takes leadership and it really takes a lot of really good people.
"You've heard me say this before, but what separates average organizations from good organizations, from those who excel, every time it's about people. Leadership and people."
At the halfway point of the college football season, Tennessee is sixth nationally in attendance. The Vols' average of 93,418 in the first four of seven home games ranks only behind Michigan (111,482), Ohio State (104,596), Alabama (101,632), Texas (98,782), and Penn State (96,493).
Tennessee filling up 91.18 percent of the 102,455-seat Neyland Stadium ranks ahead of only Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Missouri, however. Still, attendance is up from last season's average if 89,965 -- the lowest since 1979 -- with SEC games against South Carolina, Auburn and Vanderbilt remaining.
In the modern age of high-definition televisions, there's no easy answer to improving attendance.
"You begin to develop a pattern of a consistent level of success," Hart said. "We couldn't have a more passionate or more loyal fan base than the one we witnessed, because it's been tough in terms of the last several years. That was the most gratifying element to me personally, in the Georgia game, was the way the fans helped our teams. Teams feed off of that.
"These are 17- to 22-year-old kids out there. You could see the energy. It was almost like a baton being passed from the stands to the sidelines. That really was tangible that night. That was a really, really impressive element of what was a very, very lively atmosphere in Neyland Stadium."
It hasn't helped that the Vols' latest kickoff time this season was the 6 p.m. opener against Austin Peay, a game available on a pay-per-view basis. Tennessee hosts South Carolina at noon and plays at top-ranked Alabama at 3:30 p.m. next week in what will be the Vols' third CBS game of the season.
"It's tough when you play at noon," Hart said. "We've had multiple games now at noon. That's a tough kickoff time window for fans."
Typically, Tennessee has aligned its fall break for students with the Vols' open date, but fall break began Thursday, which will greatly impact the student attendance for Saturday's game with the Gamecocks.
How did that happen?
Hart said with the SEC "for all intents and purposes" making its schedule one season in advance at a time, the university set fall break when the football schedule wasn't quite finalized.
"We've talked about collectively of everyone doing their parts to make sure we don't re-create having a home game on fall break, because all of the sudden now, your student body's not even on campus," Hart said.
"That's a tough environment."
According to the Knoxville News Sentinel, Tennessee has sold 90,000 tickets for Saturday's game as of Thursday afternoon. UT sold 3,000 seats to students from area colleges for $10 to make up for its own student shortage.
The student attendance will suffer Saturday because of the break, but that issue is hardly a new one, and it's hardly one that's uniqueto Tennessee.
Despite a sellout for the Florida game, Tennessee reportedly averaged less than 5,000 students at home games last season. According to a Wall Street Journal report last month, 32 percent and 39 percent of student tickets at Alabama and Georgia, respectively, went unused from 2009 through last year.
Hart said there is no plan to cut the allotment for Tennessee's students, which is roughly 12,000.
"Our whole leadership athletically is involved in [improving student attendance]," he said. "It's something we talk about virtually every time we meet, literally, and the students know it's a priority for us. I've always enjoyed meeting with student leaders. I've done it every place I've ever worked.
"Again, they're the reason that we're here, and I applaud our students. We've had at least twice they've picked up over 10,000 tickets. Maybe three times. When you compare where we were a year or two ago, I applaud our students, and Butch has had a big role in that as well. Now, of course, they're not here. Obviously we don't expect a big turnout this week from our students."
Hart declined to call it a make-or-break season for third-year basketball coach Cuonzo Martin. The Vols have been to the NIT the past two seasons. The Lady Vols were one win away from reaching last year's Final Four in their first season under Holly Warlick.
"I'm excited about our two basketball programs," Hart said. "I think we have a chance, both Holly and Cuonzo, if we stay healthy, to have an outstanding run with both teams this year in basketball. I think we have depth in both squads. I think we have talent.
"I think we have some difference-makers on both of those teams. I think we have leadership on both of those teams. I believe the components are in place to have a very exciting run in both men's and women's basketball this year."
The shiny new football complex is finished, and Tennessee is about to dedicate the Pat Summitt Plaza across the street from Thompson-Boling Arena.
So what's next for Tennessee from a facilities standpoint?
Hart pointed to renovations of the Thompson-Boling Arena locker rooms for the men's and women's basketball teams, an on-campus studio in coordination with the launch of the SEC Network's launch next August and improvements to the women's rowing team's facilities.
While upgrades involving the volleyball and tennis programs are on the docket, the major change will be where Stokely Athletics Center and Gibbs Hall currently sit. Tennessee is awaiting a specific date for demolition, though it'll come late this year or early next year, Hart said. Three grass football fields, a parking garage and new residence hall will go in that area.
According to the campaign launched last week, that project will cost in the $10 million range with an estimated completion date at the start of the 2015 season.
The SEC Network studio will go on the ground floor of the Brenda Lawson Athletic Center as Tennessee turns Lake Loudoun Boulevard into what Hart termed "the new corridor of beauty" for the campus.
"We felt it was needed," Hart said. "We talked about this long before the official announcement of the network or a timetable relative to that. It's just something I think we have an opportunity to create a very unique location for our studio, where our fans coming to football or basketball, whether you're coming to a men's or women's basketball game or a football game.
"It's an opportunity for fans to see what's going on on the first floor of the Brenda Lawson building. Maybe Cuonzo is interviewing. Maybe Holly is. Maybe Butch is. Maybe some of our student-athletes. I think we can create a very unique environment."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...
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