The announcement of Dave Hart’s forthcoming retirement made me think back to what we thought of Mike Hamilton when he stepped down. At the time we noted how eventful his tenure was, so much so that neither the firing of a national championship coach nor the hiring of his one-year fly-by-night replacement could solely define it.
But what we also now know five years later is his legacy was incomplete. Hamilton was tied to Derek Dooley, who in the summer of 2011 had an “aw, shucks” quality about him after so much unusual heartbreak in his first year. When the heartbreak became usual Dooley became Hamilton’s final folly, meaning the first sentence of his legacy for the average Tennessee fan despite the good he was able to accomplish is the “Fired Fulmer, hired Kiffin, hired Dooley” trifecta.
Hamilton’s final hire was Cuonzo Martin, brought on less than three months before he stepped down. Mike Hamilton did hire the basketball coaches responsible for four of Tennessee’s five Sweet 16 appearances since the tournament went to 64 teams. His contribution to men’s basketball was by far his most significant wins-and-losses accomplishment, the primary measuring stick for any athletic department. But Bruce Pearl’s exit, though inevitable under the weight of an impending three-year show cause, earned Hamilton no additional praise.
And there are few camps we are more firmly entrenched in than those on either side of the Cuonzo Martin conversation. Perhaps had the man who hired him remained, his outcome would have been different after taking the Vols to the Sweet 16 in 2014. Instead, Dave Hart helped write the end of his story in Knoxville. And while Hart’s basketball work at Tennessee would become most identified with the Donnie Tyndall hire, Cuonzo’s early exit can have an unfair way of reflecting poorly on Hamilton for hiring him in the first place for some. As his hires have now all left Knoxville behind, Hamilton’s legacy has not improved in his absence.
How will we remember Dave Hart? We can’t know that yet either.
His legacy will start the same place everyone else’s does here:
For all Dave Hart did or didn't do at Tennessee, most important thing he did was get football healthy again. Lot of battles he had to win.— Chris Low (@ClowESPN) August 18, 2016
It’s possible Hart gets the next ten months as a victory lap if Butch Jones and the Vols do the same. And if Butch wins now and continues to win big under the new administration, the first line in Hart’s legacy will be, “Hired Butch Jones.”
This is one of the most interesting questions with Hart: how much praise will he get in the final analysis for bringing on Butch Jones after failing to get Charlie Strong and getting used for leverage by Mike Gundy (and, of course, not getting that Jon Gruden guy to come home)?
Perhaps Hart is a victim of some combination of less stealth and better reporting than his predecessor. Say what you will about Hamilton, but his hires of Kiffin, Pearl, and Cuonzo were not treated as settling. The Dooley hire was in part a victim of timing, and I’m sure there’s a great unwritten story on the conversations between Hamilton and David Cutcliffe during that time. But even that wasn’t seen as an offer-on-the-table-and-they-said-no situation, as was the case with Charlie Strong in football and Michael White in basketball.
So Hart got Butch after failing to get others he wanted more, and got Rick Barnes after firing Tyndall one season in. He deserves somewhere between none and all of the credit for getting it right eventually, but how much will he get when we think back on him?
When football ain’t happy ain’t nobody happy. When football is happy, everything else is secondary and you can have a long run in that chair like Doug Dickey. Given that it seems this decision wasn’t 100% Hart’s, how do we balance these two thoughts:
Hart wanted to stay at Tennessee longer than June 30, 2017. That’s as clear as I can be. https://t.co/WSIzGxNRSG— Wes Rucker (@wesrucker247) August 18, 2016
Did Dave Hart leave Tennessee better than he found it? And if so, why is he on the way out now?
The first question will remain complicated and unanswered in full for years. A number of sports across campus have failed to improve or maintain their standing in the last five years, but football is not among them. Hart moved the Vols from adidas to Nike, oversaw the transition to one combined athletic department from the two men’s and women’s departments, faced a unique and difficult situation with Pat Summitt’s dementia diagnosis, and will still be known first and foremost by some as the man who got rid of the Lady Vol logo.
Tennessee has improved academically and financially, stayed away from NCAA violations, and cut back on the high profile group arrests that dominated the last couple of years of Hamilton’s tenure. But the settled sexual assault lawsuit and the questions they brought on Tennessee’s culture have certainly been a big part of the conversation on Hart this year.
In the end it may truly be as simple as Hart’s legacy being directly tied to Butch’s, especially if Butch wins big. Time will tell. Hart walked into a bumpy situation and brought overall stability eventually despite creating his own bumps along the way. The new athletic director will need to do less clean up and more next steps. If Hart’s biggest hire, first choice or not, can ensure both of their legacies by winning big this fall? Those next steps will be a lot easier to take.