Last Friday, the final day of March, Dave Hart arrived to his University of Tennessee office — the last day it would be Hart’s dominion before the impending John Currie era began — by 6 a.m., and Tennessee’s five-and-a-half-year athletics leader did not leave until nearly sunset.
Opinions forever will be divided on Hart’s time on Rocky Top, some because he’s an Alabama graduate, some because of the Lady Vols’ logo/nickname controversy that always was far more than Hart and some, frankly, because leadership above Hart failed to do that which Hart never minded: Actually leading during tough times.
The day that Cuonzo Martin rather dubiously ducked Knoxville without so much as informing his team he was Berkley bound, Hart stood before the assembled media inside Thompson-Boling Arena’s Ray Mears Room and opened his press conference with the proclamation he would stand and answer questions for as long as there were questions to be answered, no matter the length.
I can never recall any other UT leader or coach making such a statement — and Hart held firm to his word. The resulting search for a new basketball coach was hasty, and those under him whom Hart had relied on to fully vet Donnie Tyndall failed Hart in that situation.
Again, Hart refused to sacrifice anyone below him — even as SEC officials privately suggested that UT should have had more turnover than just the basketball staff in the aftermath of the Tyndall fallout.
So with that backdrop, it should not perhaps come as any surprise that Hart exited Rocky Top having done all he could to position football — use any catch metaphor you wish here, from engine to front porch to cash register — for future success.
In fact, school record-breaking position for success from a standpoint of monetary commitment. The Butch Jones-led Volunteers’ coaching staff and support staff for the football program constitutes roughly an $11 million commitment in salaries throughout the program.
“That’s been a priority, John, since Day 1. I said our No. 1 priority when I arrived at Tennessee is to get football healthy,” Hart told me on his final day. “We’ve made commitments on a consistent basis. I think it’s important that football have resources to not only be competitive but to approach the top tier.
“That’s exactly where we will be. In my mind, I’ve always said to Butch, we would certainly within our financial capabilities, which are much better now, we would continue to invest in football. Continue to give Butch what he needs to be successful relative to staff salaries and facilities and equipment. Our salaries, we’ll be in that top tier nationally without question.”
Tennessee thus far has refused to release contract details for the salaries of newly promoted offensive coordinator Larry Scott, the raise for Robert Gillespie and the salary for Steve Stripling, who was encouraged to leave his on-field coaching post and become the Director of Football Program Development. Football administrator Mike Vollmar had a 2016 salary of $183,000.
Scott, Tommy Thigpen, Brady Hoke, Gillespie and defensive coordinator Bob Shoop all will make at least $500,000 in the coming year — whereas Jones’ first staff in 2013 did not have a single assistant coach with a salary of $500,000. Shoop is the Vols’ lone seven-figure assistant coach and their only one with a three-year pact, which is worth nearly $1.2 million with bonuses, camp money and a car/car stipend. Jones’ car stipend, per his contract, is worth nearly $20,000 annually.
“Yeah, you know, I’m very thankful and grateful for Dave Hart and everything he did for football and this institution,” Jones said when I asked him about the financial commitment. “We’re in a much better place than when we came here. Respect the job he did and consider him a great friend.”
Likewise, Jones added four quality control staffers with NFL experience in Gerald Brown, Eric Lewis — son of former NFL head coach Sherman Lewis, Ryan Slowik and Tony Sorrentino. Additionally, the Vols added Kyle Viscigilia from Virginia, Steven Shankweiler, who boasts past experience at South Carolina, Georgia Tech, Cincinnati and East Carolina, among other stops, as well his son, Kort Shankweiler, who had been a full-time assistant at Florida International working with quarterbacks and wideouts as well as tight ends.
A year ago, Nick Sheridan was the Vols’ top-paid off-the-field assistant with a salary of $75,000, though Sheridan officially was classified as being paid at a “Coordinator I” level. Just a couple of years ago, Tennessee ranked near the rock-bottom of the SEC in its pay for those auxiliary positions.
“It’s very important,” Jones said of Hart’s commitment to make the Vols’ pay-scale more competitive. “It’s the market. We live in the most competitive conference in the country and everyone’s working to get better every single day. you’ve got to get up and work to improve on a daily basis no matter what it is. … He’s been able to do that for us, and I’m very grateful.”
Several folks on the UT campus are both jockeying for positioning with John Currie and expecting the chopping block to fall in the relatively near future. Tennessee, just in athletics, has numerous positions already open from the exodus that’s been ongoing now for several months. Chris Fuller, Jon Gilbert, Jonathan King and Chris Spognardi are just some of those who already have left.
Gilbert was Hart’s chief lieutenant. So who might next fill that void? Mike Ward certainly is a very capable in-house candidate, but Ward also could have some smaller-school head athletics director options in his future. Sources indicate to us likewise that Ryan Robinson, head of communications and formerly with the Jacksonville Jaguars, would eye either Gilbert’s or Fuller’s previous post.
Currie, however, per numerous sources, has his eyes set most prominently on two people: Laird Veatch, who currently is filling Currie’s previous role as Veatch is Kansas State’s interim athletics director, and current Georgia Southern A.D. Tom Kleinlein, who has known Currie since their days at Wake Forest.
I spoke with four different people intimately familiar with Kleinlein and his work at Georgia Southern, including coaches and student-athletes, and they noted that while Kleinlein had guided the Eagles into the FBS level from the FCS, he also was seen as “a 50-50 guy, some people like him, plenty of people do not.”
Georgia Southern has seen massive change atop its fundraising arm since Kleinlein’s arrival, including the resignation of its former leader, yet another person said, “T.K.’s a good fundraiser, I’ll give him that; but I think he’s got the same personality as Currie.”
A contract dispute saw Kleinlein lose his football coach, Willie Fritz, to Tulane University after Fritz compiled a 17-7 mark in two years at the helm which included an ahead-of-schedule 9-3 season during a transition year into FBS play. The Eagles were denied a bowl waiver that year, but then won the Sun Belt again in 2015 and went bowling that season.
FOOTBALL SCHEDULE NOTES …
Tennessee now has inked series on the books with BYU, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Pittsburgh, as well as the non-conference neutral site openers in each of the next two seasons against Georgia Tech (Atlanta) and West Virginia (Charlotte), respectively.
The Vols also were extremely close to inking multiple other big-time matchups, “but had the rugs pulled out from under them,” per sources familiar with those talks that included some ACC and Big Ten foes.
Who else have the Vols spoken with in regards to future football schedules? Sources emphatically indicated that Tennessee has spoken several times over the past few years, including within the past year or so, with Notre Dame about getting the Irish back onto the schedule — either in a home-and-home contract or a “one-off neutral site game.”
Tennessee played Notre Dame at least once in four-straight decades from the 1970s through 2000s. The Vols have not faced the Irish since back-to-back losses in 2004-05.