KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee’s athletic department is on the verge of more change after athletic director Dave Hart announced Thursday that he’ll retire from his post next year.
Hart’s retirement date is still well off — June 30, 2017 — but it surely will be noted.
Hart has endured a controversial tenure in his position as vice chancellor and athletic director since Sept. 5, 2011.
Hart’s most positive and popular contribution was the hiring of Vols coach Butch Jones.
Jones went 5-7 his first season at UT (2013) before improving to 7-6 (2014) and 9-4 (2015) leading up to the team’s preseason top 10 status.
“Dave Hart has done a great job for us,” Jones recently said. “He’s had to make some tough decisions.”
Not all of the decisions Hart made in concert with outgoing UT chancellor Jimmy Cheek were popular.
The abolition of the “Lady Vols” nickname for all of the school’s female sports teams — save women’s basketball — was met with harsh criticism and debate when announced Nov. 10, 2014.
Several of Tennessee’s most notable female athletes made their displeasure known publicly, taking out and signing an online petition.
Earlier this year, a state legislative committee discussed a bill that would reinstate the brand nickname the late Pat Summitt made famous with her success and ambassadorship.
Hart also was involved in a lawsuit with former UT Lady Vols media contact Debby Jennings, who charged “unlawful discrimination and retaliation” after leaving the athletic department in May of 2012.
That case was settled in October of 2014, with Tennessee paying a $320,000 settlement.
The school’s most recent case settlement involved a payout of $2.48 million on a Title IX lawsuit.
Hart was one of six UT officials to sign off on the agreement, President Joe DiPietro and Cheek among them.
That case, involving eight plaintiffs, alleged that sexual misconduct had taken place dating back to a 1996 allegation against Peyton Manning, and that UT maintained “a hostile sexual environment.”
A press release issued Thursday said Hart “has turned around the athletics department financially, structurally and academically while re-energizing a now healthy Volunteer football program,” and points to “historical” results in fundraising and academic success.
Cheek noted that under Hart, “our student athletes have the highest overall grade point average in the history of the program, exceeding a 3.0 and fundraising is having a record year.”
From an overall athletics standpoint, Tennessee finished the spring ranked 30th in the nation in the Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup, seventh among the SEC schools.
The standings take into account men’s and women’s athletics through the academic year.
SEC schools Florida (No. 5), Georgia (No. 12), Texas A&M (15), Arkansas (No. 21), LSU (No. 22) and Kentucky (No. 25) were ranked ahead of the Vols.
“As I thought about finishing this job well and how extremely proud I am of what everyone in our department has contributed collectively to get us where we are today, I decided that this was a good time to set a target to wrap up my career as director of athletics,” Hart said in a statement.
“Our university will name a new chancellor at some point prior to the conclusion of the academic year which has just begun,” Hart said, referring to the June 21 announcement that Cheek would step down from his post and return to teaching.
“This decision will allow that individual (new chancellor) to select his or her own person to this leadership role and allow me to lead us through what promises to be a very exciting upcoming year in many respects.”
Hart’s base salary in 2015 was $622,218 according to the Knoxville News-Sentinel, with a total compensation package worth more than $800,000 and two years left on his contract.
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee athletics for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s SEC Country and lives in Knoxville.