KNOXVILLE — Dave Hart left Neyland Stadium two Saturday evenings ago feeling the same way many Tennessee fans did after the Volunteers narrowly missed out on an upset of the No. 6 football team in the country.
"It tore my heart out," Tennessee's athletic director said Thursday afternoon.
For first-year coach Butch Jones and his staff, last week's open date provided only minimal relief from that overtime loss to Georgia. Saturday's visit from South Carolina starts a four-game stretch against teams ranked in this week's Associated Press poll.
The combined record of the 11th-ranked Gamecocks, No. 1 Alabama, No. 14 Missouri and No. 24 Auburn is 22-2.
That lineup is daunting, but it provides multiple chances for that signature win for which the Vols long have thirsted.
"There's no question that's what we're striving to accomplish. At some point, we have to cross that threshold," Hart said during an interview with the Times Free Press. "We have to win those kinds of games, and I think the confidence that will come from that, the expectations will be different.
"You have to remember that we have players on this team who've had five different position coaches, or four head coaches in six years. I really applaud our players. Our players have bought into everything that Butch and his staff have asked them to do. There's a genuine level of respect there, but in athletics you gain confidence from success, and that's what we have to do.
"We haven't had a lot of on-the-field success for a long time, but to get there, before you get there, you have to take the necessary steps, and you do have to be coachable, and you do have to show improvement, and you do have to deal with adversity. I think this team, they've done all those things to this point in the year. We're only halfway through the season. They've done those things pretty well."
Hart, a former athletic director at Florida State and second-in-command of Alabama's athletic department (2009-11), is in his third year at Tennessee, where he's overseen the consolidation of the men's and women's athletic departments and navigated through the end of Pat Summitt's legendary tenure as the Lady Vols' basketball coach.
Eleven months ago, he had to change football coaches after three losing seasons under Derek Dooley, and though Jones wasn't Hart's first choice, it seems it's worked out so far.
In less than a year, Jones has a strong recruiting class in the works, revitalized fans and alumni, improved relationships with former players and been the "conductor," as Hart termed it, of a unified and energized athletic department trying to get back on track.
Halfway through their new coach's maiden season, the Vols are 3-3, where many would have pegged them in the offseason, and there remains plenty of time and football left to write the story for this season.
Hart was clear on what would make this season a good one, regardless of such intangibles as a touted recruiting class and a near-miss or two of an upset.
"I think this team is striving to get into the postseason," Hart said. "Are they capable of that? They are. Is that a case where you have a lot of margin for error? Probably not. So on the field, that's what this team is striving to accomplish, and we haven't done that for a while. Anything beyond that in terms of number of wins would be a bonus, but this team is striving to get into the postseason.
"Recruiting's your lifeblood, so to rebuild a program that's the No. 1 priority. We have to recruit on an annual basis extraordinarily well, which Butch has proven certainly that this staff can do that. What we have to do is try to close strong on this recruiting class, turn right around and put another one behind it and then another one behind that.
"That will enhance the talent base, which in this conference, you've got to have some elite athletes. You've got to have some difference makers, playmakers, people that other people say, 'Man,' when they game-plan, 'we're going to have a hard time with this person and this person.' You've got to have a handful of those."
The "most gratifying element" of the Georgia loss for Hart was the atmosphere at Neyland Stadium, where the kind of loud crowd that's been missing throughout recent seasons helped the Vols.
"Our fan base was who they are that night, and that is the most passionate fan base in the country," he said. "That stadium, and the energy in that stadium, whether it was in the stands or on the sidelines, it made you feel very proud."
Since shortly after spring, Hart publicly has maintained that Tennessee would have to overachieve this season, though he said he's "no different than everybody else" in that regard.
Jones continually has said the Vols have no room for error, and the Georgia game bore that out. Tennessee needed a blocked punt for a touchdown and three fourth-and-1 conversions to put itself in position to win. The Bulldogs lost three of their top healthy playmakers in the game, too.
"We have seven ranked teams on our schedule," Hart said. "You would be hard-pressed to go through the Top 25 and find a duplicate of that.
"It's a challenging schedule, and given that, I think we first have to cross, like I said, that threshold of beating somebody that we're not supposed to beat, a ranked team that we're maybe not supposed to beat, like what was the case with Georgia two weeks ago.
"I've said all along this team will have opportunities to do that. Really if you go back to the game [against Florida] in Gainesville, we turned it over too much on that particular day, or that would have been a fourth-quarter game. They've got to keep believing, they've got to keep [in] pursuit of winning those types of games, and that will come."
Hart said he thinks the Vols are making early improvements and becoming a "well-coached team" as Jones tries to bring the program out of its rut.
"I think all the challenges Butch faces play into Butch's strengths," he said. "I really do. We're making progress, and I think that progress will become more and more and more tangible as now the months begin to progress."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 ...