As new University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball coach Will Wade spoke at his introductory reception Tuesday, almost-as-new athletic director David Blackburn sat to the left of the stage. The smile on Blackburn's face was big and sincere -- a smile well earned at the end of a successful journey.
The warm reception given to Wade, the former Virginia Commonwealth assistant from Nashville, signaled the conclusion to a stressful, demanding and productive first three weeks on the job for Blackburn. With the help of the search firm Collegiate Sports Associates, UTC senior staff and others, Blackburn has filled two high-profile coaching vacancies.
"Hiring is the most important thing I'll do, period," Blackburn said. "I felt like it was important to try to get these right. Did we get them right? Time will only tell. But I'm excited about having them now."
Last week, Jim Foster, a Hall of Famer with 738 career wins, was hired as the women's basketball coach. Tuesday, Wade received a standing ovation in the Chattanooga Room at the University Center.
UTC interim chancellor Dr. Grady Bogue and chancellor-elect Dr. Steve Angle selected Blackburn and in turn let him lead the way on the coaching searches.
"He comes, he talks to us and he says, this is what I'm thinking about," Bogue said of Blackburn's operating style during the search. "And I listen and say, 'Go get 'em.' It's just that simple.
"His judgment is already showing. We won't know until the wins are on the board, but I'm real proud of him."
Now that the most pressing of business has been attended to, Blackburn will turn his attention to another critical matter: changes in the Southern Conference. At the SoCon spring meetings at the end of the month, the eight remaining full members are expected to vote on new membership.
College of Charleston, Georgia Southern, Appalachian State and Davidson are leaving and Elon is at least considering a move, possibly to the Colonial Athletic Association. The SoCon presidents voted to take visits to the Virginia Military Institute, Mercer and East Tennessee State.
"As you hear more rumblings about potential other schools leaving, I don't want to be in a conference that's going to be weak," Blackburn said. "I want to be in a conference that wants us in it, and the Southern Conference is there right now; they do, but my interest is Chattanooga. I've said before, I want to operate from a position of strength, as it relates to us being viable in whatever league we're in."
Next week, Blackburn said he will finally get around to having sit-down meetings with everyone in the athletic department. He'll also turn his attention to the budget -- a new fiscal year begins July 1 -- as well as explore new funding models for the department.
After being tested right away with a pair of coaching searches, Blackburn finally can get to work running the department and doing "the normal stuff" most new athletic directors do upon arrival.