In the early spring of 2007, Rick Hart not yet a year into his job as University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletic director, a prominent Mocs booster told me, "I'm not sure what to think of this guy. He's always in his office, always on his computer, always meeting with his staff. He needs to spend more time with the people who care about this program."
Three years later this same booster told me, "I think I've got Rick Hart figured out. He thinks before he acts. There's no question we got the right man for the job."
That right man is reportedly headed southwest today to Dallas to run the Southern Methodist University athletic department, and no one should begrudge him that move.
A year from now the Mustangs will join the Big East Conference, finally signaling a symbolic end to the death penalty the NCAA dealt their football program nearly 25 years ago.
He'll also be the boss of new SMU basketball boss Larry Brown, the gypsy genius who remains the only man ever to win both an NCAA and an NBA title. Both men being North Carolina grads, they should get along better than Brown often has with the brief bosses of his past.
For those tasks and more, Hart could make at least three times the $160,000 or so a year he earned at UTC. We should all be perceived to be so good at what we do.
The problem for retiring UTC chancellor Dr. Roger Brown is how to replace Hart, who artfully guided the athletic department through some of the most trying times in school history, masterfully handling everything from an NCAA tempest in a teapot regarding recruiting violations to paralyzing Academic Progress Rate penalties to budget cuts that would make Scrooge look like Santa Claus.
No wonder UTC super booster John Murphy told this newspaper Friday: "These guys aren't a dime a dozen. He's going to be a tough one to replace."
But replace Hart the school must. And with football upon us and a make-or-break hoops season on the horizon for coach John Shulman, the sooner someone can be hired the better.
Not that following Hart will be easy. Hiring Russ Huesman as football coach in December 2008 arguably saved that program from extinction. Hart's diligence and attention to detail undoubtedly softened the NCAA's hammer regarding impermissible phone calls to recruits. His patience and understanding regarding women's basketball coach Wes Moore's three-day stint as East Carolina's coach was employee management at its best.
As for Hart's divisive decision to keep Shulman in March after an 11-21 season, firing any coach who's guided a true mid-major to two NCAA berths in eight years is difficult. Especially when it could run the school more than $450,000 over budget to fire the current coach and hire a new staff.
To borrow a line a dear friend wrote on a local website when discussing the constant money woes of UTC, "Those that matter [financially] don't care and those who care don't matter."
And until or unless that changes, money will continue to primarily guide UTC's coaching hires and fires, regardless of who ultimately replaces Hart.
So who should follow him? Assuming the new AD's salary is $175,000, for that money there are literally hundreds of assistant ADs at major schools itching to follow Hart, who left that exact post at Oklahoma to take over at UTC.
But there are at least five folks with past UTC ties or Southeastern Conference connections who deserve to be considered with the Stepford-esque candidates of Hart's lineage:
1) Charles Bloom: An SEC associate commissioner who was former commish Roy Kramer's right-hand man on the berth of the BCS, Bloom has the smarts, experience and connections to improve upon Hart's great beginnings.
2) Sharon Fanning-Otis: Arguably the best female athlete in Scenic City history as well as a former Lady Mocs basketball player and head coach, Fanning-Otis just retired as coach at Mississippi State to enter fundraising at MSU. Though her husband's family all lives in the Magnolia State, this was once her dream job and she should be strongly considered.
3) Mike Hamilton: The former Tennessee AD has impeccable personal integrity and unmatched money skills. The biggest question would be whether he wants to return to a business where he would no longer have bottomless pockets.
4) Gerald Harrison: Once a personal assistant to Phillip Fulmer, he now is Duke's associate AD for human resources. Personable, hard-working and familiar with the area, he should one day become a star in this business. Why not start here?
5) Mack McCarthy: The former UTC basketball coach always has been as talented a promoter as he was a coach. He's never lost his love for the Mocs, and having spent the past couple of years in fundraising at East Carolina gives him needed experience in that area.
Yet whomever Dr. Brown eventually hires, Hart's good work can't be sustained unless those who matter financially in the Scenic City begin to care as much about the Mocs as those who don't. In that specific area, the time to act long ago surpassed the time to think.