Wiedmer: Blackburn had a great first month

Wiedmer: Blackburn had a great first month

May 20th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

UTC athletic director David Blackburn

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

New University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletic director David Blackburn has been on the job exactly 30 days today.

A bronze plaque celebrating his hiring should be commissioned anytime now. Or maybe it should go to the search committee that helped choose him.

OK, so maybe we should put the plaque on layaway for the moment. Thirty days should not a legend make. But has there ever been a more impressive administrative debut in UTC history than that turned in to date by Blackburn?

Not only did he hire a Hall of Fame coach in Jim Foster to carry on the stunning work begun by former Lady Mocs basketball coach Wes Moore, he also handpicked wunderkind Virginia Commonwealth assistant Will Wade to reverse the fortunes of a men's program that's posted losing seasons in three of the last four years.

Then important details emerged this past weekend about the Wade hire, such as Blackburn signing him to contract worth roughly $60,000 more a year than former coach John Shulman was making. And how there will reportedly be more money for Wade's staff than Shulman had for his assistants.

Two quotes told to our newspaper's David Uchiyama to make every Moc Maniac manic with hope:

A) "We just wanted [Wade's] salary to be more competitive within the marketplace." -- Blackburn

B) "Another thing that's important is the commitment of David and the administration. We're going to make this a first-class program all the way around." -- Wade

It's been the other way for far too long. You can't win the Kentucky Derby with a carnival pony, but UTC kept trying. Gosh, how it tried.

And the results of that shell game have been predictable in both men's hoops and football. Though a number of football boosters led by former player John Murphy have dramatically changed their sport's image and potential under Russ Huesman, men's hoops has struggled financially for nearly two decades.

Nor would the Lady Mocs have necessarily faired much better without the singular genius of Moore, who long ago deserved to land the high-major job he now has at N.C. State.

But that's where Blackburn deserves to take a bow. Bright enough to know UTC's future couldn't escape its past without the Blue and Gold finding a serious green, he's immediately improved that dynamic.

Similarly credit Dr. Debbie Ingram's search committee for realizing Blackburn was easily the best hire to make that happen.

If one committee member said it at the close of the interview process, 10 did: "David Blackburn just stood out. It wasn't close. He was clearly the best man for the job."

Perhaps that's because he wanted it more.

During last week's Big Orange Caravan, Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart said of his former employee: "There was always something special about the Chattanooga job to David. He had other opportunities that no one knew about. A lot of schools have been impressed with David. But the Chattanooga job was the one he kept talking about."

Some would say that might be because Dave's son Rick was the UTC AD before Blackburn.

Yet even that fact showed Blackburn's attention to detail.

"Rick told me that David was the first candidate to reach out to him," Dave Hart said. "He really did his homework."

Much of Blackburn's long-term success will come down to mastering the one thing Rick Hart never did exceptionally well -- fundraising. This is not to slam Hart. Blackburn's job is much the easier because of all the messes his predecessor cleaned up before leaving for SMU, everything from academics to compliance to improved marketing.

But much as a lack of money forced Hart's hand time and again -- not being able to buy out Shulman a year ago, for instance -- Blackburn must dramatically increase giving in order to, in Wade's well-chosen words, "Make this a first-class program all the way around."

Yet however much is left to accomplish, the work already done in 30 short days is remarkable. Especially when you consider that it took Wade less than a week to make good on his own press conference promise to hire an assistant "with some head coaching experience," by stealing Queens head coach Wes Long away from the Charlotte, N.C., Division II school.

That doesn't just make Wade a man of his word, but makes Blackburn look even better for hiring him.

Maybe it's not enough to order a bronze plaque just yet. But it's certainly enough to revisit the words of one poster on the mocfans.com website after Blackburn named Wade.

Read the post: "Mr. Blackburn did a great job in these hires. Now it's time to raise some money."

Sadly, if UTC's peasant past is any indication, that will take a good deal longer to accomplish than the next 30 days.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com