Rick Hart faced tough job at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

photo University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletic director Rick Hart stands in front of a collage of team portraits inside McKenzie Arena in this file photo.

Rick Hart at times looked a little embarrassed during a reception in his honor Friday at Lindsey Street Hall. As one person after another raved about the job he did in his six years as the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's athletic director, Hart often had his head turned slightly down.

Not one to take compliments all that well, Hart has heard plenty of them since he was introduced as the new athletic director at Southern Methodist University last Monday.

"I appreciated it, but it was very uncomfortable," he said of the reception, during which Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield and Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger declared July 20, 2012, as Rick Hart Day. "It was almost too much."

The same perhaps could have been said about the challenges the 40-year-old Hart faced when he arrived at UTC in May 2006. The athletic department was annually struggling to balance its budget, and several teams were underperforming in the classroom and with the then-new NCAA Academic Progress Rate.

"There was never any moment where I felt panicked," Hart said. "Everybody got on board and it was going to require all of us, whether it was the financial dire straits or the APR or some other things that you could catalog."

Richard Brown, vice chancellor of finance and operations at UTC, said his first message to Hart was that the athletic department had to balance its budget. And it did, by cutting expenses -- sometimes into the bone amid cuts in state funding -- and by seeking new areas of revenue.

Brown said Hart brought some new ideas and "financial integrity" to the program. The increase in student athletic fees made a huge difference, Brown said. Hart and senior associate athletic director Matt Pope have said UTC will balance its budget again in the 2011-12 fiscal year, which ended June 30, after all the books are closed.

Recruiting budgets took the hardest hits during the lean years, some of them dropping as low as $1,500. In the 2011-12 budget, UTC raised its recruiting funding in all sports, from a total of $152,225 in 2010-11 to $170,000.

Women's basketball coach Wes Moore said the tight financial times sometimes left coaches feeling "helpless" because teams had to have money to do things like "play away games and have officials."

Chancellor Roger Brown recently recounted a story about Moore calling ahead to restaurants during road trips trying to broker free drinks for the team if the Lady Mocs ate there.

"Now part of that is that is just Coach Moore," he said, "and he'll admit it, but it was really bare bones."

UTC had several teams get hit with APR penalties early in Hart's tenure. Football, wresting and women's soccer were all hit several times, the most severe of which was football's postseason ban in 2008. However, all of the Mocs' programs have been penalty free the past two years and UTC has established an in-house benchmark of 950, 20 points higher than the new NCAA mark of 930.

In addition, UTC will wrap up its two years of NCAA probation for excessive recruiting communication violations in September.

Hart said there was a lot he wanted to see UTC achieve during his tenure. Among the top items, he said, were facility improvements, the football team making the playoffs for the first time since 1984, the student-athlete average GPA for a semester reaching 3.0 (it was most recently 2.97) and seeing all 17 sports with an APR above 950.

"All of those things will happen and I will be proud," he said, "and I look forward to making those phone calls when they do occur."

And if the football team can one day make the playoffs and advance to the national championship game, which is now played in Frisco, Texas, about an hour south of Dallas, Hart said he'll be the first person in line to buy a ticket.