I've been in this business for 25 years. And the last three have been my favorite, and I mean that with all my heart. What an unbelievable community we have. What an unbelievable place. I'm proud of who we are. I'm proud of who you are.
To understand UTC Athletic Director David Blackburn is to understand the people who have influenced him. The parents who pushed him. The sister who inspired him. The men on and off the gridiron who have mentored him. And the community that has welcomed him.
Blackburn chokes up a bit talking about one of those people in particular.
"He was a renaissance man," he says of his dad. "A renaissance man."
Blackburn is sitting in his fourth-floor office at McKenzie Arena, clicking anxiously at a ballpoint pen. He stares down at his loafers thinking about the men and women in his life who have come before him, the ones who have influenced him. A crane can be seen looming out the window. On his desk are plans for an academic center and athletic facility that he and his staff hope to bring to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in the next four years. Behind him, more plans are in order.
The athletic director at any level has to research, plan and execute.
Those are qualities Blackburn was reared in. When he was in high school, most weekends consisted of playing football under the Friday night lights, getting a good night's sleep, waking up around 4 a.m., cutting wood with his father until breakfast time and then spending the rest of his "off-day" surveying land. Back then you didn't have to graduate with a civil engineering degree to survey land. You needed the smarts, discipline and patience to get the job done, and it was a seasonal gig for Henry Blackburn.
The job of a land surveyor is to determine the terrestrial position of points and the distances and angles between them. You mark out a territory, measure the landscape and survey the area. The practice has been an element in the development of the human environment since the beginning of recorded history. You plan and you execute.
Things, it seems, started to take a turn for the better for UTC once David Blackburn accepted his new job and started planning. He had a vision. He was hired in April 2013 to take over as vice chancellor and director of athletics, and his impact in those three short years is unavoidable. A stat sheet of his accomplishments exists, and it is exhaustive.
To highlight, 2015 was the first time any school has won football, men's basketball and women's basketball in the same year in Southern Conference history. UTC's championships include four straight for women's basketball, three straight for football and four regular season titles in wrestling. A school-record 50 Mocs made the All-SoCon team in 2014-15 and the school captured its first Commissioner's Cup, given to the conference's top men's program. To top it all off, the athletic GPA in the fall of 2015 was the highest the school has ever seen, and UTC has led the SoCon in football and men's and women's basketball attendance in the regular season each of the last two years.
"I see better than I hear," Blackburn says. "[Former University of Tennessee Athletic Director] Doug Dickey used to say to me all the time, 'Your actions speak so loud that I can't hear what you're saying.' You have to demonstrate it, you can't just talk it." A director of athletics is judged by the coaches they hire, the staff they surround themselves with and the competitive success those coaches earn. Revenue, national exposure and academic accomplishments are also big factors.
When Blackburn has a position to fill and a person to hire, he thrives in the research stages. He'll talk to people who know the candidate. He wants to know what makes them tick, where their passions lie. How do they treat the cafeteria lady? The janitors? The lowly team managers? He talks to all of them. He wants to know the person, not just the coach.
"You have to have someone that is not afraid to fail and someone that loves the moment," says Blackburn. "And the moment is not necessarily on Monday night on ESPN2. The moment that really matters is January 4th at 5 a.m. when you're watching film. They've got to have a passion for what they do. That's different than care or like, interest or hobby. If you're passionate about something, it means something to you. You want them to recognize winning effort and you want them to demand it," he continues, echoing the lessons he learned from his old man. "I look for that."
When he wasn't putting in hours as a seasonal land surveyor, Henry Blackburn was an anatomy and physiology teacher at Loudon County High School. Essentially, he taught biology before they even called it biology.
The job of a physiology teacher is to teach students about the human body. Biology, physiology, anatomy, all sciences of creation, construction and life; body structures, nervous systems, external and internal.
And when he wasn't doing that, Henry Blackburn was a coach and mentor, both on the football field and as assistant principal at Loudon County High School. So it's no surprise that a competitive spirit has always been part of David Blackburn's DNA. From school and sports to his professional career, there's always been a flame lit for competition.
His first memory of sports was an early one. His mother worked at a sporting goods store called Athletic House on State Street for a man named Jim Cook. She rode the bus 30 minutes each way. When David was 3 or 4, Mr. Cook would send home one piece of equipment with Mrs. Blackburn for her son at the end of every month. The first thing she brought home was a regulation size football. Today, when you walk inside Blackburn's riverfront apartment on Chattanooga's North Shore, that same football, worn and tattered with practice and memories, sits behind glass.
"Even though I already have a fire in my belly, competition pulls it out even more," says Blackburn. "I'm a firm believer that not everyone deserves a trophy. You can lose the game and still be a winner, but you should try to compete. We teach that here and it's the same in school: Get up and go to class, you can't miss it. Competition pulls a fighting spirit out of me. And it's pure, I don't want it to sound ugly. Hopefully it brings out the best in me and shows me my weaknesses. Just like a test does."
Success in the classroom has been a big emphasis in the Blackburn-era at UTC — as it was for him growing up. Two school records stand out. In the fall of 2015 there were 157 student-athletes on the Dean's List along with 96 making the Academic All-SoCon teams in the 2014-15 season.
"Growing up in a coach's home, I knew I had to do well in school," Blackburn says. "I was small, limited athletically, so it was always about giving great effort. That's all our father asked of us: Outwork the next person. Be respectful, be a good teammate. If you're not starting, be the best scout team player there is. He was big on 'everybody has a role.' That way you're just as important as the starting quarterback."
Besides the obvious, why is it beneficial for a student-athlete to excel in the classroom?
"They learn the value of effort," says Blackburn. "They learn the craft and figure out how to manage themselves in different situations. In athletics, it's getting ready to guard the best player in the league. That's equivalent to taking a brutal physics test for a teacher who's really tough. So hopefully they learn to compete in that environment as much as they do in the field, court, mat and so on. You have to know your craft and know how to coexist on your own."
The job of a football coach is to mentor and teach.
Discipline when necessary, mold young minds, turn boys into men. Blackburn is a father figure on the gridiron. He has a deep, loud voice — a snarl maybe — but is soft and gracious in his lessons, earnest in his musings. He is strong in stature, intimidating even. Kippy Brown, former coach at UT Knoxville and of the Seattle Seahawks and one of Blackburn's many mentors, grew up around the Blackburn family and worked closely with David for a number of years with the Volunteers.
"I promise you, if I can describe him in one way, I would say that he is absolutely the real deal," Brown says. "He's a first-class person. Nothing was ever given to him, either. He worked for everything."
Blackburn started his career in athletics cleaning jock straps and tidying up locker rooms at UT. He was promoted many times over, first to a student assistant in the Johnny Majors era, then to an assistant director of compliance and director of football operations in the Phillip Fulmer era, finally moving on to fundraising as the assistant athletic director for development.
"He is the kind of guy who can exert authority," says Brown. "Not many people can do that and toe that line of efficiency and personality. He's been exposed to the whole gamut in this business. He makes everything he touches better by putting his spin on it."
Back in his office, Blackburn looks up at the shelves behind his big desk. He points out a pair of gold boxing gloves. They belonged to his grandfather, Barry Sutton, a member of the Golden Glove Boxing Hall of Fame. This memory gets Blackburn talking about his mentors — his many mentors. He says he can fill up a whole page with their names. He starts with his parents, his sister Suzanne who has battled Hodgkin's disease and now battles breast cancer. He rattles off names like Kippy Brown, Doug Dickey, Johnny Majors, Phillip Fulmer, David Cutcliffe, Gary Wyant; mostly men whom he met while working at UT. What did they all have in common?
"They knew what winning effort was," Blackburn says. "And they demanded it every day, sometimes to the point of pain. It's hard living up to that, but I was used to it. My father was that way. So naturally I was attracted to that."
The job of a farmer is to grow and produce.
Whether that be produce, cattle or commodities, a farmer provides for his family, his community and his country. He creates resources, raises large-size animals and maintains a prosperous environment.
Henry Blackburn also worked as a dairy farmer in Pikeville, Tennessee. He raised his family in Philadelphia, Tennessee, a town so small it officially became incorporated just a few years ago. In his spare time he played clarinet, piano, violin and built intricate dollhouses. But No. 1 was always supporting his clan.
David Blackburn has grown himself a family and transported them to Chattanooga. His older daughter is a freshman nursing student at UTC; his youngest is 8. "I go from Play-Doh drama to boyfriend drama," he says with a laugh.
There are similarities to his job on the field and the job he has at home, he adds. He notices them every day.
"The most important entity in life is family," says Blackburn. "There's not one bigger than that. And unfortunately, we've kind of lost that endeavor as a society. I think it's paramount. It's the most important job I have, the most important title I'll ever have: Dad."
Blackburn lost his own father a few years back. Each time he touches on a memory or a lesson learned from his dad, air gets caught in his throat and his voice raises an octave. He is certainly a man who wears his heart on his sleeve. He stares back down at his loafers. The sun from the window gives them a glare. Then goes the pen. Click-clack. Click-clack. Tears well up in his eyes. He's about to share what he's learned most about this job thus far.
"Gratefulness," Blackburn says after a long pause, tears still present in his eyes. "Grateful to be here and be able to lead a group of people that are good. Grateful to have the community that has embraced our family and department and our school. I yearn to come into work, believe it or not. I yearn for the fight, for the competition. I can't put it into words."
He mentions Peyton Manning's final press conference. The passion. The tears.
"In his gut, and I know him, it ain't about the money for him. People think it is, but he would do it if he was getting a bottle of water a day. You heard him say, 'When I stayed and watched film, I did it out of reverence.' I love doing what I do. So I'm grateful to do that. And I also know there's gonna be a time when they ask you to get off the bus."
He looks off at the pictures of his wife and kids sitting next to the boxing gloves and trophies.
"I'm grateful that I'm on the bus. So what I gotta do is enjoy the bus. And then say,' Well, thank you for the ride.'"