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David Blackburn, UTC Athletic Director, talks about new Chattanooga Mocs Head Coach Tom Arth, near left, before a crowd of fans, media and a few attending players inside the Stadium Club at Finley Stadium.
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Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 7/14/16. David Blackburn, Vice Chancellor and Director of Athletics for The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, stands in front of McKenzie Arena where his office is located.

KNOXVILLE — David Blackburn's interest in Tennessee's athletic director position hasn't exactly been a secret.

Now there's no doubt where the UT-Chattanooga athletic director stands on returning to his alma mater.

During an interview with Sports Radio WNML in Knoxville on Friday, Blackburn made it clear he would jump at the opportunity to return to Tennessee, where he spent two decades in various roles within the athletic department and the football program.

"UTC's been so good to me, and I'm so grateful and I'm happy," Blackburn said. "I couldn't ask for anything more than what I have right now. I don't deserve that, but I'm grateful, very grateful for it.

"But if asked to be a part of this process officially in terms of an interview, I would love to, and it would mean the world to me to be able to lead that institution that led me by all the people that allowed me the opportunity to do what I do. But I do want to circle back and let everybody know how great UTC has been to me in that same vein."

Blackburn was tabbed as UTC's AD in April 2013, and the wide-ranging success the Mocs have experienced on and off the fields and courts under his watch and his deep ties to the Volunteers seemingly make him an obvious choice as Tennessee looks to replace the outgoing Dave Hart, whose retirement was announced months ago.

Now many believe Blackburn and Phillip Fulmer, the national championship-winning former football coach of the Vols, are the front-runners as Tennessee's search truly begins.

Last month Tennessee tabbed Turnkey Search and formed a six-member committee to aid in the search, and with new chancellor Beverly Davenport officially assuming her post this week, Tennessee soon could begin formal interviews with potential candidates and may already have done so.

On Wednesday, Davenport indicated she would be meeting with those involved in the search this week, and she certainly has been working on the search and communicating with Gene DeFilippo, Turnkey's head consultant in this search, prior to moving into her office in Knoxville.

The involvement of a search firm, which will research potential candidates and gauge their possible interest level, could mean the emergence of more candidates from a broader, national pool of sitting athletics directors, but there's a sense some key decision-makers want someone with Tennessee ties in charge of the Vols.

"Most every school has an identity in whatever region of the country you are," Blackburn said. "Certainly Tennessee's one of those, very much like Alabama, frankly. They love to have their own. That doesn't mean all the coaches have to be from there or everybody, but they certainly want to have history preserved.

"They want to know that people are there that care about all those before them that have built it to where it is. I'm only where I'm at because of all those people in my life up there for those 26, 27 years, and then down in here. I think it's a moment of time to have that happen.

"I think it brings cohesion among campus, among administration and athletics, among the faculty, students and certainly the city and the state. I think it's a great moment in time."

Davenport indicated Wednesday she was looking for candidates with the ability to manage the financial and personnel aspects of a nearly $130 million department in addition to adherence to compliance and understanding Title IX regulations, among other attributes.

Fulmer has been researching the position and speaking to Hart and two football coaches-turned-ADs in Doug Dickey and Bill Battle, and his lack of administrative experience makes who he might add to his executive staff all the more important.

Blackburn's success with the Mocs is certainly appealing, even though UTC's athletic budget in the $15-17 million range pales in comparison to Tennessee's mammoth annual operating budget.

"It can be back to a national power," Blackburn said, "and I'm not just talking two or three sports. I think Tennessee can be a national power in a lot of things, and that's the mindset that we want to invoke. That's another thing that we did down here was we don't want to just be competent, we want to be excellent.

"You can't do that every day, but if you strive for that, most days you can, and if you do that with someone and a bunch of people that understand the tradition and truly love a place, it really ramps up to another level."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

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