David Blackburn just wasn't himself for much of the 2016-17 school year.
The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga vice chancellor and athletic director's mind was everywhere, ranging from important decisions in the job he had to the job he coveted: athletic director at his alma mater, Tennessee.
Not long after former Tennessee AD Dave Hart announced his resignation on Aug. 18, 2016, Blackburn's name quickly started to circulate as not only the possible successor but the probable one. Fans, former athletes, columnists and national writers started to float his name as the "obvious" choice to replace Hart.
It would have made sense. Blackburn spent more than 20 years in the Tennessee athletic department, from being a member of former football coach Philip Fulmer's staff to making his way up the ladder in adminstration, all the way to senior associate athletic director. Volunteers fans wanted a "Tennessee" person to take over, and with his knowledge of the department as well as the eye for coaching talent he had demonstated at UTC, it would be a logical fit.
But as the search awaited the arrival of a new chancellor in Knoxville, other names started to pop up, to the point where Blackburn started to make his own case for the job he wanted. He went on Knoxville radio shows and answered questions truthfully, admitting he wanted the job. Some took that as politicking, while others appreciated the honesty.
Fulmer's name started to come up, which seemed to divide the fan base, with some wanting Blackburn, others wanting Fulmer and some wanting some combination of the two.
In the early going, Blackburn had enough on his plate. He handled the resignation of cross country coach Bill Gautier with the insertion of former Moc and then-Dalton State coach Andy Meyer. He had just replaced women's tennis coach Jeff Clark — who took a position at McCallie School — with Chad Camper. But in a moment of reflection, he admitted there were things he "didn't handle well."
"The first six, seven months of it, I let the clutter get to me," Blackburn told the Times Free Press in an interview at the Porky's Open at Council Fire Golf Club on Tuesday. "Then I finally hit a point of peace with everything, and I was so busy with so many things this season that I haven't had a lot of time to reflect.
"It was those first three months that caused me so much angst. I've never been in that role. I've never had my name go viral nationally — in some cases bad, some neutral, some cases positive — but if you've never been in that, it kind of freaks you out. I'm thinking, 'How does anybody know about me? It's extra stress on you, but you put it on yourself. It's not people on you, it's just people doing what they do.
"You realize you're never as good as people say you are, or as bad. All those things flee, but what doesn't flee is what you're centered about."
One evening at his home, Blackburn was talking on the phone when he overheard a conversation in another room between his wife, Andrea, and their 8-year old daughter, Charlee, who was working on a project for school. His wife had suggested to Charlee that she elicit the help of her father on one portion of the project.
"Go get your dad. He'll know what to do," David recalled hearing Andrea say, to which Charlee responded, "No, Daddy's too busy."
That statement struck him hard, and he was led to take a step back and assess everything around him.
The next evening, with the rest of the family away, he sat outside at their home that overlooks the Chattanooga Art District, the Tennessee River and AT&T Field and evaluated things. He looked at the view, the beautiful scenery, and asked himself, "What do I have to worry about?"
"I had an epiphany," he said. "I'd been out there for a while, and I just felt so at home. It was just a moment to breathe and realize how fortunate I was to be where I'm at. I'm thankful to have a healthy family in a great city. My dad dies at 52; I'm 51. My sister is battling (breast) cancer, again, and I just thought, 'You've got it made. Who would have ever thought you'd have this opportunity here in Chattanooga in a city that's evolved into an unbelievable place?'
"At that point, I was at peace to move forward instead of constantly worrying. I tuned things out and tuned in, thinking about how we can continue to get better, relax in the job, get back to the fundamentals and try to enjoy everything. That was at that moment.
"I just sat back and realized how thankful I am."
The Tennessee AD job ultimately went to Kansas State AD John Currie, another former Tennessee administrator. By that time, Blackburn had turned his focus completely to UTC, and soon he was hiring former Wisconsin assistant Lamont Paris to replace Matt McCall as men's basketball coach, after McCall left for Massachusetts.
Blackburn was two months beyond having made his first football hire, finding NCAA Division III coach of the year Tom Arth to replace Russ Huesman, who left for Richmond after eight seasons. Athletic directors are judged on whom they hire in major sports, and Blackburn's future success will be directly tied to his latest findings, who have had positive offseason returns.
Arth was hired right in the middle of the process, when a lot of signs led to Blackburn taking the Tennessee job. He said Tuesday that the thought of Blackburn not being at UTC was something that "certainly went through my mind."
"I would have hoped for the best for him, whatever that is, because he's an incredible person, leader and certainly capable of leading an athletic department at that type of place," Arth said. "Selfishly, I wanted him here because we hit it off and I felt I could learn so much from, and the opportunity to be around him every day was going to be great for me. I'm grateful for the opportunity to work for him every day."
Now Blackburn's sole focus is on the various Mocs teams, obtaining donations and exciting a fan base to where the athletic department will be able to keep coaches in place and not get out-bid on them.
"It was a moment, a time to redirect," Blackburn said. "We had to shuffle some things. We've got a great staff, but they get picked apart at times because people find out about them. We have a fresh start now and we want everybody to stay, but we can't covet. They deserve opportunities and we're happy for them.
"We just have to go out and get what we think is as good or better, and hope for the best."
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @genehenleytfp.