January 24, 2017

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart isn't offering recommendations regarding the selection of his successor. He says he's confident in the people making that choice.

Hart announced in August that he was stepping down . His retirement takes effect June 30, though he could leave sooner depending on when his replacement is selected .

Incoming chancellor Beverly Davenport announced Friday that Turnkey Sports and Entertainment had been hired as a search firm and a separate six-person committee appointed that includes former NFL quarterback Peyton Manning and Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam to help pick Hart's successor.

''I had the chance to visit with her ... and I came away extremely impressed,'' Hart said Tuesday in an interview with The Associated Press. ''I think she will do a very good job of leading. She's very, very bright and a very personable individual. I think the search process will be in very good hands.''

Hart, 67, said he isn't surprised his replacement hasn't been named yet. He noted Davenport doesn't officially take over as chancellor until Feb. 15. Davenport was approved by the Board of Trustees last month.

When he announced his pending departure, Hart said he made the decision in part to allow the new chancellor to select an athletic director. His announcement came after Tennessee opted against giving him an extension and raise.

Hart said he has stayed out of the search process and that Davenport ''has a very firm grip on what she wants there.''

''I'll help in any way that is appropriate at any time that anyone wants me to assist, but I also understand there are people in place who will go through the process and make that decision,'' Hart said.

Some of the criticism of Hart since his arrival in 2011 involved his status as a former Alabama executive director of athletics with no previous Tennessee connections. Hart says he doesn't think a Tennessee background should be a prerequisite, though he understands the sentiment.

''It would be almost human nature to want one of your own or a Tennessee person, but the reality is having spent as many years as I have in this profession, there aren't a lot of sitting AD's who are alums of the school that they represent,'' Hart said. ''I don't think that triggers any automatic success. I don't think it insulates you from criticism.''

Two people mentioned as potential candidates for the job are Tennessee alums: Chattanooga athletic director David Blackburn and former Tennessee football coach Phillip Fulmer. One possibility was removed Tuesday when associate athletic director Jon Gilbert was hired as Southern Mississippi's athletic director .

Hart says his day-to-day responsibilities haven't changed much since his announcement. Hart said the only event that ''gave me pause'' came after a Music City Bowl victory over Nebraska as players approached him and he realized this would be his last football game as athletic director.

''I've just been doing my job and trying to do it with class and trying to do it with passion,'' Hart said.

Tennessee has dramatically improved the financial health of its athletic department and the academic performance of its student-athletes during Hart's tenure.

There's also been adversity.

The school reached a $2.48 million settlement last year in a Title IX lawsuit regarding its handling of assault and sexual assault complaints against athletes. Hart also faced backlash over the decision to eliminate the Lady Vols nickname for all women's sports other than basketball.

Hart's most noteworthy hire was the addition of football coach Butch Jones, who has gone 30-21 in four seasons. After a 9-4 season that included unexpected losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt , Hart said he's as confident as ever in Jones and pointed out that Tennessee has won bowl games three straight years.

''Was there disappointment that we didn't win the (SEC) East? Certainly there was,'' Hart said. ''Was there disappointment that we had an opportunity to go to the Sugar Bowl but didn't get that done? Sure. But I think you have to step back and let the emotion get out of it a little bit. That gives you a better perspective of the total picture.''

Hart doesn't anticipate accepting a full-time role in athletic administration after leaving Tennessee, but he would like to remain active in working with student-athletes, coaches or administrators.

''I don't plan on hanging up a sign that says, `Gone Fishing,''' Hart said. ''I certainly still have a lot of energy, and I still think I can make a difference in people's lives. I can affect people in a positive way. How that plays itself out, I don't know.''

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