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Front Page - Friday, June 16, 2017

Jenkins Perspective: Blackburn departure a setback for UTC progress


Just like that, David Blackburn is gone.

It hit just about everyone affiliated with the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga athletic program like a punch to the gut Tuesday morning when Vice Chancellor and Director of Athletics Blackburn turned in his notice, effective immediately.

He was already gone by the time most people in the athletic department learned of his decision.

The questions on everyone’s lips are pretty basic: Why? Why now? For what?

There are no ready answers. In lieu of facts, there is a boatload of speculation, gossip and rumor-mongering.

It seems remarkable enough that Blackburn, who came to UTC from UT-Knoxville in 2013, was still here. In a convoluted series of events, the University of Tennessee spent weeks, if not months, doing what many perceived to be a courtship dance with Blackburn to bring him back to Knoxville as athletic director.

Once Dave Hart announced his resignation last August, there seemed to be consensus that the job was his for the taking because he’d built an amazing resume in his short time in Chattanooga.

In four years of heading the athletic department, Blackburn and his coaches were on the receiving end of 13 Southern Conference regular season championship trophies and another 10 SoCon tournament titles. The pinnacle of the Blackburn era was 2015-16 when the Mocs claimed conference championships in football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball in the same school year cycle – a first for UTC, and a feat seldom accomplished anywhere, at any level.

And make no mistake, he deserves much of the credit. His arrival settled the chaos that that threatened to overwhelm the athletic program.

Blackburn followed a series of athletic directors who were either overmatched, disinterested or simply indifferent to our team’s athletic successes. The established coaches found him a man they could work with, and when John Shulman, Will Wade (and then Matt McCall) and Wes Moore all moved on to bigger and better things, he showed a knack for handling the tricky search process.

Blackburn was able to read between lines of a Division III football coach’s resume to see he was a big-time coach waiting to happen.

He was able find the ways and means to bring a big-time college assistant away from a superbly successful Wisconsin program to test the head coaching waters for the first time.

And perhaps most remarkable, he was able to bring a Hall of Fame women’s basketball coach to town who was ready to show the world that he wasn’t yet ready for the retirement rocking chair.

Yet the ability to find the right coaches for this program – something Knoxville’s athletic directors struggle with – still wasn’t enough for the “powers that be” in Knoxville to bring Blackburn home.

Instead, another former athletic department assistant, John Currie, was hired out of a Kansas State program that was, according to some sources, glad to be rid of him.

You can weigh the merits or drawbacks of Currie’s return to Knoxville all day, but the accounts from Chattanooga were that Blackburn was devastated by losing out on his dream job – a job he ultimately campaigned openly for, to the anger and disappointment of his current employers.

But the vast majority of UTC fans continued to appreciate his good work on their behalf and will feel the sting of his departure today right alongside the athletes who have been enjoying unprecedented success on and off the field.

That’s right – UTC’s student athletes have just posted a 3.0 or higher GPA for a seventh consecutive semester. Blackburn had inherited an athletic program that was one more bad semester away from academic probation, but his earliest decisions were all based on turning around the decline.

But if most of the UTC athletic department was feeling gut-punched today, consider Tom Arth, Lamont Paris and Jim Foster feels. And for now, we can only imagine as no one was is talking.

So, let’s speculate.

The terse release offered little:

“The time has come for me to resign as vice chancellor and director of athletics. I love UTC and the city of Chattanooga. I’m grateful for the time allowed to serve this great school and city.”

There was no public pressure on him to leave, although there is speculation in some local media that his lingering love of all things Big Orange was a cause for some friction. There was no new job beckoning. There was, thankfully, no apparent health issue.

The plain truth seems to be that Blackburn no longer had the stomach for a job that required 100 percent time and devotion, seven days a week. It would seem he was in the process of leaving Tennessee, the school and the state, as far behind him as quickly as possible.

If he were to take another job in college sports administration, bet your bottom dollar it will be nowhere near the SEC.

But what does David Blackburn leave behind?

The short-term answer is that there is a just-open vacancy in the Mocs’ once-solid tennis program. “Progress” has led to the school’s outdoor tennis courts being bulldozed for construction, and years of decreasing success led to Carlos Garcia leaving after 16 years.

But Blackburn leaves behind recent coaching hires in soccer, track and women’s tennis, leaving his replacement with a short to-do list.

The school has named Associate Athletic Director Scott Altizer its interim A.D. while a “a nationwide search” for Blackburn’s replacement takes place. It will not be an internal promotion, nor will anyone else with UT credentials be considered, if only unofficially.

Blackburn’s 20-year relationship with the University of Tennessee ultimately became a big negative in his moving forward. Is it cornball to consider that losing out to Currie broke his heart? Not if you read between the lines.

Ultimately, what’s left is UTC needing to hire a man who is probably irreplaceable. Blackburn is left with a world of possibilities after a clean break with the only job he’s ever known. And Moc fans, real fans, are left with one more big reason to hate their Big Orange big brother.

If Blackburn had stayed, the Chattanooga athletic program would be in a prime position to make a jump into the “big time,” a move up to the BCS following the same path as Appalachian State and Georgia Southern – UTC’s last and best rivals in the SoCon.

Now, it’s a toss of the dice as to whether the school can find a true leader in Blackburn’s mold to make that life-changing decision to grow or stagnate.

And if it comes to light that there was anyone affiliated with UTC in any way who pressured him to leave, they and UTC will deserve their inevitable return to the status as a second-rate athletic program.

“We appreciate the time and attention that David has provided our athletic programs at UTC,” Chancellor Steve Angle said through a media statement.

“The Mocs have reached unprecedented heights over the last four years under David’s leadership and we thank him for his efforts.”