The Vols have failed to earn a bowl bid or reach the NCAA men's basketball tournament each of the last two years. Before 2011-12, Tennessee hadn't missed out on a bowl and an NCAA tournament bid in the same school year since 1977-78.
Tennessee placed 37th in the 2012-13 Directors Cup standings, its lowest finish in the 20-year history of the award given annually to the nation's top overall college athletic program. Tennessee also posted a $3.98 million budget deficit in the 2011-12 fiscal year.
Hart said he understood the challenges facing Tennessee when he took over as athletic director in September 2011. He believes recent moves such as the hiring of football coach Butch Jones will help turn things around.
"It's an exciting time for the University of Tennessee and Tennessee athletics," Hart said in an interview with The Associated Press. "We've still got challenges. We're not sliding into home, but we're on the base paths — and we may steal a base or two."
Hart said the challenges came in part because of all the recent transition within the school and its athletic department.
Jones will be Tennessee's fourth coach in six seasons if you don't include former offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, who served as interim head coach for the final game last year. Current chancellor Jimmy Cheek is the seventh different president or chancellor to whom the athletic department has reported since 2000.
One of Hart's first jobs was to consolidate the men's and women's athletic departments. Since that process started, two gender discrimination lawsuits have been filed against the university — one by former Lady Vols media director Debby Jennings and another by three current or former Lady Vols trainers and strength coaches.
Hart believes Tennessee has better days ahead now that it's gotten through all that transition.
"We have a lot of positive energy right now," Hart said.
Tennessee's softball team was the runner-up in the Women's College World Series. The women's swim team placed third in the NCAA championships, its best finish ever. Hart also cited the solid performances of Tennessee's first-year head coaches.
The women's basketball program proved it could continue to succeed in the post-Pat Summitt era by winning the SEC regular-season title and reaching a regional final with Holly Warlick. The men's swimming program placed 16th in the NCAA championships under Matt Kredich, who was in his eighth year as the Lady Vols' coach but had just taken over the men's team this season. The women's soccer team placed third in the SEC and reached the NCAA tournament under Brian Pensky after being picked to finish 11th in the conference.
Hart also said the school has taken steps to correct the athletic department's financial problems. At a board of trustees meeting last month, Tennessee officials said they were confident the athletic department would break even in the current fiscal year.
"I feel good about where we're going," Hart said. "That's not on my future concern list."
But progress on other fronts has been overshadowed by the Vols' football struggles.
Jones is trying to turn around a program that posted three straight losing seasons under predecessor Derek Dooley. Tennessee's average attendance last season was 89,965, its lowest since 1979.
Although Jones wasn't the Vols' first choice - he was hired after Louisville's Charlie Strong announced he'd turned down an offer from Tennessee - he has generated excitement with his outgoing personality and recruiting prowess. Tennessee is ranked first in Rivals' 2014 team recruiting rankings.
"I think our entire campus has been re-energized because of Butch's work ethic, because of his accessibility, the way he values and treats people," Hart said.
Tennessee's recruiting got a boost from the April dedication of the $45 million Anderson Training Center. Hart says "the NFL scouts who come through here tell me this is as fine a facility as they've seen at their level."
Hart also hopes to add outdoor practice fields at the site of the recently closed Stokely Athletics Center. Other future projects include a new residence hall and a television studio to accommodate the SEC Network.
By the time that network launches in August 2014, perhaps Tennessee will have made its way back up the Directors' Cup standings. Until then, Tennessee cites its storied past as evidence of a brighter future.
"You can't manufacture tradition," Hart said. "We have that at the University of Tennessee. We have a lot of that. That's a pretty good building block to (help you) recover. That's what we're doing. We're in that recovery mode, and I'm very, very happy with the progress that we're making in that recovery."