FILE - In this March 27, 2015, file photo, University of Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart gestures as he speaks to reporters about the firing of head basketball coach Donnie Tyndall, in Knoxville, Tenn. Hart is ready to look ahead to 2015-16 after a tumultuous year that included record fundraising and modest improvements on the field but also the abrupt firing of men's basketball coach Donnie Tyndall and criticism over the elimination of the Lady Vols nickname in all sports but basketball. (AP Photo/Wade Payne, File)
KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — Now that Tennessee has started making progress in its rebuilding process, athletic director Dave Hart believes a much bigger jump is around the corner.
"We want all of our teams in the Top 25," Hart said Friday in an interview with The Associated Press. "Now some may be upper-echelon, maybe in the top five. Some may be somewhere in the middle. Some may be at that cut line. But in the next three to five years, based on our commitments and based on our investments, I'd like to see us achieve that goal."
Although Hart acknowledges it could take a few years to get to that point, it remains an ambitious aim for a school that finished 38th in the 2014-15 Directors' Cup all-sports standings, up from 40th in 2013-14. Hart believes it's doable and noted the new athletic facilities around campus that already have opened or are on the way.
Tennessee opened a television studio to coincide with the launching of the SEC Network and also dedicated a new volleyball center last fall. Other projects under way or in the works include expansion of the football practice fields, construction of a dormitory, improvements to the track, renovations of the basketball locker rooms and additions to the tennis facilities and boathouse.
"Some coaches had major rebuilding jobs," Hart said. "We've put a lot of hard work into helping them, giving them the tools to rebuild. Now, these next three to five years, I think we should make significant progress."
Tennessee took a few steps forward last year, though much of the improvement came off the field.
The football program ended a string of four straight losing seasons. Student-athletes posted a 3.04 grade- point average in the spring semester, their second-highest result since Tennessee began keeping track of this data in 2003. Tennessee raised a record $48.4 million in athletic donations during the 2014-15 fiscal year.
But those signs of progress were overshadowed in a tumultuous year that included the firing of men's basketball coach Donnie Tyndall, the elimination of the Lady Vols nickname in all sports but basketball and the indictments of former football players A.J. Johnson and Michael Williams on aggravated rape charges.
Tyndall was fired after only one year after Tennessee officials correctly determined the NCAA would say that he committed major violations while coaching Southern Mississippi from 2012-14. Hart replaced Tyndall with former Texas coach Rick Barnes, who becomes the Vols' third coach in as many seasons.
Although Texas is investigating allegations of misconduct dating to 2008, Texas officials have said the university "has no information that suggests" Barnes knew of or was involved in any academic improprieties. Barnes led Texas to the NCAA Tournament in 16 of his 17 seasons on the job.
"I'm absolutely comfortable that finally we have stability with the leadership in the men's basketball program," Hart said.
As Williams prepares to go to trial next week while Johnson's case is set for trial next month, Hart said the athletic department is stepping up its education efforts on the importance of making the right decisions off the field. The school is holding more mandatory sessions to discuss topics such as alcohol and sexual assault.
"We have done a lot, but we're going to do more,' Hart said.
Hart said he didn't have any regrets about how he handled the process that led up to his decision to remove the Lady Vols nickname and logo for most women's sports teams. Tennessee announced in November that all Tennessee teams other than the women's basketball squad would be called the Volunteers starting in 2015-16.
Fans upset about the switch started a petition drive and rallied outside a Board of Trustees meeting in an attempt to preserve the Lady Vols nickname for all Tennessee women's sports teams. Hart said he respected the opinions of those who disagreed with the decision but added that he wouldn't have done anything differently.
"We've moved on," Hart said. "I can tell you in our building without hesitation, we have an outstanding culture in our building right now. Our coaches, our staff, our student-athletes, there's a tangible level of positive energy in this building."