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David Blackburn’s Full-Circle Approach

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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A man of great wisdom within the collegiate arena, David Blackburn has developed his skills by applying them.

I'm only where I'm at because of people that have been kind and gracious to me. I've been able to learn from them. I was able to touch just about every part of that department, internal and external
~David Blackburn

With a new year, comes new opportunity. Standards, however, don't change with the calendar. As University of Tennessee-Chattanooga Vice Chancellor and Athletics Director David Blackburn readies for another run, he does so with a growing reputation as one of the top administrators in the country. Entering his fifth year with the Mocs, Blackburn has helped elevate the status quo, not just in football, or in athletics, but across the entire spectrum that accompanies college sports.  

For the 2015-2016 seasons, Chattanooga became the first school in Southern Conference history to win the league in football, men's basketball and women's basketball in the same year, also adding championships in volleyball and wrestling. The Mocs, during Blackburn's tenure, have won a SoCon-best 21 combined regular season and tournament league titles. Football has become a recent fixture in the FCS playoffs. 

Victories haven't been the only measure of achievement at Chattanooga, as student-athletes set a program record with a collective 3.113 GPA in the fall of 2015, with a record number of participants earning Academic All-SoCon honors that year.

The Mocs have also grown their footprint with facilities upgrades and community engagement.

A Loudon-native, much of Blackburn's frame of reference was shaped during two decades, in a variety of positions, at the University of Tennessee. From serving as a student-assistant under Johnny Majors to ultimately becoming a senior official in Knoxville, Blackburn played a very real role in the Volunteers' remarkable athletic success of the 1990s and 2000s. His path, a poignant journey from athletic adjunct to big-orange brass, gave Blackburn a rare look at college sports, both inside and out.    

Blackburn's football upbringing goes well beyond Majors. He worked for Phillip Fulmer as the assistant director of compliance, director of football operations and assistant athletics director for football operations. In Blackburn's ten years with the Volunteers on the gridiron, Tennessee went 99-24, won two SEC Championships and a national title in 1998. His presence came with great stability, handling many administrative and logistical issues for one of the top program's in the nation. 

As the evolution of Blackburn's career continued, he moved into a fundraising role as the assistant athletics director for development. Blackburn oversaw tremendous growth in giving, as the Volunteer Athletic Scholarship Fund expanded from $19.5 million in 2003 to over $41 million in 2007. Additionally, he helped negotiate an $84 million multi-media contract with Host Communications. Further responsibilities included expansion designs, special events coordination and leadership development.

Soon, Blackburn was promoted to associate athletic director of administration, directly managing various athletic programs, along with serving as the senior administrator for, among other duties, sports medicine, strength and conditioning and event coordination. He was integral in coaching searches and gameday and facility operations. Perhaps most notably, he was the athletics contact for the Thornton Center, the school's student-athlete academic support unit. 

With his career working in football having officially come full circle, Blackburn became football's executive liaison as the senior associate athletics director for administration. Overseeing budgeting, contracts and scheduling and heading the execution, in 2008, of Tennessee's $48 million football training center, Blackburn was instrumental, in a critical time in college athletics, in the Volunteers' impressive growth.   

Through all of his experiences, Blackburn is grateful for his start and the powerful perspective that came with it.

"I'm only where I'm at because of people that have been kind and gracious to me. I've been able to learn from them. I was able to touch just about every part of that department, internal and external. I started out in recruiting and then football operations, through the '90s with Coach Fulmer," Blackburn acknowledged.

Blackburn has credentials as impressive as any. In his eyes, however, his most impressive associations are ones that won't show up on his resume.

"I just learned so much from so many people and I'm so grateful for what they allowed me to do, and for all the people that I was allowed to learn from," Blackburn continued. "You're only as good as the people you get to hang around and I've been blessed to be around a lot of good."

At Chattanooga, Blackburn has helped move the Mocs to the next level, a metric with a multi-faceted application. With only one postseason trip prior to his arrival, football has advanced to the playoffs three years in a row in his tenure, claiming conference championships in 2013, 2014 and 2015. This past fall, Chattanooga peaked at number three in the national polls, tying a program record that dates back to 1968. Teams have won a postseason game for the third consecutive season.

The Mocs firmly stand as one of the premier football programs in the SoCon, an ascension Blackburn has a comprehensive appreciation for, given his position.  

"We've been fortunate over the last several years. Coach Huesman and his staff did an incredible job of bringing in good, quality players. Our community bought in and we were able to start increasing our budget through fundraising, to help with recruiting," he explained. "We're really on the rise and have done it and hopefully we've provided better resources for that to occur and to continue."

A two-time league coach of the year, Russ Huesman went 59-37 in eight years in the Scenic City. He recently accepted the head coaching job at Richmond, where he was defensive coordinator from 2004-2008.

Blackburn led a national search to find Huesman's replacement, a process which landed 35-year old Tom Arth. A former NFL quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts, Arth is one of the most productive passers in NCAA Division III history, starring at John Carroll. Arth quickly molded his alma mater into a playoff regular, making the postseason three out of four years and compiling a 40-8 overall record. After earning an Ohio Athletic Conference Championship and D3Football.com Coach of the Year recognition in 2016, Arth left the Blue Streaks for a chance with Chattanooga.

Arth, interestingly enough, is roughly the same age as famed coach Joe Morrison was when he took over the Mocs in 1973. Despite his youth, Arth is the first Chattanooga hire in nearly 100 years with previous head coaching experience. Tennessee legend Peyton Manning, who played professionally with Arth, was among those who offered their approval.

In evaluating the fast-rising coach, Blackburn became more impressed the more he learned.

"We knew of him, but didn't know a whole lot about him until this process began. We watched a lot of tape and I was enamored with how he could adjust. Watching how cerebral he was, and then being around him, in terms of how he leads, his integrity, and holding people to a high standard, we just feel like he's going to take us from where we are now and move us even further along," Blackburn added. "We're grateful he's with us."

All of the hires made by Blackburn have fit a specific mission statement. Aside from meeting expectations on the field, Blackburn's model is all-encompassing.

"Our graduation success rate is 76%, so we really focus on bringing in good student-athletes who can compete in the classroom, and on the field or court. Our staff has done such a good job," Blackburn nodded. "We try to strive for excellence, not just competence." 

Like many of his other stances, Blackburn's outlook on the student-athlete experience has been shaped as both a participant and purveyor.

"I'm actually not a huge fan of the term 'student-athlete', believe it or not," he detailed. "I grew up an athlete and that's all I've ever really done, but they're students that do happen to play athletics. And, certainly at our level, not many of us are going to make a living actually playing professional ball. So, school has to be very, very crucial, and even when I was at Tennessee, and at all the other FBS schools, it should still be the thing that you focus on the most."

One of Blackburn's leading views is the idea that responsibilities shouldn't be isolated, rather intertwined, instead. An attitude of excellence is a consistent convergence of principles, not an itemized to-do checklist. His concepts have have taken shape at each of his stops. Currently, the Mocs are finding success in more ways than one. 

Through the seasons, goals stay in place.

"I think they go hand-in-hand. We talk about winning a lot; we don't hide from that, but it's how you act, how behave, how you treat others, and how you react to adversity, and that transfers onto the playing surface, as well," Blackburn stated. "Hopefully, we're winning at both aspects, and we're not perfect at it, but we try to make that an important part of what we do."

Embracing a bigger picture, Blackburn understands the possibilities that come with his platform. Through hard work, determined and decisive, fair and focused, lives can be changed. Blackburn's job, at the end of the day, is to enhance the experiences of young people, giving them opportunities to further themselves academically, athletically and culturally. Blackburn is committed to that pledge. 

To that end, numerous organizations at Chattanooga were quick extend a helping hand when devastating fires tore through the Great Smoky Mountains in late November. Athletics was no different. Raising funds to raising awareness, the Mocs had a passionate desire to help. Blackburn believes civic involvement in a key part of the higher calling of higher learning.    

"We want to teach them what good looks like. In today's world, sometimes we go so fast, we forget what good looks like. We want them to know that world is full of more good than bad, and we want to be part of that," Blackburn surmised.

Context has always been one of Blackburn's biggest strengths.

"It's great to score a touchdown, or dunk a ball, or pin somebody in wrestling, and we want to do well in school, but we all know most of our lives are not in a classroom or at practice or on the playing field, but out in the world," he concluded. "It's not always pretty, there are issues. There are others, when things happen to them that maybe shouldn't, and we want to teach them a sense of responsibility to help and give back."

A man of great wisdom within the collegiate arena, Blackburn has developed his skills by applying them. His profile has grown exponentially as a result. The responsibilities, for Blackburn, have grown; his convictions remain true.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports