December 2, 2020

Hart leaves Webster athletics, Berry College gains D-III experience

In Tom Hart’s 19 years as director of athletics at Webster University brought many “firsts” to the Gorlok tradition. Webster’s first baseball team to compete in the College World Series, coaching Webster’s first Golf team, and he began the involvement of Gorlok athletes in the Webster Groves community through the UrbanFuture program.

In his new position as director of athletics at Berry College (Ga.) he said one thing he is most excited about is being a part of the many “firsts” to come in the Vikings program. While he was athletic director at Webster he remembers the first time a Webster team went to an NCAA Championship Tournament. Berry has completed their transfer from the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) to the NCAA Division-III. This is their first year of eligibility for NCAA Championships, after they spent the last four years in provisional status. Both the Volleyball and Men’s Soccer teams would both have earned spots in there NCAA Championship Tournaments.

On Monday July 8, Hart told a room filled with staff members of Webster Athletics that he would stay at Webster until the end of July, then head south to Berry. He said being in the middle of a search for a new Cross Country and Track and Field coach especially made for some “mixed emotions”.

“It got a little emotional for me in there,” Hart said. “You build something for 21 years so you just let folks know you appreciate all the work they have done. I thanked all of them and wanted them to know that this is one of those unique opportunities that don’t come around all the time.”

Hart will now be a part of the largest continuous college campus in the world, with more than 27,000 acres. Webster campus is 47 acres.

The Stephen J. Cage Athletic and Recreation Center opened on Berry’s campus in 2008. It contains a 2,000-seat area, 6 lane competitive swimming pool and student gym. The Berry campus also holds its own soccer and lacrosse, baseball and softball fields, tennis courts and a 185-acre equestrian center.

July 31 was Hart’s last day in charge of the program he joined more than 20 years ago.

Hart said it would take a particular level of special for him and his family to be enticed to move away from his position in St. Louis for the past 20 years. The opportunity first presented itself in March of 2013 when Hart heard from another Webster employee that Berry’s director of athletics for 16 years, Todd Brooks, was leaving for Christopher Newport University (Va.).

Hart had known only that Berry was in the provisional status to becoming an NCAA D-III institution and had met a few members from Berry Athletics at a NCAA conference.

“I had it tucked away in the back of my mind,” Hart said. “That sounded like a pretty cool institution, and a great opportunity for someone to lead.”

Another factor that attracted Hart was the message that Berry’s founder in 1902, Martha Berry, used to descried the philosophy of Berry “Head, Heart and Hands.” That is how she expressed her commitment “to providing a first hand education experience,” as stated on Berry’s website.

I though there was a real alignment of philosophies at Berry and what I attempted to put together at Webster athletics,” Hart said. “And once you start looking at the land, the conference, the athletic facilities they have, and my wife and I always have said if we were going to move, we were going south.”

The staff at Berry is fresh off a loss themselves after their director of athletics for 16 years took the open athletic director position at Christopher Newport College (Va.).

“Actually I stayed at Berry longer, in fact about four months after I knew I got the job at CNU,” Brooks said. “Just for the fact that I wanted to finish up the fourth and final year of the (D-III) membership process and I didn’t want anything to fall through the cracks.”

Brooks said he hopes Hart can continue the Viking tradition and sees space for even more sports to be added in the future.

            Berry’s Volleyball Head Coach/ Assistant Athletic Director Mika Robinson was on the hiring committee. She said she could tell Hart was a person who not only cared about all student athletes, but also that he understood the meaning of D-III athletics. That was similar to Brooks who was very successful, she added.

“The other big thing with Todd was he truly believed in the mission at Berry College, and that also came through very clearly through in Tom’s interview process,” Robinson said. “He truly believes in what Berry’s about.”

Coming with the opportunity of heading 21 sports, will be challenges for Hart who said he has little experience with managing and organizing sports like football, lacrosse and equestrian. Brooks said it was a “professional challenge” for him during his time at Berry, but it isn’t finished yet. He added 11 sports to the Berry athletic program including men’s and women’s lacrosse, but he won’t be present to see his final addition of football this fall.

“There has been a lot of heavy lifting in that a lot has changed over the past eight to nine years,” Brooks said. “He needs to understand that heavy lifting is not complete. He needs to go in there and have an impact and be willing to work.”

Berry will begin its first football season in school history this fall. After a year and a half process of recruiting and finding facilities organized by head football coach Tony Kunczewski, the Vikings will showcase a team with only 5 sophomores and the rest freshmen.

“Berry athletics is pretty large with well over 200 student athletes, but this will take it to a new level,” Hart said. “The exciting part is that it’s new and we get to establish a tradition right off the bat.”

There are 40 female athletes that make up the Viking’s Equestrian team. A sport practiced mainly in the Southwest United States is the sport of horseback riding and scores based on a riders grace and ease through different competitions of jumping, parading and maneuvering obstacles.

“That will also be a new adventure,” Hart said. “In terms of equestrian, you know my love of (Bruce) Springsteen, one of his daughters is a high level equestrian jumper. So I have a lot to learn but I at least understand that there is a horse circuit and I know there are a few places the team goes to participate.”

The Viking’s Equestrian team finished in a tie for fourth last year at the Intercollegiate Horse Show National Championships.

Hart will likely get familiar with the Berry Lacrosse team in short time. His first large decision as athletic director will be finding a new head coach for Men’s Lacrosse.

Chris Delfausse, resigned after he helped to start the program in 2010. He took a head coach position at a High School in Texas.

“There will be a little bit of a learning curve in terms of Lacrosse,” Hart said. “I know there are a lot of folks at Berry who have done a lot of searches and we’ll be able to find someone to keep us competitive in the SAA.”

At Webster, Hart coached for three years prior to becoming director of athletics. He enters in the top of the line at Berry where he will have to become familiar with 21 sports and 200 plus student athletes.

“While I may have a good handle of division three athletics it’s going to be important to embrace the values and culture of Berry,” Hart said. “The best way to do that is ask a lot of questions, meet a lot of people and see the games.”

This isn’t the last Hart will see of St. Louis. He will be back as soon as October when Berry’s football team takes on Washington University.

Webster has in the past played others in the SAA like Rhodes College (Tenn.) and Sewanee The University of the South (Tenn.). Hart said the most likely of competition between the Gorloks and Vikings will be in Men’s Golf.

Webster Golf’s spring break trip to Florida will take them near Rome, and Hart said he has already spoken with Webster Golf Coach, Andrew Belskey about setting up a match.

Hart, who received his doctorate from Webster in May, said he will always keep an eye on the Gorloks as a former colleague and now as an alum.

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