March 30, 2011
BY AMANDA PRUITT
When the Duke football coach noticed the Blue Devils were hosting the Tennessee tennis team for a match in February, he had to attend. After all, he couldn't miss his former team in action.
In four short years, he had not forgotten his days as a Volunteer. Not a chance.
How could he overlook four years of quarterback drills on the turf of Haslam Field, the numerous Vol Walks and the opportunity to represent his home state? Then, how could he ever look past that challenging season when he dusted off his racket and joined the tennis team? Or that he was later given a chance to work as a student assistant with the football staff?
It was all in a career's work for Bo Hardegree.
Now working as the graduate assistant coach with Duke's football program, the two-sport UT letterman has returned his attention back to the gridiron as he looks ahead toward a career in the college coaching ranks.
His current profession often requires long hours and a high level of commitment to be successful, but that is nothing new to Hardegree. Those were qualities reinforced daily when he transformed back to a tennis player in 2007.
Hardegree, a two-sport star from Jackson, arrived on Tennessee's campus in 2003 on a football scholarship. But after a redshirt season and three more seasons in which he logged action in just one game, he decided to end his playing career after the 2006 season.
That's about the time he got another offer.
Hardegree had been a standout tennis player, practically ever since his great aunt handed him a racket and he started hitting balls against the wall of his grandfather's house at the age of seven.
He had managed to juggle football and tennis growing up and throughout most of high school -- a task that often meant he would start football practice in Jackson in the early afternoon, drive 90 miles to the Memphis Racquet Club, finish his training at around 9 p.m. and head back home. By his senior season, Hardegree decided to turn down a few tennis scholarship offers and focus his efforts solely on football, a choice that helped earn him a spot on the Tennessee roster the following year.
By January 2007, Hardegree was well removed from competitive tennis, but he still enjoyed the game. One day, he started hitting and serving with one of his friends at the time, UT tennis player Rawl Martin, inside the Goodfriend Tennis Center.
Two or three courts away, associate head coach Chris Woodruff took notice. As Hardegree and Martin continued playing, brand-new head coach Sam Winterbotham also started watching, and before long, Hardegree became the newest member of the tennis program.
Cracking the Lineup
While Hardegree could already easily be described as an athlete thanks to four years with the football program, he had to completely transform himself to get in tennis shape. And in a hurry. At 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, he was an ideal build for finding an open receiver on the football field, but he was not ready to run the baseline for three sets.
Over the next month-and-half, Hardegree lost15 pounds and started working on his game in earnest because the tennis season had already started. In addition to the fitness change, there was another major challenge: He had not seriously worked on his form in ages.
"Not only had I not played tennis in a four-and-a-half years, but I hadn't even picked up a racket," Hardegree said.
The coaches worked figuratively -- and occasionally literally -- night and day to get the quarterback match-ready, all while Hardegree was balancing the demands of five classes.
"Sam would work with me sometimes until 10 at night," Hardegree said. "He sacrificed a lot for me but said he saw something in me and gave me the opportunity. We kept working and working."
Hardegree wanted to improve his game quickly to show his new teammates he was not just some football-turned-tennis sideshow. He wanted to contribute.
"They saw that I wasn't just a football player that people would come to watch play tennis," Hardegree said. "They saw me work and grow and able to start to compete with those guys. I wanted to earn the respect of the guys I was playing with."
The long hours poured into conditioning and on-court training paid off quickly for both Hardegree and the Vols. Though he had taken off the shoulder pads just a few months before, he proved he could hold his own on the doubles courts in the always-difficult Southeastern Conference. He went undefeated at the No. 3 position with several teammates in SEC play, and the Vols eventually reached the NCAA Tournament in Winterbotham's first year with the program.
"In tennis, my view was that I'm here to make the team better," Hardegree said. "I put in all my time to get myself in shape where I could be successful at the SEC level and be able to contribute.
"It's the same thing being a coach. You have to put in time and have to earn respect among veteran coaches by putting in work and show them that nothing is just given to you. I think that did help me transition to coaching football."
It didn't take long before Hardegree got his first taste of life as a football coach.
'Can't Live Without It'
Football coaching was in the blood for Hardegree. His dad, Jim, coached him at Central-Merry High School in Jackson and had also spent time in the college ranks. The younger Hardegree wasn't pressured at all to follow the same path and initially, coaching did not figure at all in his academic plans.
The plan was to go to medical school after working on a degree in exercise science and pre-medicine. By the time he had spent a few seasons on the Tennessee football roster, he had no doubt what he wanted to do with his life.
Like his dad, he wanted to coach.
Hardegree talked with his dad, former UT head coach Philip Fulmer and offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe about the prospects of becoming football coach, and all three agreed he had a chance to be successful in the family business. The UT football staff backed up that belief when they made Hardegree a student assistant working with quarterbacks for the 2007 season.
"Along the line, I just got one of those feelings that `I can't live without it,'" Hardegree said. "I felt like I couldn't live without being in sports and affecting the lives of student-athletes both on the field and off."
When Cutcliffe left Tennessee for Duke after the 2007 season, Hardegree also took the next step in his career by becoming a graduate assistant with the Blue Devils' offense.
The Next Step
While his tennis days are now largely behind him outside teaching an occasional lesson, Hardegree said he couldn't help but think back to that 2007 season as he watched the Vols' 7-0 victory over Duke from the stands in Durham. The long hours retraining himself to play the game and the dedication he received from the coaches molded him as a coach, albeit in a very different sport.
Hardegree recently wrapped up his master's degree in humanities and sciences at Duke. Still working for the Blue Devils as a graduate assistant, he is now looking toward the next stage of his career, hopefully as a position coach.
"Basically, you've got to earn your stripes, put the time in, work and move up the ladder," Hardegree said.
Working hard. Earning respect. Business as usual for the former Volunteer.