Richmond defensive coordinator Russ Huesman had seen Finley Stadium once before, roughly seven years ago on a quick trip to the Scenic City to vist a few of his old teammates from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
But he had never been inside the place until Wednesday, when the Spiders got their first up-close look at the place heading into tonight’s NCAA Division I title game against Montana.
“Man, this is impressive,” said Huesman, his smile wide and his eyes twinkling. “What a great place to play football.”
This column isn’t about Huesman, though the possibililty of the former Mocs defensive great returning as head coach is certainly the second biggest story of this title week beyond the game itself.
Even Richmond head coach Mike London noted earlier this week that UTC’s apparent focus on Huesman is “like the big elephant in the room.”
Of course, he quickly added, “But right now we’re focused on this game and this game only.”
We’ve focused on this game for 12 years now. It wasn’t born here, but we adopted it, fell in love with it and nurtured it into something worth wanting. And keeping.
We’ve gone from crowds of 12,000 to more than 22,000. That’s also known as standing room only, which seemed a fantasy on the order of winning the Powerball back in 1997, when Youngstown State edged McNeese State 10-9 before 14,771.
Certainly, the schools that have reached the game have had a large impact on the crowd. When UTC’s Southern Conference brothers Georgia Southern or Appalachian State have played for the title, the crowds have always soared toward 20,000, even with rain, sleet or the occasional snow.
Everybody else has been more of a challenge, though getting here from Montana or Massachusetts is certainly more of an economic and time challenge than dropping in from Boone, N.C., or Statesboro, Ga.
So all of us locals are under the gun a little bit tonight. Without the aforementioned routinely raucous revelry of ASU’s Mountaineers to provide magic numbers and manic ambiance, we need not only to show up but shout out. We’re going to have to play a bigger role than packing the skyboxes, smiling wide and telling our cherished guests, “Good luck and have a great time.”
A few of us — where’s Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl when you need him? — even may need to paint our chests in Montana maroon or Richmond blue and root, root, root for somebody.
Hard to believe that the last time Montana was here in 2004 also almost became the last time the game was here. Within the Griz Nation it will always be remembered as the Tearaway Turf Game. For those of us who live here, it will always be remembered as the Great Embarrassment.
Less than a quarter into the contest between the Grizzlies and James Madison, tufts of grass began popping up like popcorn. Montana’s kicker slipped twice. A third attempt became a fake rather than risk another faulty kick.
The Griz ultimately lost 31-21, and to their credit, their players all said this week, “It was the same for both teams.”
But it was the aftermath that both embarrassed and emboldened our community. Led by Gordon Davenport Jr., several of the city’s power brokers got together and raised more than $350,000 to install artificial turf.
Nearly every year since has been perfect, both in atmosphere and kudos from the NCAA, which now seems content to call Chattanooga its semi-permanent home for its Football Championship Subdivision final.
Yet every holiday season has its Grinch, and the NCAA seems intent on playing one in regard to this championship. They want to move it to late December or January, when the weather will almost assuredly be colder and the interest of our town and the rest of the country will be focused on Big School Football and NFL football.
So don’t do it, NCAA. Change your regular season. Rethink your playoff system. But please keep this game pre-Christmas. It’s perfect the way it is.
Or to slightly rephrase the thoughts of the probable future coach of the Mocs: What a great place to play football in mid-December.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...