In a season and a half as the football coach at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Russ Huesman has had his moments.
Boy, has he had some moments.
Six of the top 13 UTC crowds in the 13-plus seasons at Finley Stadium have been under Huesman’s watch, and after today’s homecoming date against Georgia Southern, that ratio will improve to seven of the top 14.
He has a 9-7 record heading toward the midpoint of Year 2. In some locales that’s enough to get on a very hot seat. Here it’s enough to create discussions of contract extensions and incentives.
Certainly Huesman has had help. Without quarterback B.J. Coleman, this does not happen. Without a committed staff that has altered the culture, this does not happen. Without a collection of upperclassmen who immediately embraced the new regime, this does not happen.
And even still, with all the pieces in place, the timing is better than expected — even to the notoriously cautious lead engineer of the Mocs’ merry-go-forward.
“It’s moving faster than it probably should have been moving,” Huesman said this week, “but let’s wait until after the season to judge that. I mean if we don’t win again this year, then we won’t be [ahead of schedule], but when the season’s over we can see where we are.”
That’s true, of course, but for the first time since Finley was built that seems beyond the realm of possibility. And that’s because of Huesman.
“When they came in, we had the talent to win, but Coach Huesman and those guys knew how to put it all together,” UTC senior offensive lineman T.J. Hurless said. “They have brought out the best in all of us.”
The best has been better than expected, including a winning season last year and this year’s season-opening slugfest with perennial power Appalachian State. There have been instances of excellence and only slight signs of stumbles.
That said, Huesman’s moments have not yielded The Moment. And The Moment — the landmark win, the circle-that-date occasion that signifies UTC has turned the corner — changes everything.
The Moment can’t be a close-but-no-cigar loss. Good effort alone is not enough.
The Moment is more than beating a team you should, but The Moment can’t happen until you consistently beat the teams you should. The Moment will never be planned for, but it will never be forgotten, either.
“Every day we’re fighting for a championship,” senior tackle Chris Harr said, using words that before Huesman arrived would be difficult for anyone around the UTC program to say, much less believe. “Last year was about getting wins and working toward competing. Now it’s bigger.”
Welcome, UTC fans, to another swing at The Moment. Today can be that thing; Georgia Southern can be that type of win. Sure, the Georgia Southern days of Adrian Peterson and six national titles in 15 years and the aura of invincibility have been dormant for almost a decade. But the visiting Eagles are nationally ranked again, and tonight could be that game, that win, that moment that is The Moment for the Mocs program.
“Someday that’s got to happen. And maybe until that happens we haven’t arrived,” Huesman said. “Georgia Southern is good enough right now, and they have that tradition that this could be that type of game, yeah. This is not Glenville State. I think nationally everyone knows Georgia Southern and people respect them and know what they’ve done.”
The Moment is usually one game, and we all know how coaches refuse to linger on wins. But the aftershocks of The Moment are powerful and the waves can last years — both forward and backward.
“The freshmen weren’t here for the real tough times,” said Harr, a graduate of nearby Notre Dame High who had a front-row seat for UTC’s struggles. “The 1-11 season, the losing, all of it. It’s important for the upperclassmen to teach them what it takes. The attitude now has become infectious, and it’s growing on the younger guys.”
Attitude is a huge part of the process, and UTC has aced that step — “It’s definitely easier now to be proud to be a Moc,” Harr said — but it’s just a step.
Now comes the next one, the one that shows the tangible factors of being a winning program.
It’s about handling success, not just striving for it. It’s expecting to win, not just hoping to do it. It’s about knowing you belong — in the game, in the polls, even in the playoffs — rather than knowing you don’t.
It’s about moments like today becoming steppingstones to the next big game. It’s picking up the Tuesday’s Times Free Press to see if the Mocs are ranked. It’s about playing games that matter in November rather than playing out the string.
“The program’s really better when you’re playing games that are meaningful,” Huesman said. “Now if we’re playing meaningful games in November — that’s where we want to get to.”
They can take a huge leap toward that destination today.
Jay was named the Sports Editor of the Times Free Press in 2003 and started with the newspaper in May 2002 as the Deputy Sports Editor. He was born and raised in Smyrna, Ga., and graduated from Auburn University before starting his newspaper career in 1997 with the Newnan (Ga.) Times Herald. Stops in Clayton and Henry counties in Georgia and two years as the Sports Editor of the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal preceded Jay’s ...