published Sunday, January 29th, 2012

Wiedmer: History for Lady Mocs

The godmother of University of Tennessee at Chattanooga women's basketball made $260 a month that first season during the 1974-75 school year. For that, Grace Keith left her day job at Dallas Elementary each afternoon by 4:30 so she could run practice at 5, and she also drove the van to road games, made the schedule and handled the meal money.

"I ran across the first team picture the other day," she said Saturday during the school's first Legends Weekend for the Lady Mocs. "It was me, [trainer] Sandy Sandlin and six players. That was it."

But they had a team, which meant they were nobly attempting to comply with Title IX, the landmark legislation Congress had established two years earlier to push for equal opportunity for women.

"We're still implementing Title IX," said Keith, who coached that first Lady Mocs squad to within a point of upsetting Pat Summitt's first University of Tennessee team.

"But we've come a long way. To see where UTC is now is absolutely wonderful."

It certainly seemed absolutely wonderful to see all those former Lady Mocs players and coaches gathering for a reception inside the Chattem Basketball Practice Facility on Vine Street, one of a handful of events that the athletic department's William Kent organized to create a reunion weekend Keith labeled "amazing."

Said Kent: "We had 40 former Lady Mocs signed up this year. Next year we're going to a Legends weekend for both the men and women (the first Legends weekend was for the men last season), then repeat that every two years after that."

Kim Brown Suttles has been coming back two or three times a year since she graduated in 1993. Employed by BlueCross for the past 18 years, she and former Mocs football player Chad Suttles have three children: Kiara (15), Kaiyana (11) and Chad Jr. (8).

"I came back a lot when I first graduated," said Brown Suttles, who stands third on UTC's all-time scoring list, just behind leader Regina Kirk and Tina Chairs. "But then you have kids, your work, and I officiate high school basketball, too."

Asked if that was a tough transition to go from playing to officiating, she smiled and said, "Of course. When you play basketball you hate officials. Now I realize officiating is hard."

Hard was trying to get over the 76-72 loss to Clemson in the 1992 NCAA tournament.

"We thought we had them," said Brown Suttles' teammate, Anita Overcast Gannon.

Instead, Brown, Overcast and teammate Vanessa Neal Marsh (who works with Brown Suttles at BlueCross), finally had a weekend to recall their college careers.

"It definitely brings back a lot of good memories," Gannon said. "I want to be 20 again."

"It reinforces something Coach [Craig] Parrott said when we first got here," Marsh said. "He told us we no longer represented just ourselves, we represented an entire university."

At halftime of the Lady Mocs' 63-44 win over UNC Greensboro, the school saluted Brown, Overcast, Neal, Keith and so many others, more than 2,800 fans cheering those who built this storied Lady Mocs program from scratch.

And befitting that history, Whitney Hood -- whose sister-in-law Nicole Mattison Hood was a key member of the 2004 team that knocked off Rutgers in the NCAA tourney -- shared scoring honors with Kayla Christopher with 16 points.

A former Clemson Tiger, Hood transferred to UTC at least in part because Mattison told her, "There are really good people here; they care about you here."

At least one person who's cared so much for this program couldn't be here this weekend. Sharon Fanning-Otis -- who not only played on Keith's first team, but succeeded her as head coach two years later -- currently makes a living as Mississippi State's head coach, and MSU has a game today at South Carolina.

Thanks to the brilliance of then-Sharon Cable, Keith almost upset Pat Summitt's first UT team inside the Lady Mocs' Maclellan Gym.

"We're planning to play at Mississippi State next year," coach Wes Moore said. "Then bring Sharon back here the next year. She's meant a lot to this place."

No one has meant as much as Moore, of course, who's compiled a 321-105 record, reached eight NCAA tournaments and won 11 SoCon regular-season championships.

But whatever he's accomplished, he knows it's at least partially due to all who came before him.

"I've never grabbed a rebound or hit a shot," he said. "It's all about the players. We've all driven vans and swept floors, but we're also now blessed to be in a situation where women's basketball has become kind of the chosen one in women's sports.

"We're able to take better care of our kids now, give them a better experience. That's something the people before us weren't always able to say."

Said Keith: "To see Wes's big office, I'm not envious, I'm happy."

No $260 a month was ever better spent.

about Mark Wiedmer...

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 ...

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