ATLANTA — Twenty-eight years ago, current University of North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams almost became the coach of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Mocs.
That he ultimately backed out that summer of 1985, preferring to remain a UNC assistant for another three years, unquestionably became the Kansas Jayhawks' gain and possibly UTC's loss.
But 28 years later, as UTC searches for an athletic director, a men's coach and a women's coach, Williams feels no less strongly about the potential of the men's position.
"It's a great job," he said Saturday morning as he waited in line to buy a cup of coffee in the lobby of the Hilton. "They have tremendous interest in basketball there and they have a winning tradition. That's the key."
As the school moves into its third week without a men's coach and its ninth month without an AD, the real key is finding the right person to coach the Mocs -- someone able to both smell the roses (tradition, a great city, a fine school) and navigate the thorns (small budget, frustrated fan base, uncertain future academic standards for athletes).
"It can still be a great job," said Bobby Cremins, the former Georgia Tech coach who retired from the College of Charleston in 2012. "[Former coach] John Shulman had one of the top programs in the league when I came in. But sometimes it's time to move on. It's the nature of the beast."
But can UTC find the money to feed its basketball beast with filet mignon instead of corn flakes?
"To do it right they may need $500,000 for a whole staff, maybe more," Cremins said. "For ($175,000, the money most believe would be UTC's ceiling for a head coach), they're probably looking at hiring a young assistant."
Cremins' point is based in the fact that most older, more established assistants already make more than the Mocs are expected to be able to pay a head coach.
Such reasoning, if true, would mean that should the new athletic director wish to tap into the exciting brand of basketball that is Virginia Commonwealth, he would be far more likely to wind up with young assistant and Tennessee native Will Wade than veteran aide Mike Rhoades from Shaka Smart's staff.
Yet Williams and former UTC coach Mack McCarthy -- who got the job when Williams backed out -- both somewhat disagree with the Mocs' financial situation.
"It's hard sometimes, taking less money to become a head coach," Williams said. "But guys don't get into this for the money. I still believe most get into it because they want to run their own program one day."
Added McCarthy: "You can overcome the money. Write up a contract heavy in incentives. When I was at VCU, my contract had both incentives and disincentives. You perform, you get paid. If you don't do things the right way, you owe the school money. It was brilliant. They can make it work. There's no reason money should keep UTC from hiring a great coach."
Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin agreed that UTC is an attractive job for reasons far beyond money.
"Chattanooga's a great town, a great place to recruit to," said the Vols' third-year head coach. "There's great tradition there; there's been a lot of success there. And I don't think it's a job that will only attract assistant coaches. I think there are head coaches who think it's a good job."
Kentucky assistant Kenny Payne is one of those assistants probably making twice as much as the Mocs can pay. Yet he says that could actually benefit UTC.
"A lot of guys at our level have made enough that they can afford to take a pay cut for a couple of years in order to become a head coach," Payne said. "Guys are always looking for an opportunity, and they'll take a pay cut for that opportunity. Just look at what the Florida Gulf Coast coach (Andy Enfield) made of his opportunity. He's got a million-dollar job today (Southern Cal)."
Though the Mocs probably can't land Payne, he, too, believes the program has strong positives.
"You look at Chattanooga, great location for recruiting," he said "There's definitely potential to win because they've won in the past."
Yet Payne also insists that whatever UTC ultimately pays its head coach, it must elevate its pay for assistants if it expects to land a top-flight coach.
"That pay needs to be in the upper echelon of your conference," he said. "You don't want to be in a situation where you can't hire the best people to assist you."
But that's down the road. For now the Mocs need to name swiftly an athletic director who's already considered whom he'd like to hire for both his men's and women's basketball posts.
"They're out there," Payne said. "It just needs to be the right situation."
Whether they'll still be out there when UTC comes calling is the question.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 ...