On shelves along the back wall of Mike Royster's office are all of the different University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football helmets the Mocs have used since he's been at the school. There are many.
Royster, the assistant athletic director for facilities and equipment, just completed his 40th football season at UTC. That's a lot of seasons and a lot of changes in both the design of equipment and the Mocs' look.
"The equipment's changed, but probably the biggest thing is the helmet and the precautionary things that you have to do, legally, to cover the university and to cover yourself, and to make sure the things fit right," said Royster, 64, who was inducted into the UTC Athletics Hall of Fame in 2005.
One recent change Royster has seen is the resurgence of the football program, which shared the Southern Conference championship this season, its first since 1984. In Royster's 40 years on the Mocs sideline, UTC has had 20 losing seasons.
A Nashville native, Royster arrived at UTC after former coach Joe Morrison's first season, 1973. He's been there ever since. Royster, who started out as a student equipment manager, was on the job well before Mocs football coach Russ Huesman came in as a freshman safety from Cincinnati in 1978.
Royster's recollection of Huesman the student-athlete: "He was about like he is right now. He was full of [pep] and vinegar, and a hard-working kid with a good attitude. He wanted to do the job and wanted to do it right."
Huesman's recollection of Royster in the late 1970s: "I remember he was scary and mean. That's just the way it was. I dreaded going to ask him for a pair of socks. You might have gotten them, but it would be the worst 10 minutes of your life."
Such is, in some circles, the reputation of Royster -- one that has likely only grown, as legends do, for former players over the years. UTC play-by-play announcer Jim Reynolds, who just finished his 34th season calling Mocs football, said his friend is very misunderstood.
"I think Charles Dickens wishes he could come up with a character like Royster," Reynolds said, laughing. "Why is he misunderstood? Because everybody's afraid of him because of however tall he is, 6-foot-4 or so, and 300 pounds or whatever it is. He looks intimidating, but he's really a big cuddly teddy bear.
"I think he's mean and scary if you're 19. He's only a little bit mean and scary if you're 50."
He might be thought of as scary by freshmen, but he's well respected in the industry. He's the executive director of the Athletic Equipment Managers Association and has served on the NCAA Football Rules Committee.
"He's loved by a lot of people," Huesman said. "People always make sure they go see Royster in the equipment room when they come back."
Royster, who said his football career ended in high school due to a back injury -- an injury that led him to a lifelong career -- said he's twice seriously considered leaving UTC. In the 1980s, when Morrison was the coach at South Carolina, Royster said serious conversations were held about following him to Columbia.
"I would have enjoyed working for him, but the people that I was actually going to end up answering to, it just didn't seem like a good fit," Roster said.
Royster said he also entertained an offer within the last few years to go work at Texas, but again he preferred to stay at UTC.
"How they even knew anything about me I don't have a clue," Royster said of the Longhorns. "I'm comfortable here. If you're a coach, you can leave for a lot of money. In my situation, you're not going to leave for a lot of money."
As for when Royster might leave the business and call it a career, the day appears to be getting closer -- but it's probably not any time soon.
"Up until the last few months or so, I would have probably said I have no intentions whatsoever of retiring," he said. "Now, I don't know. The last few months have been kind of a grind. But no, I'm 64 and I don't have any visions of going anywhere."
Contact John Frierson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6268.
John Frierson is in his seventh year at the Times Free Press and seventh year covering University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletics. The bulk of his time is spent covering Mocs football, but he also writes about women’s basketball and the big-picture issues and news involving the athletic department. A native of Athens, Ga., John grew up a few hundred yards from the University of Georgia campus. Instead of becoming a Bulldog he attended Ole ...