published Sunday, March 31st, 2013

Lots of options for UTC, but fans differ on course

Scott Cooper has pretty much spent his entire life following the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Mocs.

"I sat on my parents' laps at Big Mac," he said, referring to the basketball teams' former home before McKenzie Arena opened in 1982. "So I've been a fan forever."

But when it came to this past week's news that UTC had rebuffed an overture from the Sun Belt Conference earlier this year -- at least in part because the school had no chancellor at the time and still has no athletic director -- Cooper began to contemplate the Mocs' athletic future.

Is the Southern Conference really the best league for UTC to call home? What about the Ohio Valley Conference, which offers geographical rivalries -- Tennessee Tech, UT-Martin, Austin Peay, Tennessee State -- far closer to the Scenic City than almost any other SoCon campus?

For that matter, despite having not reached the FCS playoffs since 1984, what about a future move to a true mid-major such as the Sun Belt, which technically plays FBS football with the big boys (though how much longer that lasts is open to debate)?

"I feel like the OVC is something we should look at," said Cooper, who graduated from UTC in 2002. "But at first blush, I still think the SoCon is a premier league. I'd rather play in a tougher league and battle it out."

Fellow Mocs fan Terry Roderick leans the other way.

"Not knowing which schools are going to replace Appalachian State, Georgia Southern and College of Charleston, I'd like to see us move to the OVC," he said Friday. "Geographically, it makes sense. Now, if East Tennessee State came back to the SoCon, I might want to stay in this league."

ETSU, which staged epic basketball battles with the Mocs in the early 1990s, is also on Cooper's mind.

"They made our conference better," he said of the Bucs. "It meant something when we beat them."

Steve Schild graduated from UTC in 1978 and has been a season-ticket holder ever since.

"The OVC is appealing to me -- closer drives to road games," Schild noted Friday. "But I'm fine with the SoCon. We've been the doormat [in football] for so long, it's kind of nice to see us getting out of that [with App and GSU gone]. Theoretically, it's now us and Wofford to win football. At least we should be competitive."

Few Chattanoogans care more deeply for the UTC athletic department than Pam Henry, who formerly was president of the Mocs booster club and served on the selection committee that chose former athletic director Rick Hart.

"You can only look at where we are at this point," Henry said Saturday. "At this point, we are in the Southern Conference. If we start winning enough to move up to a bigger, better league a few years from now, I'm fine with that. But right now I think we need to stay where we are."

Longtime UTC booster Doug Dyer agrees with Henry.

"I would like to see UTC take a strong stance with the SoCon," he said, then added of the Sun Belt overture, "I don't see swapping one one-bid basketball league for another, which is basically what the Sun Belt is."

It's a complicated situation, made more so by the fact that UTC supposedly is still weeks away from hiring an athletic director, who must then find a new men's basketball coach.

Possibly referring to rumors that Tennessee senior associate AD David Blackburn is the front-runner for the AD position, Roderick said, "My biggest concern is too much UT influence."

Said Schild: "We've got to get an AD who's a major fundraiser. We've got to get out and meet new people."

Within six weeks, some of this will be over. A new AD should be in place. A basketball coach should soon follow.

Until then, Dyer's view shouldn't be overlooked regarding UTC's near future.

"I don't believe we've ever had more leverage than we do right now regarding the future of the Southern Conference," he said. "We need to consider that. Now five years from now, when we have 18,000 students, may be a time to change leagues. But not now."

Like fame, leverage can be fleeting. For UTC's athletic future -- especially in football -- to be brighter than its past, let us hope the Mocs use that leverage wisely.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

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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