Almost anyone who's ever coached an organized athletic team has probably been where University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football coach Russ Huesman found himself Saturday evening. Whether it's T-ball, a high school sorority championship basketball game (trust me on this) or the Super Bowl, you become certain you're on the edge of experiencing something that seems too good to be true.
Who, me? Win this? Nah. No way.
For Huesman that moment came with 50 seconds left at Appalachian State, his Mocs up 35-28 on the scoreboard, the ball in their possession and the Mountaineers out of timeouts.
Only one player on the planet has ever fumbled away a game like that, and former New York Giant Joe Pisarcik wasn't quarterbacking the Mocs -- Huesman's sure-handed son Jacob was.
Still, no matter how much his assistant coaches and players tried to reassure him that this one was in the bag, that the Mocs were not only about to win their fifth straight Southern Conference game, but also conquer ASU in Boone, N.C., for the first time in 30 years, Huesman wasn't believing a word of it.
"I was a raving maniac," he said Sunday afternoon. "I didn't want to take a knee. I kept thinking about how we could lose two or three yards on every snap downing the ball. We were already inside our own 10-yard line. We might end up in the end zone..."
Yet somehow, some way, the horn sounded, the Mocs locked up their biggest victory of Huesman's five seasons in Mocsville, and a rather large cooler of icy Powerade wound up showering the coach's backside.
"I think Faysal [Shafaat] set me up," Huesman said. "They got me pretty good, too. It went all the way down my back. It was pretty cold, pretty sticky, too. But it was fun."
It would be fun if this was the end of the story. If that landmark win at App secured the school's first NCAA playoff berth since 1984. If UTC could now stage a parade down McCallie Avenue or Market Street to properly celebrate a Southern Conference title.
But this past Saturday provided none of that. It merely kept the dream of accomplishing all those things alive for one more week. This week. The week that ends with another SoCon giant in Wofford arriving at Finley Stadium for Saturday's 2 p.m. kickoff. And there's still the conference finale at Samford on Nov. 16.
"The bottom line is, we've got to get back to work," Huesman said of his 7-2 team (5-1 in SoCon play). "We've got to have a great week of practice and preparation because Wofford's playing for a conference championship, too. And they've won them before. It's like I've been saying for close to a month now: we need to run the table, win every conference game the rest of the way. That's the only way we're certain to make the playoffs."
But this was big on so many fronts. It promises to get bigger from here, especially if the Mocs reach the playoffs.
Yet there's also nothing tougher than rebuilding a moribund college football program. Too many moving parts. Too much bad history and negative perception. Especially one coming off 1-11 and 2-9 seasons, which is what UTC had finished the two autumns before Huesman returned to his alma mater for the reconstruction job of the century. It should have become an ABC television series. Extreme Mocs Makeover.
"I sat in some of these kids' houses and said we'd win championships if you come to Chattanooga," Huesman said. "That was five years ago. And we're still a couple of wins away. But these kids, especially these seniors, how great they've been. They saw this program had gone 1-11 and 2-9. They saw the academic sanctions. But they took a leap of faith with this staff and I'm so proud of them."
There are those who think Huesman has pushed his players and coaches too hard at times, that the raving maniac has sometimes shown up when a soft-spoken grandfatherly type might have been the wiser motivational ploy.
But today's athletes don't fight as hard to succeed as these Mocs have the past month without great respect and affection for their coach.
So even as Huesman says of this team, "This is a really close group of guys. ... The chemistry is phenomenal. ... We're not playing perfect, we're not a dominant a team, but these guys keep finding a way to win," the coaching hasn't been bad, either.
Which leads me to an email I received Sunday morning from a loyal UTC supporter. In part, it read: "Could I respectfully ask that you use some of your time and space this week to strongly encourage a 'Fill Finley' campaign for the last home game? The team has earned that -- and shame on Chattanooga if we cannot get out in strong numbers to demonstrate our support and celebrate the success at this key point in the season!"
The team has indeed earned that. So has the head coach.
"I've learned not to worry about that," Huesman said. "Right now, I'm just focused on trying to help us get win No. 8 this week. Let's see what happens after that."
Let's see how much easier grabbing win No. 8 could be with Finley filled. Let's show the Mocs' seniors, especially those fifth-year guys, that their leap of faith five years ago is appreciated now more than ever. That's one way you build a program that it doesn't take a leap of faith to join.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com.
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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