Will Wade's Mocs made quite the entrance.
With the band playing at a volume past 11 in McKenzie Arena on Friday night, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball team descended the steps from the concourse to the floor through the student section before whipping Division III Covenant 119-56 in Wade's first game as a head coach.
"That was awesome. It was better than I expected," he said after the game. "And that the city turned out. We're very appreciative of the support."
Wade, the third youngest coach in Division I basketball, has been working the campus, the city and surrounding communities for support since his hiring on May 13.
After all, it is a proud program with 11 NCAA tournament appearances -- including a Sweet 16 showing in 1997 -- since the school's Division I era began in 1978.
"We have a lot of nice stuff at UTC, and I tell the guys, 'Drink from the well, but don't forget who dug it,'" Wade said. '"This program isn't about your or me -- it's about the tradition and what we've done.'"
Wade also addresses his team about expectations for a team with a rich tradition of winning from a conference that gets only one bid to the NCAA tournament.
But things are changing with Wade in control of every aspect of the program.
"We're at a place that expects to win and wants to win," he said. "We want to build this into a sustainable winning program. Not put together winning teams -- we're into building a program that will stand the test of time."
The program has been stagnant since UTC won the 2009 Southern Conference tournament championship. The Mocs, under former coach John Shulman, were smoked by eventual national champion UConn 103-47 in the first round of the Big Dance that year. After that, UTC went 31-41 in the SoCon.
Wade has implemented a new system of a pressing defense and an attacking offense. Practices are different with every drill being a competition determining a winner and a loser.
"It's a different mindset," said sophomore guard Gee McGhee, who will lead his team into a game at Radford on Monday. "We're more excited because our confidence level has jumped.
"Everything we're doing is different, so we feel that we'll have a different outcome."
An increase over the 13 total wins UTC collected last year may arrive this season. It may not. The Mocs could be sub-.500 in the SoCon for a third consecutive season, even though they were picked to finish seventh out of 11 teams.
"'Chaos,' that's what Coach has been teaching us," lone senior Zaccheus Mason said. "We put a lot of work in over the past months."
Some of the Mocs' work has been on the court. Some has been in a three-day training session with a former Navy SEAL. Some has been by going door-to-door to the UTC dorms.
The results of their organizing paid off Friday. An estimated 1,500 students were part of the largest season-opening crowd since 1995.
The summer circuit of chicken dinners for Wade paid off as well.
Season-ticket sales have increased 20.8 percent to a total of 1,016 paid season tickets for this year. The number dropped from 1,000 in the fall of 2010 to 926 the next year, according to UTC, and down 841 last year.
"Any time you're new, and putting in a whole new system, it may take time, more than what you think it should," athletic director David Blackburn said. "It's still going to take a little time in a transitional year to get it where he wants it, and where the public wants it."
So what are reasonable expectations for the 2013-14 Mocs?
"I don't want to put a number on it in year one," Blackburn said. "I don't think it's fair. More important is that I want to see progress. I don't want to see the entire entree on the plate. I want to know how they organize the kitchen. Are they buying good groceries?"
Wade's answer was very similar. The number doesn't matter -- especially when three non-Division I teams are on the schedule -- as much as the process.
"We have a thin margin for error," Wade said. "We have to have things go right for us injury-wise this year, because we don't have a lot of depth.
"We have a thin margin for error. We have to live within that margin and do everything we can to increase that margin and give ourselves a chance to win."
Contact David Uchiyama at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6484. Follow him at twitter.com/UchiyamaCTFP.
David Uchiyama is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who began his tenure here in May 2001. His primary beats are UTC athletics — specifically men’s basketball and athletic department administration — and golf, which includes coverage from the PGA Tour to youth events. He also covers other high school sports, outdoor adventures, and contributes to other sections of the newspaper when necessary. David grew up in Salinas, Calif., and began working ...
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