"How about those ..."
His wide smile filling up the Jacksonville Jaguars locker room late Sunday afternoon, you expected former Baylor School and University of Tennessee football star Jacques McClendon to complete the above sentence with something about his Red Raiders or Vols.
Instead, it ended thusly: "....Mocs!"
If you're a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football fan, you've no doubt heard or spoken those words dozens of times the last few weeks. If the bandwagon gets any bigger, the school will need to rent a fleet to hold all the new fans climbing on board.
When Mocs Mania spreads even to NFL locker rooms which don't have a single UTC player on the roster, you know something big is happening. Something that should explode into a ticker tape parade down Market Street or Martin Luther King Boulevard should the mighty ones win at Samford on Saturday afternoon to clinch their first Southern Conference title since 1984.
Yet this should be as much about how these Mocs have come to this point as about the simple fact that they can do no worse than tie for the SoCon crown, no matter what happens against Bulldogs.
A stunningly bad 1-11 the year before Russ Huesman arrived to save his alma mater, the rise to respectability was both shocking in its quickness and frustrating in its duration of mediocrity. Huesman took the Mocs from 1-11 to 6-5 in his first season, then went 6-5, 5-6 and 6-5 again his next three years.
When UTC stood just 2-2 after four games this year, the whispers began that maybe Huesman was the guy to steady the ship, but not the guy to win the regatta.
But the coach never wavered in his approach. His defense was special, his offense solid and his players determined to make history. From that 2-2 start, the Mocs haven't lost once in the last 47 days, including perhaps the best three-game stretch in school history, UTC coming from behind late to beat The Citadel on Oct. 26, winning at Appalachian State for the first time in 30 years on Nov. 2, then shutting down Wofford last Saturday in the regular-season home finale at Finley Stadium.
And when it was over, one of the first things Huesman did was seek out a number of the players who helped start this reclamation project five years ago, guys who are now only around the program as fans, their eligibility gone. Guys such as Ryan Consiglio, Jordan Tippit, Sloan Allison, and Adam Miller.
"Those guys are a huge reason we're where we are right now," Huesman said earlier this week. "They believed in us. They helped change the culture around here."
But he didn't just embrace former players. He also stopped Miller's parents -- Earny and Mike -- to thank them for their support.
"It just means a lot to me that they would still want to come to a game after Adam's graduated," Huesman said. "I was really touched by that."
Earny Miller teaches second grade at Pleasant Grove Elementary in Dalton, Ga. Adam had signed when Rodney Allison was still the UTC coach. Allison's final season, that 1-11 campaign, Miller redshirted.
As that 2008 disaster trudged to a close, Adam wasn't sure he wanted to keep playing football. Though he kept it to himself, he began to consider transferring or giving up the sport altogether.
"His decision to play football was his decision," Earny Miller said of her son. "If he didn't want to play, he could go to school without playing. We were OK with whatever Adam chose to do."
But Tom Hall -- one of Miller's coaches at Northwest Whitfield High School -- had been a teammate of Huesman's at UTC. Even before Huesman was hired, Hall told Miller that the school was going after his old teammate and that everything would immediately change for the better.
Miller decided to delay his decision until after a new coach was named. After his first meeting with Huesman and his staff he became convinced he should stay.
"He brought in an immediate change in excitement," Miller said. "Coach Huesman took us to a whole different level of 'Want To.' He not only made us believe that we were going to win, he made us believe that this was the way it was supposed to be around here, that this is the way it was when he was playing here."
When the Mocs knocked off Wofford, Miller caught the eyes of his former teammates and saluted them.
Of electing to stick it out five years ago, Miller, who's now a project manager for a local contractor, said: "Best decision I ever made."
His mother couldn't agree more.
"He's a wonderful coach," she said. "The whole experience Adam had with Coach Huesman was a positive one. We still feel like we're a part of the program."
Earny Miller even experienced the bandwagon impact on Saturday night as she walked around town in her UTC sweatshirt.
"Everywhere we went, people wanted to know how the Mocs had done," she said. "And they were so excited when we told them they'd won."
They still to need to win one more to guarantee a happy ending. Nothing is certain without a win at Samford. Yet if taking nothing for granted will insure that outcome, consider it done.
Or as senior defensive back Chaz Moore said early Tuesday afternoon, "That's why we've got to keep working."
How about that attitude.
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 ...