Less than a year ago, Niko Brown was putting the finishing touches on a 30-5 season, one that would eventually include a Southern Conference championship and his second trip to the NCAA tournament.
Today it's coach Niko Brown.
After he completed his wrestling career at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Mocs coach Heath Eslinger asked him to stick around.
"Niko has a real affection for our program because he's been through it," Eslinger said. "He knows what we're trying to accomplish. He has been a good link. I think the kids connect with him."
Brown, formally listed as a volunteer assistant, already has worn many hats whether it's as a big brother/advisor to former teammates and new wrestlers to being the team's Twitter expert, mat-mopper and mover and all-round gopher for Eslinger, assistants John Soriedas and Mark Ellis and on occasion team members.
Newcomer Corey Mock, a transfer from North Carolina and the Mocs' sixth-ranked 165-pounder, picked up on Brown's contributions early on.
"He has gotten behind me," Mock said last fall. "He cares about these guys, and he has been a good addition to the staff. All the guys like him. Some guys have trouble transferring from teammate to coach and that hasn't been an issue. The guys treat him like a coach. He does a good job. He doesn't step on toes in the coaching office but yet provides great emotional support. There's a real good connection there."
Brown has filled the bill Eslinger wanted.
"In addition to being a great link, what you want is somebody that wants to be in the wrestling room non-stop," the coach said. "He's been awesome, willing to do whatever. The kids connect with him. Some thought it would be a hard transition from athlete to staff member, but the kids on the team are respectful. Niko has been a huge help to our staff."
Brown learned over the course of his career to take everything in stride from ups to downs, from bad to good whether it was wrestling or academics or life in general. He jumped at the chance to stick around.
"The main reason I decided to stay is because Coach Eslinger has done so much for me the last four years and it was a way I could give back to a program that gave me so much," the former 197-pounder said.
He waded into the transition from teammate to coach.
"At first it was different. I had to let my pride go. I know I'm here to help, that I'm not here to win a national title, and I love it," he said. "I generally like helping people anyway and it's been awesome to see guys improve and not just in wrestling but socially and academically."
He slipped easily into the role of friend and advisor, knowing well Eslinger's likes and dislikes and being able to relate those to the team.
Brown has not, however, done more telling than asking.
"Just because my role changed doesn't mean I have to be a jerk and for the most part everyone on the team respects everyone else," he replied. "The experience has been awesome. I love being able to be in the coaches' office and pick their brains. They're great people, easy to work with. It's awesome to be part of such a great program and actually seeing it starting to take off."
Contact Ward Gossett at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-886-4765. Follow him at Twitter.com/wardgossett.
Ward Gossett is an assistant sports editor and writer for the Times Free Press. Ward has a long history in Chattanooga journalism. He actually wrote a bylined story for the Chattanooga News-Free Press as a third-grader. He Began working part-time there in 1968 and was hired full time in 1970. Ward now covers high school athletics, primarily football, wrestling and baseball and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga wrestling. Over a 40-year career, he has covered ...