Wiedmer: UTC must capitalize on Fox feat

Wiedmer: UTC must capitalize on Fox feat

August 22nd, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Steven Fox reacts to winning the 37th hole of the U.S. Amateur golf tournament at Cherry Hills to beat Michael Weaver, Sunday, Aug. 19, 2012, in Cherry Hills Village, Colo.

Steven Fox reacts to winning the 37th hole...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Two days later, his eyes pink from lack of sleep, his voice happy yet weary, Steven Fox was still coming to grips with the U.S. Amateur golf championship he won Sunday in Denver.

"None of this has sunk in yet," the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga senior said Tuesday afternoon. "It's beyond my wildest dreams."

For Fox that's understandable. The guy hasn't even made it to a single one of his senior classes yet at UTC -- "I probably shouldn't say that," he said, blushing -- yet the school is throwing him a campus-wide reception Thursday from 2 to 3:30 p.m. in Lansing Court.

He's already received a phone call from U.S. Senator Bob Corker. Professional golfer and fellow Nashville native Brandt Snedeker texted him. Fox also already knows he's playing the first round of next year's Masters with that tourney's defending champ, Bubba Watson, and the U.S. Open with defending champ Webb Simpson.

No wonder he said of the 18-foot birdie he drained on the first extra playoff hole, "I think I blacked out a little [when it went in]. It was unreal."

But for many current and former employees of the Mocs athletic department, it instantly became wonderfully real.

"I had to go to convocation when he was down two strokes after No. 16," said former athletic director Rick Hart, who left UTC for SMU in early July.

"I couldn't use my phone in the convocation, but as soon as it ended I ran outside to check the results. When I knew he'd won I started talking out loud, right there in the middle of SMU's campus, just laughing and smiling and so proud of Steven. Two days later I'm still getting goose bumps talking about it."

Mack McCarthy coached the 1997 hoops Mocs to the Sweet 16, which along with the 1977 Division II national championship in men's basketball are generally regarded as the top UTC sports moments of the past 50 years.

Yet McCarthy found himself almost as thrilled as the day his Mocs beat Illinois to reach the Sweet 16.

"The kid won a national championship," McCarthy said from his fundraising office in the East Carolina athletic department. "It was unbelievable."

Said Jim Reynolds, the longtime radio Voice of the Mocs: "I wasn't here in '77, and I think the Sweet 16 run would probably be No. 1 with the fans, but wherever you rank this, it's in the top three."

Channel 9 sports anchor Darrell Patterson was here in 1977. And 1997. And this past weekend.

"Personally, I think it's the greatest sports moment ever for UTC," said Patterson, who worked the D-II title win over Randolph-Macon. "The fans might say the Sweet 16, but this was a national championship. This is a tournament that's been won by Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus. This is a huge achievement."

But now that it's in the books, McCarthy both wonders and worries about how the university -- especially the athletic department -- will take advantage of it.

"We had an interim AD and were searching for a new chancellor the year we went to the Sweet 16," recalled McCarthy, who reunited with his coaching mentor, Sonny Smith, at Virginia Commonwealth the summer after that run.

"My hope for the school this time is that they'll see what is possible because of this and invest in it."

The irony, of course, is that the same dynamic exists today. The school is searching for an AD to replace Hart and must then replace retiring chancellor Dr. Roger Brown by this time next year.

Yet interim AD Laura Herron believes technology alone gives UTC a marketing tool it lacked 15 years ago.

"I think it's so much easier to get the word out today because of social media," she said. "Steven's win had me tweeting, and I'm not much of a tweeter. But we definitely want to take full advantage of this. We're already planning billboards around town. There's the campus-wide party on Thursday. We don't want anything to slip through the cracks."

So far, Fox's friends have missed no opportunity to celebrate. Arriving in town Monday night after a brief nap in Nashville, he was immediately overwhelmed by hugs and fell into "a dog pile."

Then the women's golf team challenged him to a "paint war and a water fight."

Said Fox, his eyes heavy, "I finally fell asleep about 2 (a.m.)."

But will UTC again fall asleep as it did in 1997? Or will it seek to capitalize, attempting to follow in the footsteps of Augusta State, which recently won back-to-back NCAA golf titles?

Think about it. Mocs coach Mark Guhne just finished overseeing a regional win. Now he has the No. 1 amateur golfer in the land. And though the golf team only occasionally plays there, The Honors Course could be almost as enticing a draw as Augusta National.

Even Fox said, "Maybe this makes Mark's job a little easier, the recruiting process."

Added Hart, who wisely boosted Guhne's salary earlier this summer: "We'd actually talked about [Augusta State]. When you're trying to become elite, there's a fine line between being really, really good and excellent. This gives you an opportunity to be excellent."

Now the trick is to not let this opportunity fall through the same crack that swallowed the potential promise of the Sweet 16.