Wiedmer: Farewell fete fitting for Fanning

Wiedmer: Farewell fete fitting for Fanning

June 12th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Sharon Fanning-Otis

Sharon Fanning-Otis

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

As she had for as many Mays as she could remember, Sharon Fanning-Otis headed to Marco Island, Fla., last month for a week's vacation.

However, there was one very important difference for the Scenic City native who's spent the better part of the last four decades of her life coaching women's basketball at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Kentucky and Mississippi State.

"For the first time in 37 years I didn't bring along a day planner," said Fanning-Otis, who retired as the MSU coach earlier this spring after 17 seasons, then swiftly joined the school's Bulldog Club as a fundraiser.

Not that she thinks her life now needs no advance planning.

"I won't be getting up at 4:30 in the morning in October anymore for early practices, but I've worked hard all my life and this is going to be another tough challenge, especially the first year," she said. "But I'll be 60 next year, and this seemed like a good time for a change."

Longtime friends Wanda Albritton and Roz Crownover figure it's a good time to honor Fanning-Otis, who grew up as Sharon Cable, starring in every sport she played at City High School.

So this Sunday afternoon -- Father's Day -- they're hosting a reception in her honor at 1 p.m. at the Chickamauga Fly Bait and Casting Club in Soddy-Daisy.

"I know it's Father's Day," the guest of honor said. "But there were always a lot of dads at our games to watch their daughters, so maybe they'll come to this, too."

Anyone coming to the reception will have a chance to salute the woman who just might be the best female athlete in our city's history -- a marvelous basketball, volleyball and softball player who unfortunately came along too early to benefit from Title IX until she began to coach.

"I loved every sport. I loved competing," Fanning-Otis said Monday from her Starkville office. "In fact, if there had been more opportunities in softball back then, I'm not sure I wouldn't have thought about coaching softball. I played it for 20 years and I loved it."

But those opportunities wouldn't open up for more than a decade. So after one year as an assistant to Tennessee's Pat Summitt, Fanning-Otis was a head coach the rest of her career, eventually winning 608 games, reaching seven NCAA tournaments (six with MSU) and winning the NWIT title at Kentucky in 1990 after reaching that event's championship game at UTC in 1984, when the Lady Mocs fell to Vanderbilt.

In fact, Fanning-Otis actually changed the UTC women's nickname from Mocettes to Lady Mocs, an alteration that surely earned her undying gratitude from every Lady Mocs player from that point forward.

But what was it like in the beginning, when Fanning-Otis joined Grace Keith's first Mocettes team as a senior in the fall of 1974?

"We used to give away T-shirts to the first 50 fans," Albritton said. "It was so hard to get people to the games. It's so much better now."

Fanning-Otis will tell you her life took a turn for the better in November of 2008, when she married Larry Otis, a former mayor of Tupelo, Miss. A longtime State fan who once was a guest coach for the Bulldogs -- "He won," Fanning-Otis said -- Otis was widowed in 2005.

The two began dating a couple of years later and eventually wed "between games," said Fanning-Otis. "We played at Lousiana-Lafayette on a Friday night, then got married the next day at Elvis's Chapel there in Tupelo."

Said Albritton: "Larry is just a wonderful guy. We've all been so happy for Sharon."

Albritton, who will turn 76 this week, no doubt will make Otis smile happily about her favorite memories working for Fanning-Otis in the early 1980s as "the world's oldest student assistant."

There was the time the Lady Mocs put a rubber snake in their head coach's bed on a road trip.

There was also the time Albritton -- who had returned to school in her 40s just in time to assist Fanning-Otis -- got a technical foul.

"Sharon was pretty mad," she recalled. "She yelled at me, 'Don't you ever do that again.'"

Nearly 30 years later, Fanning-Otis just hopes again to see many of the friends and former UTC players who meant so much to her in the early years of her career.

"Our bus driver back then, Joe Hobbs, is going to try to be there," she said. "I hope to see a lot of former players -- Regina Kirk, Tina Chairs, all the girls who did so much to build the program. When you're coaching, it's so hard to get back and see the people who've meant so much to you."

Come Father's Day, a lot of folks will have a chance to tell the woman many consider the Mother of Lady Mocs basketball what she's meant to them.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.