Mark Wiedmer: Will App State game define UTC football?

Mark Wiedmer: Will App State game define UTC football?

September 20th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

UTC football coach Russ Huesman watches a recent practice.

Photo by Jake Daniels/Times Free Press.

A smart coach choosing smart words, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga' Russ Huesman refused to turn Saturday's homecoming contest against Appalachian State into the game of the year, much less the game of the decade.

"The bottom line," said the Mocs' fourth-year coach, "is that this is not a program-defining game, win or lose."

From a fairness standpoint he's probably right. When you're playing a school that's won three FCS national championships since you last won seven games in a season, you shouldn't be judged by how you do against the Mountaineers.

When you're playing a school that's reached the playoffs 18 times since you last saw the postseason during the first Reagan Administration, you shouldn't be critiqued by how you fare against App.

Especially when you've lost seven straight to ASU and 10 of the last 11 by an average of 20.5 points.

As Huesman sagely added Wednesday afternoon, "We haven't won enough," to be measured by this result.

But every athletic program under reconstruction eventually reaches a singular game when the fans will go home feeling either vindicated or victimized for their patience, faith and loyalty.

Three years and three games into rebuilding his alma mater from the rubble of 10 losing seasons in 11 years, Huesman may have reached that game and that moment.

Win Saturday before a homecoming crowd that could easily reach 15,000 and Huesman could successfully run for mayor. Lose Saturday and no one's necessarily jumping off the bandwagon, but new believers may prove harder to find.

As Big Brother UTK is finding out, there's only so much a sports nation can take before it cares to take no more. It's not so much apathy as self-preservation. You can only care so much for so long without tangible return on your emotional investment before you're all out of care and hope.

At least until the object of you affection gives you reason to feel otherwise.

This is not to say Huesman and his staff aren't building a better program. They are. Every day. And always the right way, both on and off the field.

"Every year I've been here it's gotten better," said senior offensive lineman Adam Miller, who signed the year before Huesman arrived, was redshirted and has played in each of the Mocs' 18 wins and 18 losses since then.

"This coaching staff has brought so much energy. This city is so behind us. A quality win against App would be a great momentum builder."

It might even build momentum for more than the football team.

As men's basketball coach John Shulman - who'll have at least two recruits on unofficial visits sitting in the Finley Stadium stands - noted: "Football's important for a lot of us. It's important for these recruits to see lots of people, lots of support, lots of excitement. And that's what we'll see on Saturday."

To further the point, he referred to last weekend's UT-Florida game, which may have been won on the field by the Gators, but won the Vols two high-level basketball commitments off it, at least partly due to a rocking, roaring Neyland Stadium.

"This has the feel of a Tennessee-Alabama week, one of those traditional powerhouse rivalries," said outgoing UTC chancellor Dr. Roger Brown, who'll preside over the Mocs' homecoming weekend as his final official duty.

"I just feel like we're on the cusp of some major upward trends."

The No. 18 Mountaineers owning the same 1-2 record as the Mocs, the expectation of a big crowd and the overall solid play of UTC to date, it all seems reasonable and doable.

Not that Huesman's ready to admit such a thing.

"When every week's a big game, when you've got six or seven big games on your schedule every year, that's when your program's getting where you want it to be," he said. "We're getting better, but we're not there yet."

So maybe it's not fair to define the state of this program by Saturday's final score. Still, the first win over App in eight years would certainly seem to signal a major upward trend.

But just in case the football team loses, perhaps the Mocs can mirror the Vols and land a couple of fine basketball players. Because no UTC men's program could use a major trend upward more than those guys.