Wiedmer: Johnny Taylor back where he belongs at UTC

Wiedmer: Johnny Taylor back where he belongs at UTC

July 17th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

UTC men's basketball coach Will Wade, left, and Johnny Taylor speak to the media at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in this file photo.

Photo by Angela Lewis /Times Free Press.

It didn't take long for Will Wade to appreciate Johnny Taylor's legacy within the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball program.

"You can't miss him," said Wade, the Mocs' new head coach. "There's a huge picture of him on the wall in our practice facility."

Thanks to Wade, UTC's current players will no longer have to scroll their eyes up that wall to see the only NBA lottery pick in school history. They can now stare him in the face at every Mocs practice, for Johnny's come marching home again as a student assistant.

"When I first got the job, I called Johnny, just like I called all our other former players," said Wade. "He was on his back porch in Orlando. He told me his parents still lived in Chattanooga and that he wanted to get his degree from UTC. I told him I'd get back to him in a couple of days."

When Taylor completed his senior season with the Mocs in 1997 by guiding the school to its lone Sweet 16 appearance, he was four courses shy of earning his criminal justice degree.

"But the requirements have changed since then," said Mack McCarthy, who was Taylor's coach at UTC. "It's going to take a few more now."

According to the school's press release, JT is now 26 hours short, which means he may have more home work during the upcoming school year than his four children -- Sherria (16), Johnny Jr. (10), Jori (7) and Jiselle (5) -- combined.

"It's just a great opportunity for me," said Taylor, who was a prep star at Howard High School before two years in junior college led him to UTC. "I'm going to give back what I can."

Wade's initial reason for reaching out to Taylor was split between helping one of the Mocs' all-time greats earn a degree and calling on JT's pro experience to motivate his team.

As the coach said during Tuesday's press conference, "He's going to serve as a mentor for our guys. They all want to get where he's been. Johnny can't recruit off-campus, but when they come here he can meet with them."

But McCarthy sees a bigger, broader benefit for the program he once guided to five NCAA Tournaments over 10 seasons before leaving for Virginia Commonwealth at the close of Taylor's final year.

"First, Johnny didn't get it done in the classroom the first time he was here, so he's perfect to advice this team about the pitfalls of not taking care of your academics," McCarthy said.

"Second, they all want to hear from somebody who's made money, and Johnny's done that at a pretty high level for 15 years. So he's going to be able to tell them what he did right, what he did wrong and what he'd do differently.

"Third, Johnny averaged three or four fewer points his senior year than his junior year, but the team was better. And partly because of that unselfishness, because of how much that whole team sacrificed for each other, he became a lottery pick. It's a great lesson for every player to learn."

It's all been enough for the former Mocs coach to say of the new boss: "I'm so excited to see Will reach into UTC's past. I think that's brilliant."

The smartest among us never quit evolving, improving, learning.

Like most college athletes, Taylor reveled in UTC's success that spring of 1997 not so much for the long-term benefits it might create for him in the Scenic City, but rather for the instant gratification such unexpected success brings its conquering heroes.

"The love what we got from the fans, everybody was so great to us," he recalled. "That was such a special time. We didn't have any expectations. We just went out and played. What a team we had. And we're all still friends today."

But that didn't mean his two years under McCarthy stirred an urge to become a coach.

"I never thought of coaching back then," Taylor said. "I was thinking of getting the season over with and getting Mack out of my ears."

But 16 years can and should change a person, hopefully for the better.

"I love Mack now," said Taylor. "We have so many conversations, and not always about basketball, but about life in general. As soon as I got the job he texted me: 'Give them what you gave me -- everything.'"

That's how your larger-than-life, 10-foot-tall likeness ends up on a practice facility wall for all to know and appreciate. That's how the reputation for always giving that effort earns you a second chance at a first degree 16 years after your playing career ends.

"I talked to people all over town about him," said Wade, "and everybody thought the world of him."

Taylor last picked up a basketball in a professional game 367 days ago today. He scored 24 points and pulled down 12 rebounds, though his team lost in the championship final of the Bahrain Basketball League.

"I could still play physically," he said. "I'm 39, but my body feels 34. But I just got tired of being gone from my family. When your mind says you're tired, it's time to go."

Time to go home, to the parents and friends who've always loved him the most, and to the program that now needs him the most.

"You try to brag about your school," said Taylor. "But the last couple of years, I've had to be quiet."

The noise will now grow louder daily. Johnny Taylor is back. A return to the school's winning ways shouldn't be far behind.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.