Wiedmer: UTC coach Russ Huesman was a winner as player, too

Wiedmer: UTC coach Russ Huesman was a winner as player, too

November 6th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

University of Tennessee at Chattanooga coach Russ Huesman looks toward players at Finley Stadium.

University of Tennessee at Chattanooga coach Russ Huesman...

Photo by Angela Lewis /Times Free Press.

Ask Johnny Henderson about Russ Huesman, and a 33-year-old memory instantly springs to life.

"The first play of my first game as an assistant coach at UTC in 1980, we were playing at Jacksonville State," recalled Henderson, who was a defensive star for Georgia in the late 1970s.

"I'd come there because Bill Oliver had just been named the head coach and he was the guru of secondary coaches at that time. Well, the first play from scrimmage, Jax State throws a long pass down the sideline and the guy's wide open. What an awful way to start my career there, I'm thinking. Then, out of nowhere, comes Russ from his safety spot and tips the ball away. He couldn't run out of sight, but he could always make plays to win games."

At halftime, Henderson approached Huesman to talk about the play.

"Coach," the player reportedly replied, "that was a piece of cake."

Said Henderson on Tuesday from his finance manager's office at Moss Motor Co. in South Pittsburg, a slight chuckle in his voice: "Russ was always so nonchalant. So relaxed. Watching him now on the sideline, that's not the way he was as a player."

With worrisome Wofford visiting Saturday for what many believe is the biggest UTC game ever played at Finley Stadium, there is no relaxing this week for the Mocs. Now 7-2 for the season, UTC can post an eighth win for the first time since that 1980 season if it can tame the Terriers. Move to 6-1 in the Southern Conference with one game to play and the school can likely claim its first playoff berth since 1984.

"As coaches, we all say a game's a game," Huesman said Tuesday. "But [the players] all know it's a big game."

It's a big game in more ways than bringing this championship dream to reality. Win on Saturday and the switch may have been flipped in changing the image of the football Mocs from wannabes to winners.

Or as Huesman said of Wofford's consistent success under Mike Ayers, who is attempting to win his fifth SoCon crown in the last 11 seasons: "Hopefully, we'll one day have a culture of winning like they have."

Most of the time it takes time. Especially given the program Huesman inherited in 2009, one that had posted only one winning season (2005) since 1997, one that hadn't won more than three games in any year excepting that 2005 autumn since 2000.

"I remember sitting at my computer when Richmond won the [FCS] national championship a few years ago and sending an email to [UTC assistant athletic director] Mike Royster that Russ (then the Spiders defensive coordinator) was the guy they needed to hire," Henderson recalled.

"They needed someone who loved the school, who understood recruiting in that area, who didn't want to leave there as soon as he won a few games. That was Russ."

Of course, when Huesman was a UTC player rather than a coach, a culture of winning was in place, first given life by former coach Joe Morrison, then continued under Oliver.

"No question," Huesman said. "Every day we stepped out there I thought we were going to win. It was a shock when we didn't."

Some would say that culture already has returned under Huesman, since the Mocs are assured of their fourth winning season in his five years on the job. Yet no less than UTC senior defensive back Chaz Moore says otherwise.

"No," he replied when asked if the school had established a culture of winning. "Not until we win a Southern Conference championship."

Last Saturday evening, the Mocs' 35-28 win at Appalachian State just completed, Henderson texted Huesman to tell him how proud he was of him.

"I think I said, 'I was 27 years old the last time we won at App, which was also the year I got married,'" Henderson said. "Pat and I actually got married in Patten Chapel. I ended up coaching at UTC for 12 years total. Our children were born in Chattanooga. So it's been a big part of our lives, and I'm so proud to watch what Russ has accomplished as a coach."

Time flies. Not 24 years old when he first arrived at UTC, Henderson said Huesman and Byron Coleman used to try to find dates for their position coach. Three years later, Huesman worked as a graduate assistant, much of the time spent soaking up Henderson's knowledge.

So when a certain text arrived late Saturday, Huesman took special notice.

"Johnny was my position coach once Oliver took over," he said. "That text meant a lot. That one was special."

Some might call it a special thank-you note for a certain pass break-up 33 autumns ago.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.