Wiedmer: Mocs facing darker side of attention, relevance

Wiedmer: Mocs facing darker side of attention, relevance

September 4th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

UTC wide receiver Tommy Hudson, 8, and UT Martin defensive back Leon Carlton III, 16, reach for a pass during the Mocs' season opening football game against the Skyhawks on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013, at Finley Stadium in Chattanooga.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

The words turned sour Friday, the morning after the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team lost its season opener to UT-Martin at Finley Stadium.

"I heard people in class saying that we weren't very good, that they weren't coming to the next home game," redshirt freshman offensive lineman Corey Levin said Tuesday. "The students are definitely less engaged now. There's kind of been a letdown since we lost."

This is the dark side of relevancy as it pertains to intercollegiate athletics. Everyone wants to be relevant when nobody cares. If we could just get the community to support us, they lament. If we could just make our sports teams matter, they dream.

And approaching this season, especially heading into last Thursday's visit from UTM, UTC football appeared to matter more to both its long-suffering fans and the Scenic City's general public than it had since the days Joe Morrison roamed the Mocs sideline more than 30 years ago.

Playoff buzz was in the air. And Southern Conference title talk. And, however unrealistic, talk of a perfect season heading into the Nov. 23 road game at two-time defending national champ Alabama.

Ah, the power of potential, which these Mocs still have in abundance.

So at 7:37 Thursday night, the opening kickoff to Season 105 seconds away, this was a town and a Finley Stadium buzzing with excitement and anticipation. Three hours later, the final minutes of a 31-21 loss playing out, the stadium was all but empty, the buzz killed, the anger and frustration already in full ferment.

Even UTC coach Russ Huesman, an alum in his fifth season rebuilding the program, had a hard time being angry with those who left before the final horn, the postgame fireworks apparently not reason enough to linger.

"I probably wouldn't have stayed and watched the end of that game, either," Huesman said. "Our fans should be disappointed. We're all disappointed."

In reality, it's just one game. And a non-SoCon game at that. As long as a conference championship remains possible, nothing has been lost except the high hopes and good will of a fan base that's been disappointed too many times to count.

Nor was UTC without reasonable excuses for this defeat. Terrell Robinson -- arguably the team's top playmaker at either wide receiver or quarterback -- sat out the UT-Martin game but is expected back for Saturday's game at Georgia State. At least six other players also were out, most of them expected back to face the Panthers.

"We had zero depth last week," Huesman said. "We'll get some depth back this week and more next week. We're going to be OK."

Logic says Huesman's right. This team has too much talent, experience and determination to let one bad week spoil a possible championship season.

But if it doesn't turn around, no one within the UTC athletic department should blame the fans too much for their frustrations. Yes, it might be wonderful for everyone to treat athletics as nothing more than an entertainment diversion. Better if we win; no big deal if we lose.

Yet when you charge meaningful dollars for tickets, parking and concessions; when the head coach makes more than many, if not all, university department heads; when you lobby hard for donations beyond those game-day expenses to folks whose wallets are shrinking daily, you have to prepare for a backlash when those supporters' expectations aren't met.

"Be disappointed. Just please don't jump ship," Huesman said in a plea to the fans. "We understand that we've got to earn everything we get. We understand that just because somebody tells you you're great doesn't mean you're great. But we also know that that one game didn't make or break this season."

Huesman is 53 years old. He's spent his entire professional life in coaching, dealing with the inevitable highs and lows that athletics brings. It's not personal for him. It's the cost of the career he chose.

But for Levin this is something new, something difficult to grasp. He was still nearly 10 years from birth the last time UTC reached the NCAA playoffs. He was only 3 the last time they won as many as seven games. He can't reasonably understand the hurt and disappointment so much of Mocs Nation felt Thursday evening.

"As long as the fans are there [on game day], I guess it's all right," he said. "[The harsh words] will be forgiven, but it's tough."

It's when they are no longer there, when they decide the program is no longer relevant enough to continue investing their time, money and emotions, that UTC football once again will be in big trouble.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.