Wiedmer: UTC's Blackburn deserves huge thank you

Wiedmer: UTC's Blackburn deserves huge thank you

January 27th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

UTC athletic director David Blackburn

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

If anyone working within a 70-foot Gee McGhee buzzer-beater of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga deserves a thank-you note this morning, it's UTC athletic director David Blackburn.

A thank you for believing last spring's whispers that some young assistant at Virginia Commonwealth named Will Wade just might become the next big thing in college basketball, despite having never been a head coach at any level.

Not a month on the job, Blackburn had to trust words instead of deeds, and most of those words weren't coming from fellow ADs, but rather hoops junkies who would have zero accountability if this supposed basketball genius became a joke.

Eight months later, Wade's Wonders have rebounded from a 4-8 start to forge a 10-game winning streak so impressive that a longtime Mocs booster called Sunday with the following nervous question: "Do you think he's winning too big too fast?"

But the thank you's to Blackburn shouldn't stop there, for on some levels the men's hire was far easier than the women's job the new AD also had to fill during his first month of employment. To a frustrated fan base, the men Mocs had nowhere to go but up. Expectations were nil. Patience runneth over.

Replacing Wes Moore was a different matter. Moore was Pat Summitt Lite, reaching nine NCAA Tournaments in 15 years from a one-bid league. It never should have taken a decade and a half for Moore to land a BCS job at North Carolina State, but that's another story for another day.

Regardless of the reasons, his early April exit left Blackburn with the treacherous task of tabbing someone clearly capable of sustaining Moore's excellence.

Against all odds, he found a Beatle to replace a Beach Boy, convincing Jim Foster -- who would be inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame before he ever coached a Mocs game -- to leave cushy retirement for Mocsville.

The reward for that sales job was evident Saturday afternoon, when almost 4,000 filled McKenzie Arena to witness Foster's 800th win as a collegiate coach, the last 17 earned by his Mocs, who look completely capable of not only reaching the NCAA Tournament, but quite possibly winning a game or two.

Foster may or may not be a clearly superior coach to Moore, but he is certainly Wise Wes's equal and when was the last time you can remember anyone as talented as Moore being replaced by a Hall of Famer?

But even a separate thank you to Blackburn for each hire isn't enough. From the beginning he recognized that UTC's best chance to become a national household name athletically remains basketball, as well as its best chance to generate significant revenue beyond breaking even.

This doesn't mean that wrestling, softball and football can't have national success. Or significantly soften their financial footprints. But none of those sports is likely to wind up on the front page of USA Today, as Mocs men's basketball did during its Sweet 16 run in 1997. Both Wade and Foster have the talent to deliver that kind of recognition again. Heck, McGhee's 70-foot heave last Thursday against Elon became ESPN's top play of the day. That kind of fame may be fleeting, but it's far better than no fame at all.

And if Wade's Wonders can begin to routinely draw the 6,648 fans that visited McKenzie for Saturday's win over UNC Greensboro, men's hoops could actually turn a profit.

And it may already be paying dividends for other sports, as well. On Sunday, Memphis prep football standout Dejuan McQuarters committed to sign with the Mocs over major college offers including those from Kentucky and Northern Illinois.

McQuarters' told Times Free Press writer Stephen Hargis that among other things, he "really liked the atmosphere at the basketball game" after watching the win over UNCG.

Yet even that doesn't completely give Blackburn the praise he deserves. While it may be a reach to say he gave much thought to this back in May, he was aware that Wade and Foster had known each other for more than 20 years, back to when a wee Will was still in elementary school and Foster was first bringing magic to Vanderbilt.

And given that fact, he also knew that the 65-year-old Hall of Famer could provide the kind of mentoring to the 31-year-old Wade that a first-year AD or total stranger could not.

"Will was the most intense 8-year-old I've ever known, and now he's the most intense 30-year-old I've ever known," Foster joked Saturday evening.

Said Wade of his women's counterpart, "I went to one of his [Vanderbilt] practices. Worked his camps. Went to a lot of his games. We've definitely picked his brain since we've been here."

Asked if Foster had similarly picked his brain, Wade smiled and said, "I haven't got any knowledge for him."

Perhaps not. But both men's teams have perfect records halfway through their respective Southern Conference schedules.

If that's not worthy of thank you's for all concerned -- to Blackburn, the coaches and their players -- what is?

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com