We forget sometimes. We watch college football players such as University of Tennessee at Chattanooga seniors Lucas Webb and Alphonso Stewart display admirable maturity, skill and toughness on the playing field and we forget their emotions off the field are still navigating that awkward, uncertain time between youth and adulthood.
We forget that their coaches are still more voices of authority and encouragement — parent figures, if you will — than bosses merely concerned with the bottom line.
And when that top voice of authority — in this case, former coach Russ Huesman — voluntarily moves on rather than being asked to leave, natural fears and frustrations can creep in, if not swallow whole impressionable young minds.
Or in the words of the Mocs' Stewart: "It's your last year. You don't want to start over. You don't want there to be a drop-off."
Echoed Webb: "You don't want to have a rebuilding year. This is your senior year. It's a late time to go through a transition."
But the bright young coaching mind who replaced Huesman — Tom Arth — instinctively knew what to do to lessen that uncertainty as much as possible. Almost from the moment he was hired on Dec. 19, he began calling every returning UTC player, telling them how excited he was to be their coach and how happy he was to start working with them on a daily basis come January.
"They've been through a lot," Arth said Tuesday, four days before the Mocs open against Jacksonville State on ESPN in the historic Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, Ala. "This was not a desired transition. No one wanted Coach Huesman to leave."
No, when you've reached the playoffs for three straight seasons, when you might have your most complete team ever coming back, you don't expect the coach who is also an alumnus to leave for another FCS job where the fan base, though wealthier, might not fill as many seats.
But that's what Huesman — supposedly frustrated by some behind-the-scenes administration issues — did. And to Arth's credit, he immediately understood the need to soften any hurt and rejection his new players might be experiencing.
"I tried to talk to each of them for five minutes or so," the new coach said. "I called every one of them."
Stewart said he almost ignored his call from Arth.
"I almost didn't answer it," he recalled. "I didn't recognize the number."
But once he'd spoken with his new coach, he was glad he did.
"Once we'd talked, I knew we'd be OK," Stewart said. "If anything, there was an elevated sense of joy and excitement."
Said Webb: "That first phone call gave us all a sense of what kind of man (Arth) was."
If a single bit of coaching advice from the late Tennessee women's basketball coaching legend Pat Head Summitt should live forever and be a requirement for every coach at every level of every sport, it's this, her words both timeless and timely: "(The players) don't care how much you know until they know how much you care."
Those five-minute phone calls assured the current Mocs that Arth cared.
This isn't to say losing Huesman didn't hurt, that they were in any way happy to see him leave. Over eight seasons at UTC he guided the Mocs to 59 wins, 37 losses and a massive change in expectations. Playoff bids became the norm after 29 straight seasons without one. Academics were up. Embarrassments were all but nonexistent.
"It was surprising," Webb said. "It was almost surreal. But (Coach Huesman) sent out a video to everybody explaining his decision. We understood."
Added Stewart: "I respected his move. It wasn't against us. It just caught us off guard. We never thought this would happen."
But it did happen. And Arth pushed all the right buttons after it happened.
"Just the way he talked to us," said Stewart, returning to that first phone call. "Pretty inspiring."
And because of that, come Saturday inside the Cramton Bowl, don't be surprised if the product on the field is pretty inspiring, too.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com.