Long before Mark Wharton accepted his new job as University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletic director, he began hearing what a special place it was from the most successful men's basketball coach the Mocs have ever had — Mack McCarthy.
"Every conversation with Mack always came back to Chattanooga," said Wharton, who worked with McCarthy during Mack's stint as the East Carolina University men's basketball coach, then worked over him when the architect of UTC's 1997 Sweet 16 run transitioned into fundraising at ECU.
"And he always had great things to say about this place," Wharton added.
Early Wednesday morning, with Wharton still six hours from being introduced to the public and the media, McCarthy had some equally great things to say about his former boss, who succeeds David Blackburn, who resigned in June to pursue other interests.
"First, he's a really nice guy," McCarthy said. "He couldn't have been better to me and for me during the time we were together here. But more importantly, he's very supportive of coaches. He listens. He understands what obstacles they'll need to overcome to be successful. He's really a coach's AD."
He certainly sounded like it shortly after his formal news conference. Asked about the stalled fundraising for the athletic complex all of the UTC coaches want and need — but especially the football staff — Wharton replied, "Number one, we need to finish that."
And after that?
"A needs assessment for the whole department."
This is routine stuff for any new AD. Especially one with the fundraising history of Wharton, who has raised impressive money everywhere he's ever been, be it East Carolina, UNLV, UNC-Asheville, James Madison or his most recent gig at Penn State. At the latter, he helped raise $38 million in total cash despite the school's struggles to overcome the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal that rocked the entire university just before Wharton arrived.
And just so people understand he knows at least a little bit about the state he'll now call home, Wharton earned a master's degree from the University of Tennessee.
But while McCarthy deserves much credit for at least subliminally planting a seed that Chattanooga was a great place to live and work, UTC chancellor Steven Angle also deserves much praise — along with search committee chair Debbie Ingram — for recognizing Wharton's skill set and fundraising experience were crucial to this job at this time.
And in all fairness to Blackburn, the school had moved athletic department fundraising under the wing of the UTC Foundation and its director, Bryan Rowland, long before Blackburn left. This isn't to say the $12 million to $14 million needed for the athletic complex would have been raised had Blackburn remained in charge of acquiring donations for that project. It doesn't mean Rowland should have done more.
It does mean a fresh face and ideas — McCarthy praised Wharton as a "creative revenue generator" — couldn't have come along at a better time.
Beyond that, as McCarthy noted, "the rest of the athletic department has never been in better shape. There are a lot of talented people already in place who've done a tremendous job."
Perhaps that's why Angle observed: "(Wharton) brings the perfect match of experience, personality and vision. His skill set is the right one for us at this time."
Raising money isn't all he's good at, of course.
Wharton's 14-year-old daughter Taylor — she will attend Signal Mountain High School and hopes to be both a cheerleader and a track and field athlete — said her father is "very social."
His wife Angela — like Wharton, she is a North Carolina native — said her husband is "a great storyteller." She said he likes to have "a project going all the time. He has a lot of energy."
She also touted his grilling skills, which he said leaned toward, "Kabobs, seafood and steak."
All of this versatility is bound to come in handy as Wharton takes over the UTC athletic family. And he does not sound like a man who intends to slowly make his mark.
"I want to do something in the first 100 days that shows we're serious," he told the welcoming crowd of 100 or so at the University Center. "I haven't figured out what that is yet, but I will and you'll see it."
That single quote, a plan to make an immediate statement about his leadership, is both refreshing and re-invigorating for all who fear this athletic department has grown stale, despite all of its recent winning on its various fields and courts.
"I haven't mentioned anything about winning," Wharton noted at one point. "Winning's not a goal, it's an expectation."
For now, of course, these are all just words, powerful and promising though they may be.
But McCarthy knows the man behind those words far better than most of us.
"Mark's obviously great at fundraising, but he's so much more than that," McCarthy said. "He's the perfect hire for UTC right now."
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.