Wiedmer: Mocs' next AD needs to raise more money, increase interest

Wiedmer: Mocs' next AD needs to raise more money, increase interest

June 15th, 2017 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

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Blackburn steps down as UTC athletic director

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David Blackburn, UTC Athletic Director, talks about new Chattanooga Mocs Head Coach Tom Arth, near left, before a crowd of fans, media and a few attending players on Tuesday at noon inside the Stadium Club at Finley Stadium.

David Blackburn, UTC Athletic Director, talks about new...

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

No one should ever say David Blackburn didn't make a positive impact on University of Tennessee at Chattanooga sports programs during his four years as Mocs athletic director.

Victories were up. And graduation rates. And the department's collective grade point average. Should the man or woman who follows Blackburn produce similar success in those areas, he or she should be well-received indeed.

That's not to say UTC chancellor Steven Angle shouldn't lead a search for someone with a slightly different skill set after Blackburn's surprising resignation Tuesday.

As has been the case for at least 75 years around the school's athletic programs, money is in short supply for a long list of department necessities, beginning with a new football/athletic training complex.

Originally a top priority of Blackburn almost from the day he took over the program in spring 2013, fundraising for the $18.5 million (estimated) project has basically hit a standstill. It is said to be at least $7 million to $8 million short at the moment. And last time we checked, building costs weren't going down.

Here's what one longtime observer of the program noted Tuesday while requesting anonymity: "If they don't get the money for that building, we'll go right back to where we were in football before (former coach) Russ Huesman came in 2009. You can't get this football program where it needs to be, competing for national championships, with the facilities we have now. The world has once again left us behind."

Reached for comment Wednesday about the state of the program he leaves behind, Blackburn declined comment.

He did want to make it clear that while he wasn't in Charleston, S.C., for the UTC football team's loss to The Citadel last Oct. 15, he also wasn't at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville for the Alabama-Tennessee football game, as I reported in my column published Wednesday.

"I did go by Lenoir City to visit my mother," Blackburn said. "But I wasn't at the (Tennessee) game, and I drove to Nashville later that day for a Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame meeting on Sunday. The Citadel game was the only one I didn't attend all year."

So what can be done to not only get more people to attend UTC athletic events but also increase athletic department fundraising?

First, find someone who has previously worked in college athletics but possibly also in minor league baseball marketing. Find someone who knows how to make a Saturday afternoon or evening at Finley Stadium more appealing to young families than it apparently is now. Find someone who wants to be upwardly mobile but not to the point he forgets to pour all his energy into this job if considering a new one.

Have him start by filling the areas around the First Tennessee Pavilion with inflatables for the little ones before and after football games. Maybe hand out ice cream cones to kids 10 and younger whose parents bought tickets (for the parents) to the game. Maybe get Mayfield or Clumpie's to produce some dark blue and bright gold ice cream for that purpose.

Also have the new AD — as the University of Tennessee's John Currie was during the school's Big Orange Caravan stop in Chattanooga earlier this month — on hand at each athletic event to thank fans for attending. Not just fans in the luxury boxes, but every fan coming through the gate. Maybe host a postgame party in the pavilion after each home game during football season, with a live band, food trucks and cheap beer for anyone with a valid ID. Call it the Moc Hop and give away a luxury box package for eight to the next home game to the person with the best outfit or the couple with the best dance moves.

But whatever the new AD chooses to do to attract new fans, do something different. Make it worthy of a date night or family outing. And if the game ends after dark, shoot fireworks. Spend some money to make more money and generate more interest from all the folks in this town who have pretty much shown no interest in UTC athletics in the past.

Certainly, Blackburn's Rain Man-esque accuracy for selecting coaching talent would be a huge plus in the next AD as well. Hall of Fame women's basketball coach Jim Foster doesn't figure to be around for more than three or four more years. If new men's basketball coach Lamont Paris has the same early success enjoyed by his immediate predecessors, Matt McCall and Will Wade, he won't call McKenzie Arena home for long, either. And new football coach Tom Arth has next level written all over him.

So being able to pick a quality coach is certainly important for Blackburn's replacement. But so is being able to raise money to build the facilities and pay the salaries that attract top coaching talent.

As the same anonymous source mentioned earlier noted Tuesday: "What the kids care about today is what (gear and uniforms) they're going to wear and what facilities are they going to practice and play in."

To that end, any future UTC athletic director who can't raise that necessary money figures to watch the Mocs once again be left behind in both the wins column and the interest column. After years and years of improvement in both categories under both Blackburn and his predecessor, Rick Hart, the possibilities are endless with the right hire.

Unfortunately, so are the problems with the wrong one.

Ah, the joys of starting over.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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