Moments in Memory: National championship runs highlight Chattanooga's basketball history

Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / The basketball goes through the net during the UTC vs. Liberty University womenÕs basketball game at McKenzie Arena Wednesday, November 21, 2018 in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Editor's note: This is part of an ongoing series commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. To read more, visit timesfreepress.com/150years.

The two most significant college basketball events in Chattanooga history occurred 20 years and two days apart. The UTC men's basketball team won the Division II national championship on March 19, 1977, in Springfield, Massachusetts. The Mocs went to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament before losing on March 21, 1997.

The magnitude of the magical run through Georgia and Illinois of Coach Mack McCarthy's Mocs in the NCAA tournament likely wins the public poll today of the most significant basketball event in Chattanooga history, but not for the subset of UTC alumni and supporters who experienced the national championship.

"I don't personally think it's a good comparison, but a lot of fans do," said Darrell Patterson, the longtime Channel 9 sports director who called the 1997 game. "The national championship is the national championship, and to me that is bigger than the Sweet 16. Mack's team was something, but they didn't win a national championship. They did in Springfield."


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One of two teams will win a basketball national championship Monday night in Minneapolis, and the sports journalists in attendance will dwarf the few who covered the Mocs in either 1977 or 1997.

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Sports journalism began appearing in newspapers around 1914, according to the New World Encyclopedia. Records indicate the Chattanooga Daily Times (5 cents) first published a sports page on July 11, 1909. The page was headlined "Observations of a Baseball Bug" and the sports on the page were all baseball except for a random boxing drawing.

The sports page had its own masthead by January 1910, but the written content was all baseball except for one boxing story. Jack Johnson, the first black man to hold the world heavyweight boxing title, and Jim Jeffries, a retired white former champion who was white, were scheduled to meet in July in an event charged with racial tension.

The beginning of the story spoke to the state of segregation and sports gambling in 1909. It said, "Nine thousand dollars toward a pool of $10,000 already has been raised by negroes in this city to wager on Jack Johnson against Jim Jeffries before the fighters enter the ring next July. Subscriptions of less than $100 have not been accepted by B.D. Wilkins, who is handling the pool."

By the time the Mocs won the national championship in 1977, the Chattanooga Times (15 cents) and the News-Free Press (15 cents) had been competing for sports readers since the News-Free Press began publishing in 1933. The Mocs win and the city's only national championship came in the final years of the Times' and News-Free Press' intense competition for readers and survival.

In 1980, Times publisher Ruth Holmberg and News-Free Press publisher Roy McDonald would enter into a joint operating agreement with the creation of the Chattanooga Publishing Company. That would lead to two decades of joint operation until Walter Hussman Jr. bought both papers and merged them in a single paper on Jan. 5, 1999. The healthy competition for breaking news and content often played out in the sports sections of the two papers leading up to the joint operation agreement and forward for nearly 20 years.

While the Times was a morning paper and the News-Free Press an afternoon paper, both published on Sunday mornings in 1977. By 1977, newspapers had moved to a six-column format instead of the nine-column format that was the standard in 1909. The Times placed the unbylined story on the front page with a headline, "UTC Mocs Win, 71-62, Take National Crown." The lead paragraph read, "UT Chattanooga scaled the basketball heights Saturday night and proudly rules Division II kingpin." It was the only local story on the front page.

The News-Free Press put the championship coverage on the sports section front but had a bylined report by Larry Green. "UTC Cagers National Champions!" announced the banner headline. Green's lead said, "UT-Chattanooga put a five-year dream in bronze Saturday night. The Moccasins scaled the summit of Rocky Top, urged on by a piece of the Mac. Inscribe the score in stone: UT-Chattanooga 71, Randolph-Macon 62. And the prize for this one was the one everyone had awaited – the NCAA Division II national championship in basketball."

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Since the start of competition, writers have covered sports in one way or another. Sports journalism has been traced all the way back to the time of 850 B.C.E. when Homer wrote about the first known draw in wrestling, as Achilles raised the hands of both Ajax and Odysseus in victory. The sports of wrestling, throwing, boxing and racing were all written about in early Greece.

While sports writing has existed for some time, it did not become prevalent until comparatively recently. In the middle 1800s American writers began to write exclusively as sports writers, but they were still few in number. During the time before the 1900s sports writing existed but was not widely accepted. It was not until 1914 that sports was written and spread in circulation, and the job of a sports editor was considered an actual job.

Contact Davis Lundy at davislundy@aol.com.