Wiedmer: Rusty Wright's first head-coaching season at UTC has been fun to watch

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / UTC head coach Rusty Wright congratulates his offense as it comes off the field after a score. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga hosted the Western Carolina in a Southern Conference football game on September 28, 2019. Today was homecoming for UTC.

In a few minutes, Rusty Wright would begin the next-to-last weekly media luncheon of his first season as head football coach of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Mocs.

But before Wright reached the media room on the bottom floor of McKenzie Arena on Tuesday afternoon, UTC athletic director Mark Wharton was asked if he could believe that Saturday's visit from The Citadel would be the final home game of the season at Finley Stadium, barring an unexpected Football Championship Subdivision playoff game.

"It's flown by," Wharton said. "I've loved it, though. We've gotten better. We play extremely hard."

Wharton has a lot at stake where Wright's concerned. Football hires, even at the FCS level, are often what determines an AD's popularity, if not his employment.

It's safe to say that 10 games and five wins into Wright's tenure, Wharton has every reason to love his football coach.

Not that the coach always has felt equally warm and fuzzy about the Mocs.

After the second game of the season, a 41-20 loss at Jacksonville State, Wright told his players, "We aren't a football team. We're just a bunch of guys playing football."

But as early as a week later, during a 45-0 loss at big brother Tennessee, he also saw positive changes.

"As bad as the Tennessee game was on the scoreboard, we were starting to do some good things, starting to play as a group," Wright said. "And I saw even more of that against James Madison the next week (a 37-14 loss)."

In the weeks since, the Mocs have won four of six, both defeats coming in games in which they held leads against ranked Southern Conference foes Wofford and Furman.

"I'd like to have a couple of those games back," Wright said of the Mocs' early losses, "because we're a lot better football team now."

By logic, they shouldn't be. Injuries. Defections. A 180-degree change in philosophy from the previous coaching staff all should have conspired to wreck this season before it began. And Wright certainly had his doubts at the close of spring practice and the start of preseason workouts.

"Sometimes I'd wonder how are we going to win a game," he recalled.

But he could also see them getting tougher. Working harder. Paying closer attention to detail.

"It's a rag-tag group now," Wright said. "It's a quilt of all different shapes, colors and sizes. We don't have enough guys. But these cats battle. Just to see where these guys came from. I've enjoyed it these past six weeks."

The Citadel figures to test that joy. The Bulldogs have won four straight games. They also knocked off Atlantic Coast Conference member Georgia Tech early in the season.

Noted Wright of that rare victory for an FCS school over a Power Five conference foe and the irony that The Citadel won running a triple-option offense that the Yellow Jackets decided to scrap this season: "First, (The Citadel) got a FBS win, which doesn't happen much at our level. I also thought that Georgia Tech just changed offenses and they got beat by that offense."

What surely will take a beating in some corners of Finley Stadium on Saturday are tissues and handkerchiefs, given that the Mocs will be saying goodbye to 14 seniors.

"Everybody's different," Wright replied when asked if he was concerned about what those pregame emotions could translate to once the game begins. "Some may have become tired of playing. Some play a lot. Some play a little. Some don't play at all. I just want them to have the best experience they can have here."

What he did say about this senior class is what most coaches and parents hope can be said at the close of a college career.

"These guys have changed their lives here," Wright said.

As darkness falls on Virginia Military Institute's campus 10 days from today, Wright's first season coaching his alma mater will have produced a final record of 7-5, 6-6 or 5-7. None of those scenarios is likely to deliver a playoff berth.

What it appears to have done is set the foundation for a lot of better seasons to follow.

"I've got good football coaches," Wright said. "If I can keep those guys around, we'll have some fun around here."

Or build on the fun already begun.

photo Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.