Wiedmer: Did UTC football quit on its best chance at a title?

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / UTC football coach Rusty Wright leads the Mocs onto the field for Saturday's SoCon game against The Citadel at Finley Stadium.

Mark Wharton was all alone as he stood behind Finley Stadium's west end zone late Saturday afternoon. It was as if the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletic director had an invisible 10-foot force field around him. No one seemed bold or daring enough to enter his private space and he didn't seem the least bit interested in inviting anyone in.

Out on Davenport Field, the final minutes were disappearing on a colossally disappointing UTC football season, especially given the championship hopes it had fostered through the summer. Instead, The Citadel - a Southern Conference foe that had begun the day with a 2-5 league mark - was about to shock the Mocs 24-21, ending all dreams of an FCS playoff bid and cementing a 6-5 final record.

So as Wharton stood there, his jaws clinched, his facial expression somewhere between numb and seething, one couldn't help but wonder if he was silently thinking, "We quit on the spring season for THIS?"

Because when you walk out on last spring's COVID-necessitated schedule because you don't want to jeopardize putting your best foot forward for the fall, then go out and lose your opener in this same Finley Stadium to Austin Peay, then drop your final two in rather listless offensive fashion at Mercer and to The Citadel, a lot of questions are worth asking.

Especially when you're Wharton, and you had envisioned the spring season as a way to generate desperately needed dollars only to have football coach Rusty Wright and his team view it otherwise. Wright never really seemed to want to play it, and because he didn't, the players sort of fell in line and midway through it, they all just up and quit.

You can certainly argue if there should have been a spring season. It seemed half-baked at the time, and the Mocs weren't the only ones who felt that way. Still, it's tough to say it was a threat to the fall season when Sam Houston - which won the 2020 FCS title (despite it being played in the spring of this year) - is the No. 1 seed in the 24-team playoff field announced Sunday.

That spring schedule didn't seem to wear down the Bearkats, who'll enter the playoffs on a 21-game winning streak.

To be fair, Sam Houston's recent history isn't UTC's. When Wright was hired in December of 2018, the program was a total mess, both on and off the field under former coach Tom Arth. There were academic issues, attitude issues, talent issues.

Beyond that, the flooding of the Scrappy Moore Practice Field wiped out much of Wright's first spring practice, then COVID-19 arrived, limiting the fall of 2020 to one away game at FBS member Western Kentucky. Then came the spring season the program bailed on midway along.

Yet to listen to two quotes from Wright after The Citadel loss is to wonder how many of those issues regarding attitude may still exist.

Quote 1: "I don't think we played our most inspired football in the first half, which is very disappointing because we haven't been that way. There was no purpose, no passion, there was no reason. We were just out there. I told them in the locker room we are our own worst enemy this year, and that comes right squarely back to me."

Quote 2: "We've got a lot more issues than personnel issues."

Toss in this quote from running back Tyrell Price when he was asked about the team's mental state entering The Citadel game and there would seem to be some serious soul-searching needed from the head coach down to the lowliest walk-on: "Not sure everybody was there. Not sure the focus was there."

Again, The Citadel was the Mocs' last chance to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2016. No passion? No purpose? Lack of focus? What gives? And what is it going to take to fix it?

More importantly, what will it take to get UTC's dwindling fan base back to Finley after this season?

Consider these two emails I received over the past few days, both from loyal Mocs supporters:

"What a waste of a season!," wrote the first one. "This team could actually be undefeated! Yet whether you believe in 'karma,' the Mocs should have played out the spring season. They had a real chance to get into the playoffs and maybe win a Championship. Those opportunities are very limited. This is coming back to haunt them!"

The second went as follows: "The decision was made to 'quit' in the Spring to be 'better prepared' for the Fall. When we fell flat against Austin Peay, Coach Wright came out and said '(UTC) was not prepared.' Fast forward to the 10th game of the season (Mercer) and the same rationale is provided. Difficult words to digest for die-hard Mocs supporters.

"I learned much from my grandfather and 2 lessons he taught me are very applicable to Mocs football this year: 'Always finish what you start - never quit' (Spring season) and 'Don't expect anything to be handed over to you - go out and earn it yourself (Fall season).'"

These are the people Wharton must answer to when he lobbies them to buy tickets and make athletic department donations. An older fan base than most, Mocs Nation has tolerated losing far better than many programs, but it's far less forgiving of quitting or being ill-prepared and disinterested with a playoff berth on the line.

Wright is right to say it comes back squarely on his shoulders. Whether fair or not, it always does. Just ask former Forida coach Dan Mullen today. But this season in general, and The Citadel loss in particular, are going to leave marks that may take more than a season's worth of good work for Mocs Nation to heal. Time to brace for UTC football's winter of discontent, then hope the hard lessons learned this autumn won't allow a repeat.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.