Wiedmer: Mocs legends have better Saturday than current Mocs

Staff file photo / Former UTC men's basketball coach Mack McCarthy, who led the program to a Sweet 16 run in the 1997 NCAA tournament, was among those who were honored during the school's Legends Weekend.

Johnny Taylor was standing just off the basketball court at McKenzie Arena, the second half about to begin of what would be an 80-75 loss for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men to Virginia Military Institute late Saturday afternoon.

But before that game could continue, the school had to properly honor Taylor, former coach Mack McCarthy and the rest of the 1996-97 Mocs, the only team in school history to reach the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16.

And, boy, did the crowd of 3,651 remember them. Lights dimmed. Each player was introduced to a loud, proud ovation. Even Terrell Owens, once a UTC basketball player before heading off to the NFL for a Pro Football Hall of Fame career as a wide receiver, joined the other Mocs on the court for introductions.

"Being remembered is always a pleasure," said Taylor, a smile spreading across his face. "We try to get together at least once a year. We're still a very close team."

Judging from all the former players who made their way back to Chattanooga for this Legends Weekend, the whole program is pretty close.

Ron Shumate, the architect of the 1977 Division II national championship and the man most responsible for making the Mocs a nationally recognized basketball program, came back.

Rebounding machine David Bryan of 1960s fame and a former City High great, came back.

So did Willie White, arguably one of the five or six best players in UTC history - along with Taylor, Gerald Wilkins, Wayne Golden and Russ Schoene, for starters.

"Willie could probably play today," said Andrew Horton of the UTC athletic department. "I was feeding him the ball (on Friday), and he didn't miss."

Wes Moore apparently missed fewer 3-pointers than the rest of his 1996-97 teammates when they had a shooting contest over the weekend.

"I've still got a little bit of touch," Moore, who coached high school girls' basketball in the area for a number of years, said with a grin. "It took me a little of time to transition from the smaller girls' ball, but I've got it back now."

For Taylor, the Sweet 16 Mocs' best player, it's also exciting to know his son, John Taylor Jr., is on this year's roster, although he's redshirting.

Said Daddy Taylor, tongue in cheek, when asked to explain John Jr.'s 6-foot-4 height when father stands 6-9: "I blame his mother for that."

photo Staff photo by Robin Rudd / UTC great Terrell Owens fires up the home crowd during Saturday's men's basketball game against Virginia Military Institute at McKenzie Arena.

McCarthy, who so masterfully guided that Sweet 16 run by knocking out No. 3 seed Georgia in the first round, then No. 6 seed Illinois in the second round to advance to Birmingham, Alabama, for a regional semifinal with Providence, which the Mocs lost, said to credit the players for turning a losing record at January's dawn into a Southern Conference tourney title win over Marshall and the automatic NCAA bid that went with it.

"This was a year and a half in the making," he said. "We were struggling. We started over after Christmas. Changed everything we were doing. But they got it. They wanted to get it."

What they've gotten to be over the past 25 years are wonderful successes in life.

After 20-plus years playing basketball abroad, guard Willie Young and his wife now live in Monterey, California, where he coaches high school basketball. Because Monterey is very close to Pebble Beach, where iconic actor Clint Eastwood lives, someone wondered if Young has ever glimpsed the former mayor of Pebble Beach.

"Not yet," he said. "But I keep looking for him. I hear you can see him walking around sometimes."

Preston Hawkins and Isaac Conner are both lawyers - Hawkins in Knoxville and Conner in Nashville.

Forward Chris Mims played in Europe for a time. Marquis Collier works as an administrator for the city of Memphis.

"It's no surprise that they're all doing well," McCarthy said. "You could tell that these guys had something special about them. Just really good people."

All those really good people formed a tunnel at the close of halftime to cheer the current Mocs as they exited the locker room. No less than CBS analyst Clark Kellogg noted Saturday afternoon that he felt the current UTC team might have the talent to duplicate the 1996-97 Mocs' Sweet 16 run. And they might, but Saturday was the team's second straight home loss, hardly the kind of run you want to be on with the SoCon tourney now less than two weeks away.

Hawkins, who was sometimes viewed as the human victory cigar during that memorable run, was asked how this most special of UTC teams planned to wrap up the weekend Saturday night.

"I don't know what we're doing yet," he said. "I just know we'll be doing it together."

That's how you become the only team in your school's long and successful basketball history to reach the Sweet 16.

photo Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.