NFL legend Terrell Owens remains devoted to UTC

Former Mocs star eager to help football program boost attendance

Staff photo / Former UTC and NFL receiver Terrell Owens speaks during his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction event on Aug. 4, 2018, at McKenzie Arena. He elected to celebrate his induction at his alma mater instead of attending the ceremony in Canton, Ohio.

ASHEVILLE, N.C. - Terrell Owens may never quit competing.

It's in his blood. Despite being 48 years old and beyond an NFL career that landed the star wide receiver in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Owens can still be seen on social media running routes against competitors half his age. He can also still be seen playing basketball - including as recently as this week.

"There's two people, two sides of me," Owens said Thursday after speaking as the featured guest at Southern Conference football media day. "There's Terrell, and there's T.O. Whenever there's competition, it's still inside of me. I love to win, I love to compete."

Despite his NFL fame, Owens call himself "a basketball player at heart."

The former Alabama high school standout, of course, came to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga as a football player in the early 1990s, but even then he found himself walking on to join the basketball team. Those basketball games he still plays in - either for competition or charity - he's going all out. He just can't seem to help himself.

He still makes it to Finley Stadium once a season for a Mocs football game, usually homecoming, and when he was selected for Hall of Fame induction in 2018 in his third year of eligibility, he elected to have a celebration at UTC's McKenzie Arena instead of making the trip to Canton, Ohio.

But when the UTC basketball program advanced to the NCAA tournament in Pittsburgh in March as the SoCon champion, there was Owens, standing on the court during pregame warmups before sitting with administration during the matchup with the Big Ten's Illinois, a contest the 13th-seeded Mocs led most of the way before falling in the final minute.

"I feel like I was a basketball player that ended up playing football, but I'm an athlete No. 1," said Owens, who also participated in track at UTC and was inducted into the school's athletic Hall of Fame in 2002.

"Growing up in the South, you know that the (Southeastern Conference) is a powerhouse. They say we eat, sleep and drink football. So for me, you think about the guys that player there that are exceptional athletes, they're usually two-to-three-sport athletes in high school, so it's not a surprise to me that I was able to do what I did. I just didn't know that's what I was going to do."

photo AP photo by Gene J. Puskar / Pro Football Hall of Fame wide receiver Terrell Owens twirls a basketball on his finger as he watches UTC players warm up for an NCAA tournament game against Illinois on March 18 in Pittsburgh. Owens played football and basketball at UTC, where he also ran track.

His alma mater - coached by Owens' former teammate, Rusty Wright - was selected Thursday to win the SoCon championship, which would be the program's first title since 2015.

Seeing the football program's success in recruiting and the preseason excitement building around the Mocs is something that Owens has been happy to witness from afar, but he's been trying to do his part to take the next step in building support for the program. Owens said he's been in touch with assistant athletic director Andrew Horton about ways to engage the fan base.

After four seasons of attendance growth at home football games from 2012 to 2015, UTC experienced a drop from 10,152 in 2015 to 8,886 a year later - despite winning just as many games. Since 2017, the program has experienced an 18% decrease in attendance.

"To go there on homecoming the last few years and not see that stadium packed like other homecoming games, it's a bit disappointing," he said. "I want to be a part of doing something special, bringing back that football feeling. You see what Rusty is doing, and for him to be where he is now, to actually start something fresh, start something new, bring some life back to Chattanooga and bring football where it needs to be, I think he's on the path to doing that."

Wright's fourth season in charge kicks off Sept. 3 against Wofford, a Saturday night SoCon showdown at Finley.

"I don't know how we get people back," Owens said. "I don't know how we get them from tailgating into the stadium. I don't know what the answer is, but if I can be a part of that, if I could be of some influence, I told them to utilize me because what they are doing now is special.

"Being a former college football athlete and standing on the sidelines and looking into the stands, that support helps. They don't understand how much that means to football players and vice versa; we love the support of the city and the fans, and so however we can do that Chattanooga, let's go, let's get in the stadium. We're talking to the entertainment sector, the creative department about what I can do, what we can do collectively to get those seats filled."

If Owens can utilize the same competitive flair to get UTC fans energized that he still shows in different arenas of competition, things should be just fine for the Mocs.

Contact Gene Henley at Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3.