UTC’s trust in Shawn Poppie quickly rewarded with NCAA tourney trip

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / UTC women's basketball coach Shawn Poppie talks to his players during a November practice.

Abbey Cornelius had no choice.

Neither did her University of Tennessee at Chattanooga teammates.

A year ago, UTC, which Cornelius had represented on the basketball court since 2018, announced that it was parting ways with Katie Burrows, who had recruited the 6-foot-2 forward from Knoxville to Chattanooga. And with Burrows' time as head coach of her alma mater over after four seasons and the process of finding a new leader for the program about to start, UTC athletic director Mark Wharton met with Cornelius and her teammates and made a simple request: Trust him.

But back to the opening part about Cornelius, which isn't quite true.

There were other choices, especially with the NCAA transfer portal now such a popular place to be. But while it's easy to enter the portal, it's not nearly as easy to exit, and there was no guarantee that a new destination would equal a better team and more success.

So when UTC's athletic director asked the Mocs to trust him in the search for a new coach in March 2022, in large part, they did.

Word trickled out later that month that Virginia Tech assistant Shawn Poppie was a favorite for the UTC job. A couple of weeks later, Poppie was meeting with the Mocs as their new head coach, telling his son Kai at the opening news conference that they would "cut down some nets." That proclamation came true less than two weeks ago, when the Mocs defeated Wofford 63-53 in the Southern Conference tournament title game in Asheville, North Carolina, securing the team's first NCAA tournament berth since 2017.

Now the Mocs (20-12) will face the school Poppie was plucked from — Virginia Tech (27-4), one of four No. 1 seeds in the 68-team field — in the first round at 5:30 p.m. Friday at Cassell Coliseum in Blacksburg, Virginia.

"He knew this was a good job, that this was an attractive job," Cornelius said this week of Wharton. "He just wanted us to have full trust in him, which we did, and it worked out really well."

  photo  Staff file photo by Olivia Ross / UTC athletic director Mark Wharton, pictured, said he knew that Shawn Poppie's work as a Virginia Tech assistant meant he would work to build the same successful "culture" established by Hokies coach Kenny Brooks.

It helped that Wharton had shown early faith in a coach before at UTC, with that situation working out well for both the individual and the school.

Lamont Paris, who recently wrapped up his first season as head coach of South Carolina's men, was 22-45 after his first two seasons at UTC, but Wharton gave him a contract extension and the Mocs got more time to develop. All parties involved were rewarded when Paris guided the Mocs to a 27-8 record and a sweep of the SoCon men's regular-season and tournament titles for the 2021-22 season, sending them back to the NCAA tourney for the first time since 2016.

Good will was built up in the process, and now Wharton and UTC have been rewarded with another SoCon title, thanks to the women's program improving to 19-0 in the league final.

And while Wharton said he knew Poppie "was a great coach," a lot also hinged on Wharton's relationship with Poppie's boss at Virginia Tech — Hokies coach Kenny Brooks — and what Brooks had done "as far as culture" both there and at James Madison University.

"I knew that that's what Shawn was going to bring and that success was ultimately going to come," Wharton said prior to Sunday's selection show and UTC being announced as a No. 16 seed headed to Blacksburg.

"The thing that helped us, and we all knew and still know, is that the Southern Conference, the women's basketball league, is not a good league. So you come in and have that culture and take players that can learn discipline, learn the family environment, play for each other, and we've got a shot. And we talked as early as January that if we stick together and get some breaks, it could happen.

"I would hope that the fan base sees there's a bright future; from the type of people we've got, it was everything that I wanted for this program, for this community. I'm excited. I'm just anxious to continue to do what we've got to do."

For his part, Poppie was downright apologetic in hindsight about his fast rise with UTC.

Sunday evening, he frequently spoke of "skipping steps" in his process to a championship. He had been willing to build things from the bottom and instill his culture, even if it meant costing the team wins.

His rotation? Small. His roster? Not much bigger. But those who have hung around have reaped the benefits, and with three talented recruits coming in next season as freshmen and some talented transfers sure to join as well, there's no reason to think there's any slowing down what has started in year one of the Poppie era at UTC.

"He took a chance on me, and I'm forever grateful to him for doing that," Poppie said of Wharton. "Our relationship has really grown to the point where you feel like you want to make him proud, and because there's a genuine relationship there.

"With that said, this group has been bought into me since the day we walked in, from that first meeting. It's been a lot of fun to watch them grow. We spent a lot of time in the relationship piece early on, and then we hit October and we were coaching them hard. But they took every criticism as coaching and grew from it.

"I'm just excited that although we spent all year focused on culture, we're able to win, and then the confidence gained ... next thing you know, you put yourself in a chance to win a championship, and now we're here full circle."

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com.