Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Director of athletics Mark Wharton speaks at the start of a news conference at the University Center at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga on Wednesday, April 6, 2022.

When he was first named the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's athletic director in the late summer of 2017, it didn't take Mark Wharton long to pinpoint what his department most needed if it intended to compete for Southern Conference sports championships.

"We needed much more investment," said Wharton. "For all of this school's past athletic success, we'd never really raised money here."

Indeed, if former UTC athletic directors such as the late Harold Wilkes may have had a special gift for turning pennies into dollars, it is nearly impossible to build or sustain a successful university athletic department in 2022 without a good deal of money, both for yearly budgets and long-range projects.

So in order to jump-start his goal to make each of his employer's 14 total men's and women's varsity sports capable of winning SoCon titles, Wharton sought to find 20 donors willing to commit $50,000 each over a five-year period for a total of $1 million. Various school officials told him it couldn't be done, that he'd be lucky to get four or five.

"But we did it," said Wharton. "We got the 20."

And partly because of those 20, UTC is now among the SoCon's top three schools in resources — for facilities, coaching salaries, and scholarships available — for all of its sports except soccer and track and field.

"And we're fourth in soccer," Wharton said. "We're getting there."

Building a successful athletic program is not all about budgets, of course, even if UTC's 2021-22 athletic department budget of $19.5 million has increased by $2.5 million over the past five years under Wharton's watch, despite the challenges of the pandemic.

There are always facilities to construct or renovate, none more important than the $34 million Wolford Family Athletic Center that broke ground in March. On the drawing boards, or at least UTC's wish list, for at least a decade and two previous athletic directors, Wharton has patiently, yet stubbornly, fought to make it a reality.

Attached to McKenzie Arena and housing locker rooms, training rooms and other amenities for all 300 of the school's student-athletes, it will deliver the Mocs one of the better such buildings anywhere within the school's NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) when it opens no later than the spring of 2024.

"It's going to change our kids' daily lives," UTC football coach Rusty Wright said. "It's going to make us have one of the top two or three such facilities in the Southern Conference."

Yet even increasing the budget and improving facilities isn't all that demands Wharton's attention on a daily basis.

some text
Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's Athletic Director Mark Wharton introduces Rusty Wright as the new head football coach during a press conference at UTC Friday, December 21, 2018 in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

With Name, Image and Likeness and the transfer portal having a larger and larger impact on which schools elite athletes will choose to spend their college careers, branding has become increasingly important to keeping an athletic department front and center in the public eye.

"Dr. Angle (UTC chancellor Dr. Steven Angle) often talks about the athletic department being the front porch of the university," said Wharton. "That concept was on full display during our recent participation in March Madness. Both during ESPN's broadcast of the Southern Conference title game when David Jean-Baptiste hit his buzzer-beater to send us to the NCAA Tournament, and during our time in Pittsburgh for the NCAA tourney, we saw our brand and our Power C logo displayed all over the country."

How much has that nationwide exposure supposedly already paid benefits?

According to MVP — an omnichannel, media measurement and sponsorship valuation company that UTC partnered with to take a closer look at the economic impact of that 10-day tourney run — the school reaped an exposure value of $23 million.

"There's no way a school our size could ever buy that," said Wharton, "That publicity has exposed our university to a whole new market of potential students and partners."

And attracting students and partners is what the business of building a successful college athletic department is all about in 2022.