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KNOXVILLE — After a crazy couple of weeks, Rusty Wright has had a few opportunities to be just a dad.

The new University of Tennessee at Chattanooga head football coach turned his phone off for four days during the Christmas holiday, focusing his time on his wife, Kelly, and daughter Maddie, a junior forward on the Belmont women's basketball team.

Since being announced as UTC's new football leader on Dec. 21, Wright has fielded texts or phone calls from former Liberty coach Turner Gill, former Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino and even Alabama coach Nick Saban, among many others. There have been numerous calls from career-long assistants, like Wright, who are happy to see one of their own get a chance to lead his own program.

He's also had a lot of people visit his office to offer congratulations or even drop by the house, to the point where Kelly told him one day, "This is how it's going to be."

"It's like, 'Hey, man, good for you. A regular man got a job,'" Wright said. "A lot of guys that couldn't be happier for you — they weren't asking for a job or recommending anyone. That's been cool for me."

Maddie admitted that due to practice she missed Rusty's initial phone call that he had accepted the UTC job, but she was ecstatic to see him get an opportunity at his alma mater.

"I know this is all of his hard work paying off," she said after Belmont's game Sunday at Tennessee.

Rusty must make time soon for big decisions, namely staff hirings and recruiting, but Sunday afternoon the coaching hat was off and the dad hat was on. He sat in a section by himself dressed in a red Belmont polo shirt and watched Maddie score 10 points, grab six rebounds and hand out three assists in 29 minutes in an 84-76 loss to the 10th-ranked Lady Vols.

Days like Sunday weren't guaranteed. Maddie was diagnosed with Graves' disease, an autoimmune disorder characterized by an overactive thyroid gland, during the summer before her sophomore year at Boyd Buchanan. It affected her both on and off the court: She had sleepless nights due to nagging anxiety; her hair fell out; she lost more than 20 pounds in a matter of weeks.

"I about start crying every time I watch her," Rusty said. "When they start doing the starting lineups, or she's out there playing, as long as she's healthy, happy and has a good time and enjoys the experience she's getting now because she gets to play Division I basketball — because that's an experience a lot of people don't get. It's awesome, man: From where she's come from three years ago to now, to watch her play eight minutes in the first quarter at a high speed, high pace and just go battle, words can't describe it.

"There's not enough money in the world to pay for that."

For years Maddie medicated to control symptoms, until the condition fell into remission prior to her freshman season at Belmont. She still struggled with her stamina, but as she's gotten older, even that has started to improve. Through 11 games this season, she's averaging 8.9 points and six rebounds for the 7-4 Bruins. More importantly, she's averaging 24.7 minutes a game after averaging 14.2 last season and 10.0 as a freshman.

"It's everything I dreamed of as a kid," Maddie said. "I dreamed of playing Division I basketball, and every day I chipped away. Now I'm making goals for myself, setting new limits. It's exciting to be able to play games like this. Every day is a gift; it's awesome."

Her parents agree.

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3.

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