This story was updated Monday, March 29, 2021, at 8:16 p.m. with more information.
Rusty Wright spent most of the past seven-plus months trying to keep his University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team on the field and progressing toward what the unexpected.
The Southern Conference had canceled the fall portion of the schedule with hopes of playing an eight-game season in the spring, with the Football Championship Subdivision expecting to play a 16-team playoff. Each week Wright implored the players to stay focused on their goals.
But in the process, life happened. Academic schedules are made in the fall, with football players normally scheduling fewer hours in the first semester than in the spring. A lot of the UTC football players — over a dozen expecting to graduate this spring — had heavy class schedules in the spring.
On Monday, the combination of academic classload and concern for the unknown toll that could be inflicted on players bodies from potentially playing as many as 19 combined games this spring and fall, led "around 30" players — according to university sources to opt out of the remaining spring season.
Wright announced Monday afternoon that the Mocs spring season is officially over, the team finishing with a 3-2 overall record, 3-1 in the Southern Conference.
"Everybody likes to play on Saturdays," Wright said. "That part wasn't a problem, but when you were at practice it just didn't feel like practice. I'm worrying about wear and tear on the bodies, so I went into every Saturday wondering if we were ready. You can't continuously beat on them and beat on them and ask them in August and September to be at their best. In the back of my mind, that was always a concern."
In the team's lone fall game, UTC nearly knocked off Western Kentucky, then began the spring by beating Wofford and The Citadel prior to a bye week. It was at that point that the players told coaches they were done, although Wright convinced them to play against Furman — a game they ultimately won 20-18.
Early in that game, the Mocs lost starting center Kyle Miskelley to a lower body injury. Miskelley had become the unofficial offensive line coach, since the Mocs didn't have a coach at that position, and was beloved by his position mates as well as other teammates.
"That was the nail in the coffin," Wright told the Times Free Press Monday.
Most of the veteran players attempted to opt out after that Furman game, with Wright again having to convince them to stay, albeit to handle scout-team work as it had been decided that younger players would play exclusively against Mercer last Saturday. The Bears claimed a 35-28 win against a UTC offense that started nine freshmen and a defense that started four, with a total of 21 starters new to the lineup and 17 making their first-ever college starts.
The team had ascended as high as No. 9 in the country, but fell to 17th in the STATS FCS poll after the Mercer loss. The Mocs became the third FCS team to opt out in-season, as Cal Poly also opted out Monday and Indiana State made a similar decision last week.
"If you watch both sides of our team, they enjoy playing," Wright said. "When it was time to go, they did that because I think they respect each other enough and I think they like each other enough to get that done."
The Mocs football players will finish the semester and take a couple of weeks off before returning at the end of May to begin summer workouts. The fall season begins on Sept. 2 with a Thursday night game against Austin Peay, which received 11 votes in the latest media poll.
Contact Gene Henley at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3.