When the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga recently announced the school's men's track and field team had the nation's highest team grade point average for the second year in a row, every Mocs fan's first thought might understandably be: Let's go for a three-peat.
You can't three-peat without a team, which is what UTC no longer has when it comes to men's track, thanks to the administration's decision to cut the sport last winter over financial and Title IX considerations.
"At least we're going to go out on top," Mocs track coach Bill Gautier said. "How many people can say that?"
Not near as many people as should stand in front of UTC chancellor Steven Angle's office and shout at the top of their lungs: "This stinks!"
Especially since the women's track team that Gautier also coaches finished second nationally in GPA, trailing only Nashville's Lipscomb University. For all the talk about the importance of college athletes being student-athletes, when the college track team that best exemplifies the definition of student finds itself dismantled, something's wrong.facebook
Terribly, terribly wrong.
"Let's just say you could win the NCAA track and field championship or the NCAA academic championship," noted Gautier. "Which would take you further in life?"
The track team that no longer exists — should we call them the UTC Nots? — should go quite far in the real world. Graduated senior Patrick O'Brien — a Collegedale Academy product who had one of the men's team's four perfect 4.0 GPAs — is on his way to Yale for graduate school in physics and biochemistry. Nashville native Austin Casassa, another 4.0-er, is going to redshirt in cross country this year, then return to the team next season while working toward his master's degree in industrial organization psychology.
"It was really rough when we knew we wouldn't have a team after this year," said Casassa from his family's home in Nashville. "But we all know academics is what this team is about. Coach stresses that from the first moment he recruits you. We were just focusing on our futures."
Paul Stuart is spending his summer focusing on his future as an accountant by interning at the Nashville firm of Rayburn Fitzgerald. A rising senior at UTC, he plans to run cross country this fall and compete in invitational track meets this spring as an individual, since the Mocs will no longer field a men's team.
"I've experienced anger and frustration (over the program being dropped)," Stuart said. "But I'm excited to keep going. What's happened has happened. There's nothing we can do now. We just have to focus on what's in front of us."
Among all of Gautier's coaching gifts, this may be his most important. Whatever his personal feelings about the axing of the men's track program, he wants his athletes, both male and female, to focus on the future rather than the past.
"The one thing he preaches to us more than any other," said Stuart, "is for us to realize that athletics is a short part of our lives, but academics impacts our whole life."
Two points must be made here.
No. 1: Gautier isn't asked to coach in front of thousands of fans each time his athletes compete. As even he'll admit, it's much easier to demand high academic success in non-revenue sports. If Mocs Nation was as concerned about the track team winning as the football or men's basketball teams, Gautier might be tempted to sacrifice academics for athletics at least once in a while to win a few games.
No. 2: Angle and UTC athletic director David Blackburn had nothing to do with the financial and Title IX mess that is the school's athletic department. That falls at the feet of too many past chancellors and ADs who wrongly believed that the school's endlessly dire financial numbers would cause the Department of Education to have pity on their shortcomings when it came to gender equity.
Still, the chief mission of any school is to turn out bright, thoughtful, determined graduates capable of making the world a better place. And for more more than two decades, with next to no money, no UTC coach has done that better than Gautier.
When your men's GPA has bested the likes of Harvard two years running, when your women have produced two straight top-10 GPA finishes, you don't deserve to have one of those sports cut. If anything, you deserve a raise and an increased budget.
And regarding the GPAs posted by Gautier's female athletes, none other than men's high achiever Stuart noted, "It's harder to get to the top in the girls competition, because so many of them are so strong academically."
Gautier will be the first to tell you he's far from the only reason his teams are so strong academically.
"Our professors have been amazing," he said. "Rhonda Reynolds and the academic support staff have been incredible. And our athletes and their families get it. I tell them from day one that we're not here to babysit them. They have to be willing to do the work."
Gautier's work gets harder now when it comes to winning, because he'll no longer have men's track to accumulate points at meets.
"It's like trying to play golf without a putter and a driver," he said.
But that doesn't mean he's ready to move on.
"I've learned," he said, "that this is a battle I cannot win."
Not that he should have had to try. Instead, the men's track team should be focusing on a GPA three-peat.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com.