Wiedmer: Former Moc from 1997 Sweet 16 team returns 19 years later to graduate

Wiedmer: Former Moc from 1997 Sweet 16 team returns 19 years later to graduate

May 9th, 2016 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Mark Wiedmer

Mark Wiedmer

Photo by Staff File Photo/Times Free Press

Officially, Mother's Day was still close to a dozen hours away when Joyce Young watched her oldest son Willie receive his criminal justice degree from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on Saturday.

Not that the date mattered. Not for a second.

"This is the best Mother's Day gift a mother could have," she said later that evening. "No matter how long it took, just the fact that he came back to get it can't help but touch your heart."

It took 19 years. Not that Willie Young ever intended not to graduate from UTC in spring 1997, the most magical spring in Mocs basketball history. After all, he'd already been the first member of his family to enter college. He saw no way he wouldn't be the first one to receive a diploma as well.

And he only needed four more courses to earn his degree. He was so close. It might take as long as the summer and fall, but certainly no more than that. He'd be a college grad by December '97 at the latest.

Then life happened. Quickly. A professional basketball team in the Netherlands called, hoping the smooth and savvy combo guard, the second-leading scorer on that Sweet 16 team, could help it win a championship. Naturally, he did just that, with more than a little help from former Mocs teammate Chris Mims.

Then other teams called. Contracts were signed. Ten years passed, with Young adding stamps from Belgium, Germany (twice), Israel and Russia to his passport.

Then came coaching gigs across the pond. A pretty woman, Veronica Frankman, entered his life, eventually to become his fiancée. Now it was late summer 2015, and that graduation dream was a dusty 18 years old and at least another year from possibly being realized.

"I was supposed to go to Europe to coach again," Young said. "I decided to talk to UTC before I went back. I wanted to see just how long it would take to graduate. A lot's changed since 1997. Some of the courses I thought I would need don't even exist today."

The school mapped out a strategy. If he could give them two semesters, they'd hand him his diploma.

"I want to coach college ball here in the States," he said. "I couldn't do that without a degree."

The star of that Sweet 16 team, Johnny Taylor, took a similar circuitous path to his degree, finally graduating in 2014. That hard work recently earned him a spot as director of player development on former UTC coach Will Wade's staff at Virginia Commonwealth University.

In fact, it would not be startling to see former Mocs point guard Casey Long (another VCU assistant), Taylor and Young all wind up together at UTC one day. At least all of them now owning degrees makes it possible.

"Johnny and I talk often," Young said. "The first couple of years, we all stayed in contact religiously. We're all still close. Me and Johnny and Chris, Marquis Collier, all of us. And every time we (talk), a lot of memories come back, all the stories come back."

As Young began coaching, the memories of former UTC coach Mack McCarthy's tough love also came back — both the coach's high demands and the high rewards for meeting those demands.

"Coach Mack was hard on us, but we won," Young said. "I realized at some point that if you could play for him, you could play for anyone. And he didn't just coach basketball. He taught us about life, as well."

He has even integrated some of McCarthy's coaching techniques into his European League stops.

"We'll practice at 6 a.m.," Young said, "just like we did at UTC."

All that time away from the classroom did cost him at least one bragging point in the family. Though sister Aqwanda is six years younger than 42-year-old Willie, she long ago graduated from Old Dominion to become the first in the family with a degree.

However, younger brother Toot — who also played for the Mocs — hasn't yet finished his degree, which brings hope to Joyce and Willie's father (also named Willie) that Toot will eventually follow in his older brother's footsteps.

"I know Toot wants to graduate," Joyce said less than 15 hours before the whole Young clan planned to gather at the Hamilton Place Red Lobster to properly celebrate Mother's Day. "I hope this will encourage him to do it."

Like most parents, as happy as Joyce was Saturday, she still had other requests of her oldest son.

"My daughter's given me a grandchild," she said. "Now I'd like see Willie get married and give me some more grandchildren. But I'm so proud of all my children. They're all a mother could ask for."

As he looks ahead to a possible college coaching career, Young says he'll never downplay the 19 years he waited to earn his degree following his final college game as a player.

"It took too long," he said. "And I'll tell (the players) that. It's very important to make them realize that a degree is something you really need.

"But I can also tell them it's never too late to graduate. Just look at me."

Or listen to the pride in his mother's voice.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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