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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / UTC head coach Rusty Wright claps as his team finishes stretching before their NCAA football game against Tennessee at Neyland Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019 in Knoxville, Tenn.

Rusty Wright isn't just the first-year head football coach of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He also played there and earned a bachelor's degree in sports administration from the school in 1996.

So Saturday afternoon's homecoming game against Western Carolina at Finley Stadium means a little something extra to him.

"Sure it does," he said during Tuesday's media luncheon. "It's an opportunity to see guys I haven't seen in a while. In a way, it's almost surreal. It's where the past meets the present."

Nowhere is that proud past meeting the precious present more surreal than for those who made up the 1969 graduating class, which will celebrate its 50th reunion this weekend. Those grads weren't just about to journey out into an America framed that year by Woodstock, the Vietnam War and Neil Armstrong becoming the first man to walk on the moon.

The 1969 class was also the last group to graduate from the University of Chattanooga rather than the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, as it is now known.

"We actually had the option of our diploma reading UC or UTC," recalled Nubby Napolitano, who helped lead the football Mocs to a 9-1 record in the fall of 1968 and was inducted into the school's sports hall of fame in 1996. "I'm very proud I chose UC, though I also believe that becoming a part of the UT system has helped the school tremendously."

Not everyone felt as strongly about the merger as Napolitano, who grew up in New Jersey but has spent most of his adult life in the Scenic City.

David Bryan played basketball at City High School before starring for the Mocs in the late 1960s. He joined UTC's hall of fame in 1991. A former assistant pastor to Ben Haden at First Presbyterian Church, Bryan is now retired and living in Brevard, North Carolina.

"The greatest and the last," Bryan said with a laugh over the phone when asked about being the last class to earn a "Chattanooga" diploma. "It's just always been an odd phenomenon to me."

Both Bryan and Napolitano will be present this weekend, and both can't wait to catch up with old friends and teammates.

"I've taken time this week to thumb through my yearbook to familiarize myself with a lot of faces," Bryan said. "I see some of them on Facebook. I'm really looking forward to seeing a lot of people I haven't seen in 50 years."

Napolitano feels the same.

"It's really an important time in that it allows us to reconnect with people and influences that changed our lives," he said. "I can't wait."

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Mark Wiedmer

Few former Mocs' lives may have been changed more by UC than Napolitano's. When he first came to the school via a 26-hour Trailways bus ride from New Jersey, thanks to a fierce snowstorm, he previously had flunked out of the University of Delaware.

He'd never been to Chattanooga, and on the day he left home his grandmother asked him, "Do they wear shoes in the South?"

But like so many before and since, he found something so special here he never wanted to leave.

"Ron Wade was a year ahead of me," Napolitano recalled. "He and Bea introduced me to my wife Jill. Years later, their daughter Rachelle introduced our son Jack to his wife Elizabeth. Small world."

Into all of this wades Wright, who admits, "I have a lot of sleepless nights because I want the players who were here before to be proud of the guys who are here now."

Though Bryan mostly returns to his hometown to see his sister Julie, he says he still keeps up with Mocs athletics as much as possible.

"I might not check the scores from every game," said the grandfather of eight, including one who's getting married next month, "but I try to see how they're doing at least once a week. I've always been proud to be a Moc."

It always has been a family atmosphere to Napolitano, who said of his time at the school, as well as today, "I always felt (the University of) Chattanooga was such a family environment, and I think we're still that way today."

According to current UTC quarterback Nick Tiano, the more things have changed, the more they've remained the same.

"When I went to Baylor School, I always felt it was such a community," he said. "Whether you graduated from there in 1960 or 2019, you were part of the family. I feel that same way about UTC."

Or, if you graduated in 1969 or earlier, UC.

Note: Any letterman from any sport wishing to attend the C Club reception in the Mocs Club Hospitality Room on the first floor of McKenzie Arena at 5:30 p.m. Friday is encouraged to make a reservation by noon Thursday by contacting Neil Farrell at neil-farrell@utc.edu or 423-425-5866. There also will be a C Club Tailgate beginning at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Finley Stadium at the entrance near the First Tennessee Pavilion.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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