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Staff file photo by Erin O. Smith / UTC's Mark Wharton has been like college athletic directors everywhere this year in facing unprecedented challenges when it comes to finances, scheduling and other matters during the COVID-19 pandemic.

University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletic director Mark Wharton may or may not be able to keep the school's fall sports calendar from being canceled this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

That's mostly out of his hands. But unless our new normal — the wearing of masks, the generous usage of hand sanitizer, social distancing at six feet — is tossed aside by health officials as not being rigid enough between now and Aug. 25, Wharton will oversee the rescheduled 21st Annual Porky's Open golf tournament presented by BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee that Tuesday at Council Fire.

"The Porky's Open is important to us financially," Wharton said Friday. "But right now, it's also important to see some of our fans again and do something together."

Most people aren't doing much together these days, and those who do are being strongly urged to follow CDC guidelines designed to protect them from COVID-19. In that sense, the Porky's Open — which has raised well more than $1 million over the years to fund student-athlete scholarships at UTC — will have its own adjustments this time around.

For instance, golf carts will come with dividers. The event will be allowed to have a maximum of 100 people, including volunteer staff, which means foursomes will be limited. There will be no open bar or silent auction. Boxed food will be placed in the golf carts prior to participants arriving. Drinks will be served from a beverage cart by a volunteer wearing gloves. Winners will be announced via email by 5 p.m. on the day of the event rather than in person.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly for those grown accustomed to teeing it up on a spring afternoon at Council Fire, this year's event will begin with registration at 8 a.m. and a shotgun start an hour later.

It may not be perfect, and limiting the field means less money raised in registration fees, but as the school's news release stated, "The modified version of the Porky's Open allows the tournament to preserve its value and continue to raise the resources our student-athletes need to have a championship-level experience."

To that end, $10,000 of this year's proceeds will go toward the Frank Kinser Porky's Open Endowed Scholarship, which honors "Porky" Kinser, who started this tournament in 2000, when the winner received two big baskets of tomatoes and the runner-up one.

Anyone interested in playing in the tournament or becoming a sponsor should contact JJ Eftink at jude-eftink@utc.edu or 423-425-5273. Registration is also available at gomocs.com.

For Wharton, just having the tournament in any form hopefully helps in what's already been a terrible year for the program financially due to the cancellation of all spring sports and the growing uncertainty that there will be a college football season come fall.

"Anticipated revenue and donations are down. Then you see all these leagues canceling fall sports. Just today, the CAA canceled all fall sports, which was something of a surprise, Wharton said of Friday's decision by the Colonial Athletic Association, one of the most powerful leagues in the Football Championship Subdivision.

"So there's some anxiety," Wharton added. "But the Southern Conference has continued to move forward, at least for now."

Like its more powerful Football Bowl Subdivision counterpart, the Southeastern Conference, the SoCon, which UTC joined in 1976, has a long, rich football history that extends well beyond the actual games to a vibrant tailgating experience and social event for the community.

Football is the focal point of autumn Saturdays in almost every college town throughout the South, and while several leagues besides the CAA, including the Ivy League, have already chosen to eliminate their fall sports, it's somewhat understandable for conferences such as the SEC and SoCon to hold on to hope that a full season, or close to a full season, can still be played.

Vitally important for UTC is attempting to open on Sept. 3, as currently scheduled, at FBS member Western Kentucky, a road trip that carries a $350,000 payday for the Mocs.

"We spoke to Western this week, and they still want to play," Wharton said. "We've even given them an alternate date we could play the game on Oct. 23, if they feel like September is too early because of the coronavirus. We certainly want to play if we can."

Of course, that alternate date is available because the Hilltoppers' game with Indiana was canceled because the Big Ten — along with fellow Power Five conference the Pac-12 — has decided to play only league games this year.

"That stunned me a little bit ...," Wharton said. "But we've had so much work to do, planning for so many different scenarios, that we really haven't had much time to think about everybody else."

Those scenarios are out there, however, and most of them are certain to make a bad financial situation worse for all of college athletics.

"We have to prepare for that," Wharton said. "Mostly, I just worry about our student-athletes. Which is why now, more than ever, we need our sponsors, sponsors like BlueCross BlueShield, which has been so great to us, to stay with us."

Having the Porky's won't solve all those problems. But in times like these, it will certainly help ease the pain.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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