ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
Staff file photo by C.B. Schmelter / Although he's not happy about missing out on spring practices, UTC football coach Rusty Wright is trying to make the best of an unexpected break from his duties with the Mocs.

Finally having a chance to take down the outside Christmas lights. Cleaning out closets. And the garage. Sharing dinners at home for at least a few weeks with his wife and daughter, something that hasn't happened in years, if not decades.

"It's been great," said University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football coach Rusty Wright of his forced sabbatical from coaching the Mocs due to the suspension of athletics because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I've learned to be thankful for times like this. Just having (daughter) Maddie here at home for a week or two. Just sitting down and talking and eating dinner together every night. You forget how much you've missed those things."

But what if he still hasn't coached a football game by the time it's time to put the Christmas lights back up? What if this novel coronavirus stubbornly refuses to recede enough for the Mocs and other college football teams to play come September or October?

Wright paused for a moment Saturday evening as he grilled steaks for himself, wife Kelley and their daughter Maddie, home for a few weeks from Belmont University, where the former Boyd Buchanan standout was a senior basketball player this past season.

"If we go a year without football," he said, "it could get real interesting."

None other than ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit floated just such a scenario on Friday.

Said Herbstreit, who lives in Nashville and whose sons have starred for Montgomery Bell Academy in recent years: "I'll be shocked if we have NFL football this fall, if we have college football. I'll be so surprised if that happens."

No college football on a Southern autumn Saturday? Down hee-uh where passions for Big State U run hot eight days a week, 13 months a year? Where college football shares space on a pedestal that includes nothing else but God, motherhood and sweet tea, though football's place in that formidable foursome is open to debate?

Or as a Tuscaloosa, Alabama, minister once told former Crimson Tide coach Bill Curry's wife when she commented that football was like a religion in T-town: "Oh, no. It's way more important than that."

some text
Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / UTC football coach Rusty Wright smiles as he greets running back Jeffrey Wood II (6) after the Mocs' 24-10 victory over Eastern Illinois on Aug. 28, 2919, at Finley Stadium.

Yet if a remedy for COVID-19 isn't found by August — not a vaccine necessarily, but at least some form of medicine to make it go away in each individual, kind of like Tamiflu where the flu is concerned — how could anyone allow crowds to fill stadiums for a football game, or any other event that encourages mass gatherings of people of all ages and health levels?

And without the crowds — which buy the tickets, which funds these eight- and nine-figure athletic budgets at the Southeastern Conference level — can you really play these games? Actually, can you play the games in front of nobody, given the close quarters that all these young men would be in?

Forget the crowds. Think about the players. Is their health any less important than the spectators?

"You're hearing all kinds of stuff," Wright said. "I'm not worried right now. If we get to June and July (with the coronavirus still around), we may consider playing conference games only. But I think we'll play some kind of season."

But until we all know more about the future than we do today, Wright sounds a lot like the rest of those suddenly homebound for the first time in their lives.

"I'm not much of a TV person, but I have caught up on 'Ozark,'" he said of the Netflix drama, "at least somewhat because it's shot on Lake Allatoona outside of Atlanta and I recognize a lot of places in the show.

"I'm really more of a movie guy, so my wife and I watched 'Green Book' the other day and I watched 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' this week. I like biographical-type movies, and they took some liberties with that one, but it was still really good."

He has also watched highlights of the 1977 World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Yankees, who won with Reggie Jackson as MVP.

"Good stuff," proclaimed Wright.

some text
Staff file photo by Robin Rudd / The possibility of not having a college football season in 2020 is not something UTC coach Rusty Wright is worried about right now.

But however much he has enjoyed this extended break from his dream job, he is also eager to get back to work full-time.

"I'm concerned about our football team not having a spring to work on fundamental stuff," he said. "We didn't really have one last spring (because of the flooding of Scrappy Moore Field). Now this. I might just cancel spring next year. The most disappointing thing from a coaching standpoint is that you can't make up this time."

Yet he also knows it's so much better than it might have been had this happened decades ago.

"Our students can go to class online," he said. "I communicate with my coaches through text messages every Saturday night and Sunday morning. Just making sure all our players are passing their classes. We're very fortunate that we live in this age where we're all so connected by technology. Can you imagined if this had happened at a time when we were still using rotary telephones?"

He then answered his own question.

"The world," Wright said, "would come to a grinding halt."

Some would say we're coming close to that already. And until we find a way to bring COVID-19 to a grinding halt, it's likely to remain that way, even to the point of possibly canceling football come the fall.

some text
Mark Wiedmer

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

 

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT