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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / UTC football coach Rusty Wright speaks with officials before the start of this past Saturday's game at Western Kentucky.

When what could have been one of the biggest victories in recent University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football history has just been stolen from you by inept officials, when your one-game season could have become the first undefeated season in school history, you'd expect the head coach to be besieged with phone calls from frustrated fans for days on end.

And second-year Mocs coach Rusty Wright's cell phone has blown up since UTC's gut-wrenching, 13-10 loss at Western Kentucky on Saturday afternoon. Having the game-winning touchdown on a magical kickoff return by Bryce Nunnelly wrongly reversed due to a phantom fair-catch call against another player will do that to a fan base.

Just don't expect Wright to focus much on that in light of everything else that happened to the program behind the scenes between Saturday morning and Sunday morning.

"To be honest, from the time that game ended Saturday afternoon, football has been the last thing on my mind," said Wright on Monday morning. "We've all been dealing with much more important things than football."

It started before the Mocs boarded the team bus from the hotel in Bowling Green, Kentucky, to go to the game. One of UTC's players had been notified earlier in the day that a family member had passed away and his father came to take him home prior to kickoff.

Then came Sunday morning, after the team returned. Another player's family had already booked a flight for him to fly out of Chattanooga at that time to attend the funeral of a relative. But between the moment of that notification and 9 a.m. Sunday, a family member far closer to the player was killed in a car crash. It now fell to Wright to notify the player and get him on the plane.

"There's nothing quite like having to give that news to a player at 9 in the morning," he said. "We all lost a game, but he lost something so much more important."

Priorities. Perspective. Reflection.

Eight months of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic have brought what should always matter most to all of us into far sharper focus. The game of football may still pay the bills for all other sports at both the high school and college level; it may still provide an all-but-necessary momentary reprieve from all else that troubles us these days, especially here in the South, but it's still a game and only a game. Life and death are just that: Life and death.

UTC is more than fortunate to have a coach who knows and embraces the difference.

This doesn't mean that Wright hasn't thought about the waving off of that touchdown from Nunnelly or the promise his Football Championship Subdivision team showed throughout against a larger, better financed Football Bowl Subdivision foe.

"I couldn't be more proud of our group of guys," he said, echoing numerous texts he received from UTC fans after the game. "If we can keep this group together, we're on the right path."

That path leads directly to a spring season of eight Southern Conference games that will likely send multiple teams into the FCS playoffs where, hopefully, they'll see no more calls as wretched as the one that took away the kickoff return because an official wrongly believed he'd seen someone other than Nunnelly signal a fair catch.

"It happens," Wright said with a great deal of diplomacy. "It's like someone saying something's red and you think it's maroon. They had a right to interpret it that way."

He also said he never mentioned it to his team.

What he did mention on Monday was the uniform change, which had the Mocs donning white helmets with the word "Nooga" in dark blue script on one side and the player's jersey number on the other.

"It's a one-time thing," said Wright of the helmets. "We haven't abandoned the Power C or anything. In fact, the players wore blue gloves with the Power C on them. We just thought the helmets would be something fun to do for this game and the kids seemed to really like it."

And had the Mocs won on Saturday, might the "Nooga" helmets have remained?

"I'm not saying you'll never see them again, but the Power C is who we are. We'll go back to the Power C next game."

After Saturday's game, Mocs fans everywhere are surely excited for that next game to arrive against VMI at Finley Stadium on February 20.

Until then, Wright said UTC supporters should be proud of one thing above all others: "We've got a lot of good kids who are all trying to do the right thing."

Perhaps that's because their head coach almost always says and, more importantly, does the right thing, especially when his players need him the most.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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