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Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Fans head for cover during a lightning delay at UTC's football game against Mercer on Saturday at Finley Stadium.

The email from a disappointed and disgruntled University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football fan reached my inbox at 7:47 Sunday morning.

After watching UTC coach Rusty Wright rest 21 starters in a 35-28 loss to Mercer on Saturday at Finley Stadium, the fan wrote: "Should the fans who attended the Mocs game yesterday be entitled to a refund? All week long we read that Finley was the place to be and advertising that stated "buy a $9 ticket to see the #9 Mocs". The #9 Mocs (at least the ones who won the first 3 conference games and earned that ranking) never stepped on the field. Would it not have been more honest to say "come out and watch our Spring practice?"

The email continued: "UTC has struggled with building a strong fan base and had the opportunity this Spring to do so without competing for attention with the larger SEC schools. Instead of gaining ground they have lost it, based on what I have seen and heard from the local community. The sentiment of "I never wanted to play in the Spring anyway" reminds me of my 4-year-old grandchild when he doesn't get his way. Disappointing."

Ouch.

Somewhat fair, too.

But is any of this spring football really fair to anyone? Is this really anything more than a battle of dollars versus sense?

If not for the money lost by Football Championship Subdivision programs such as UTC when all or most of the fall schedule was wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic — the Mocs did play a "money" game at Western Kentucky in October for their one outing of 2020 — would any coach or athletic director have even remotely considered attempting to play 19 games in 10 months?

It's insanity. But what isn't these days?

So UTC and its Southern Conference brethren decided to stage an eight-game spring season, then have its champion enter the 16-team FCS spring playoffs.

(Side note: Even that postseason may not be guaranteed because COVID-19 protocols require a site to have more than a week to prepare, and no site wants to take on a playoff game without knowing that its school — UTC in the case of Finley — will be playing there.)

But back to health issues rather than money issues. It's easy to do the math and argue that winning that playoff would not only require playing 12 games if you're in the SoCon — most leagues staged four- or six-game regular seasons — but would also dramatically shorten the recovery time between spring and the traditional fall season.

Said UTC athletic director Mark Wharton on the human price of such a scenario as he defended Wright resting most of his starters against Mercer: "Rusty's stressed and losing sleep over doing what's right for his student-athletes. Neither of us wanted to play eight games this spring, but that's what the league wanted."

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Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / UTC football coach Rusty Wright looks on during Saturday's game against Mercer at Finley Stadium.

Wright is not wrong to worry. Injuries are a certainty in football. Common sense tells us that the more games you play with less recovery time, the more likely injuries are to occur, with some of them serious, such as the lower leg injury to starting center Kyle Miskelley in the March 20 win at Furman.

To that point, it's also not as if Wright didn't warn people as early as his postgame radio remarks after the Furman win that he intended to use a lot of inexperienced players against Mercer. Perhaps channeling his inner retiring Channel 3 weather guru Paul Barys, Rusty said it would be like this, if only we'd listened.

"We need to see if some of these young guys can play," Wright said a few days ago. "We need to see what we've got to get them better at going into the fall, because here's the thing: We could keep doing this (playing the veterans). I could be playing with those guys very easily, but I've got to find out if I can play with some of the younger ones."

Sometimes we hear but don't listen.

Of course, there is also the very real and fair argument to be made about charging $9 a ticket for such a game plan. On Sunday, Wharton said the school probably "broke even" on a contest interrupted more than once by poor weather, which considerably thinned out the announced crowd of 3,144 by game's end.

If those 3,144 decide not to return for the regular-season home finale against Samford on April 10, fearing another watered-down product, the fan meter could be breaking badly for autumn ticket sales. And if that happens, who could blame them?

An idea for a goodwill gesture: Because Wright played substitutes over starters against Mercer, allow any fan with proof a ticket purchase to the Mercer game to substitute it for the Samford game. Two for one, so to speak. It might not help UTC's bank account, but it would surely bank some needed goodwill among those angry about Saturday.

Nevertheless, this spring season had a kind of half-baked feel to it long before Wright turned Saturday into an unofficial dress rehearsal for autumn playing time.

And let's be honest: If the Mocs roll through their SoCon games in the fall, receive a high seed in the FCS playoffs, then win a home game or two thereafter, no one will remember this ever happened.

It's just that if something goes wrong come the fall, this is likely to be brought up every time someone criticizes Wright and the program.

"I'm steadfast in my support of what Rusty wants to do," Wharton said Sunday.

Unless or until Wright is proven wrong for valuing fall football over its inferior spring alternative, that would seem to be a wise choice for Mocs Nation as well.

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Mark Wiedmer

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

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