Wiedmer: Legends idea UTC's best yet

Wiedmer: Legends idea UTC's best yet

January 30th, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports

Back in town for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's Legends Weekend, former Mocs basketball coach Mack McCarthy's face became a wee bit painful.

"It hurts from grinning so much," McCarthy said in the wake of the Mocs' 85-76 over Elon inside McKenzie Arena on Saturday night.

"But it's a good kind of hurt. I bet I've seen 50 people I haven't had a chance to see since I left here [in the summer of 1997]. It's really great to be back."

More than 50 coaches, players, trainers and managers from UTC's storied history came back to honor the Mocs' past, present and future success.

It spanned the gamut from Herman Welch, who graduated in 1950, to McCarthy's 1997 Sweet Sixteeners Marquis Collier, Isaac Conner, David Phillips and Chris Mims.

There was Moses Payne, the Mocs point guard in the winter of 1959 who never even played in Maclellan Gym -- UTC's basketball home before McKenzie.

"We played in a building at Vine and Palmetto that doesn't exist anymore," Payne recalled.

There was arguably the most famous Moc of them all, the 1969 walk-on Dennis Haskins who later made his mark as Mr. Belding on "Saved by the Bell."

Said Haskins of his time on the end of UTC's bench: "I was hamburger [in practice] for guys like Tom Losh."

Said Welch as he watched a video show recalling the best moments of UTC's past: "Look at those shorts we used to wear. They look like Marilyn Monroe shorts."

Losh and Shane Neal deserve most of the credit for this reunion and got much help from the athletic department's Andrew Horton.

Their hard work and organizing skills were appreciated by all the legends, especially former coaches Murray Arnold and McCarthy, who shared the loudest ovations from the crowd of 4,451.

"This is the way to do it," said Arnold, who guided the Mocs to both their first NCAA tournament (1981) and first tourney win the following spring. "You see schools honor one team all the time. But this is a good enough situation, a special enough history, that all these players and teams should be recognized in a unified fashion."

Said McCarthy, whose later coaching stops at Virginia Commonwealth and East Carolina prevented his return to previous reunion weekends: "These things can sometimes be too formal or too casual. But UTC struck just the right mix. This has been just perfect."

Current UTC coach John Shulman was concerned he'd leave it less than perfect if the Mocs lost.

"Talk about pressure," he said after the Mocs' ninth Southern Conference win in 11 contests. "All we're trying to do is uphold what all these people started."

Added point guard Keegan Bell, who met many of the Legends during a Friday evening reception: "Oh, it's definitely fun meeting all these people you've heard about and read about, the guys who hold all the records. Hopefully, we'll be legends one day and be able to come back and talk about our time here."

Their time now is spent as parents and grandparents, retirees and those climbing the corporate ladder.

Holding his 2-year-old son Cyrus, Nashville attorney Isaac Conner laments his lack of time for recreational basketball.

"Children kind of change everything," he smiled.

Then there was Arnold's most successful point guard, Nick Morken, who now sells tent to the military. A former college coach, Morken said of his career change, "The first day I worked, the clock struck 5 p.m. and I didn't know what to do. I kind of like it. If I was still coaching, I couldn't have come to this."

They came from everywhere. Russ Schoene rolled in from the Left Coast, as did Oliver Morton, whose 50 points against Pikeville in 2001 remains a school record for single-game scoring.

Just in case you're wondering what the Big O's been doing since leaving UTC, he's played basketball abroad everywhere from Ecuador to England, acted on the big screen in "Glory Road" and "Even Money" and sneaked in a little TV work on "Lincoln Heights" and "Life."

"If you saw 'Glory Road,'" Morton said, "I was the big kid from Kansas that Texas Western was recruiting."

Somewhere down the road, UTC should use the following line from former point guard Edsel Brooks in recruiting. Said Brooks, who teaches at Hixson Junior High: "Here they say how great you were, even if you weren't great."

But they were all great on Legends weekend, which the school intends to stage again next year for the Lady Mocs, then come back the following winter with a giant joint reunion for both the men and women.

"The only bad part about all this," said LeVert Threats, class of 1992, "is that you don't realize until you're gone how special it all was."

At least until you come back as a legend to experience it all again.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.