Photo by Logan Stapleton
By Parris Clarke, Assistant Sports Editor-
The Chattanooga Mocs football team, and the Southern Conference at large, have been chugging along now for four weeks.
For UTC, it signals a faint light at the end of the tunnel that the COVID-19 pandemic might be reaching its waning stages and the end to a traumatic decision-making cycle.
On August 13, when UTC athletic director Mark Wharton announced the cancellation of the fall football season it came with daunting implications, both financially and otherwise.
In the spring and summer, the university had preplanned for cancellations like this to arise. Wharton had directed all athletics to only schedule events within 150 miles in order to avoid overnight stays and hotel costs.
Cuts like these were made with the anticipation of playing football in the fall, but once the NCAA unveiled its testing protocol UTC couldn’t plot a roadmap to get on the field.
“It’s $100 a test,” Wharton said. “Then it evolved into making decisions with the conference if we were going to play sports. The NCAA came out with the mandatory testing that you have to test three times a week and have a negative test 72 hours before competition. We just started putting it in the calculator and we couldn’t do it. It resulted in playing in the spring.”
The idea of a spring season came to fruition and is in full swing. However, it has ushered in its own versions of cuts and sacrifices for administrators and student-athletes to deal with.
UTC still plans to play football in the fall. That means two seasons will be completed in one calendar year — an unprecedented milestone. Logistically, this has shaken up the normal order of things.
Spring football has put the coaching staff in a bind. This time is typically used for program building. It’s a time for coaches to take a step back and assess where their team is truly at heading into the next season. An incredibly difficult endeavor has become impossible, as head coach Rusty Wright is now tasked with evaluating his team within a season.
The effects of this have already been borne out. Former offensive line coach, Chris Malone, was fired back in January for offensive tweets disparaging former Georgia gubernatorial candidate, Stacy Abrams. Wright elected to continue the spring season without hiring a new line coach. Wright said he thought it would have been unfair to both the players and a new coach if he would have rushed in a hire.
From the players’ perspective, traditionally, the football off-season is nine months. Under this new format, it’s compressed down to five. That speeds up the schedules for student-athletes exponentially. A regular off-season consists of taking time off to rest the body, slowly ramping back up with conditioning and lifting weights, then finally jumping back into full-padded practice. Squeezing all of this into a five-month period is risky, to say the least.
If players are in good physical shape, five months should be ample time to recover. UTC obviously wants to protect players at all costs, but it’s players mental health that has been of utmost importance.
“[Our] hope is on the 17th, when we play ETSU, win the game, and then give those guys off until the end of June. We’re just trying to get those guys’ minds out of the grind and then when they jump into the grind we ease them into it,” Wharton said.
When you couple these factors along with the lacking financial incentives for the spring season — only 25 percent spectator capacity during two home games this year — the question becomes inevitable: Why play in the spring at all?
Wharton said that his intention was to only play a small number of games this spring so student-athletes could still get out on the field while also preserving their bodies.
“Rusty and I led the league on, in reality, if we’re going to play let’s play a couple … That was a lot of conversation with the league, some heated some not, and we got voted down,” Wharton said.
Out of commitment to the Southern Conference, UTC followed through with a full spring season, in which they now sit at 2-0 and are one of the two undefeated teams left standing.
Thanks to their stellar start, the Mocs have a real chance at running the table and going 7-0. If they accomplish this, they will have earned a playoff berth and should have a home-field advantage in the playoffs. But due to scheduling conflicts that “should” has become meaningless.
If UTC was to earn home-field advantage in the playoffs it would be all for naught. Finley Stadium booked a 13-day, professional soccer tournament for April 13-25 — right in the middle of the FCS playoffs. This prohibits UTC from hosting any playoff games if they were to make it that far.
Through the sacrifices, some silver linings have highlighted UTC’s return to play experience.
During a time where much of the world has faced financial uncertainty, UTC has been able to find ways to refine its processes and accelerate its fundraising successes.
“We’ve had great success, shockingly, raising money. Usually, you sit down with people face-to-face and find out what they like. Ultimately, it’s a process to get people to give money. We’ve set all kinds of fundraising records to allow us to continue some continuity with our student-athletes,” Wharton said.
Record-setting fundraising might just be a factor of donors answering the call when an institution they love is in need, but reinventing the way things are done has been central to UTC’s vision over the past year.
Toward’s the beginning of the pandemic a group of administrators met three times a week to discuss new information that had developed and to make decisions accordingly. It’s through pressure like this that staff members began to bond.
“It also brought our staff closer together we talked to our coaches every week, talk to them about where we’re going, what we’re doing, and how we’re doing,” Wharton said. “I think we turned around and looked and saw that, as a campus, we have some pretty exceptional people that you kind of took for granted before all of this.”
As the pandemic inches closer to an end, UTC hopes for a safe completion of the spring football season and a return to normalcy in the fall. Although, for now, they’re going to have to focus on the short term.
The No. 11 ranked Mocs take on No. 13 Furman this weekend, in what is shaping up to be the most exciting matchup of the season thus far.