As famous sports philosopher Yogi Berra once said, it’s déjà vu all over again. Around the middle of December UT Chattanooga head football coach Russ Huesman announced he was leaving the school to assume the head coaching duties at Richmond, where he had been defensive coordinator before taking the top spot with the Mocs. It is with great sadness I write this, but for some reason I saw it coming and reminded me of what I witnesses as a little kid growing up.
By taking the job at Richmond Huesman returns to where he won the FCS national championship as a coach and from what I’ve heard thinks he has a better chance of winning the championship there than in Chattanooga.
Coach Huesman was one of those stories old Hollywood writes about. The coach played his college ball at UTC under Joe Morrison. He leaves under similar circumstances as well.
For the uneducated Joe Morrison was hired by UTC to take over a football program that was mediocre at best – if that. While the university named a practice field and various other sports themed stuff after longtime coach Scrappy Moore, Moore was barely a .500 coach winning only 56 percent of his games as coach of then UC for decades. Occasionally they had a big season and even defeated the Tennessee Volunteers one fateful day in the late ‘50s, but other than that not much to write home about.
Enter Joe Morrison, a recently retired running back for the New York Giants. Morrison had a relatively unspectacular career playing in the NFL, but played many seasons. The NFL of the ‘60s was a lot more different than today. Somehow UTC decided to take a chance on a coach with NFL playing experience (something not common back in the day). While the team struggled the first couple of years they did play SEC (they had money games even back them) tough, losing by a one score margin.
Then all of a sudden things started to gel for the Mocs. They started to win – and win big. The football program when Morrison arrived was pretty much a Division II program. Morrison raised the play and competition of the team. They soon joined the Southern Conference and dominated it from day one.
The UTC Mocs regularly walked over conference teams like Marshall and Appalachian State taking no prisoners.
There was a new pride in the city of Chattanooga as they had a football team not only to be proud of but feared by other colleges. Morrison’s team peaked one year at 9-1-1. The following season they still won the Southern Conference but slipped to 7-3-1. That season was marked by controversy as a number of black players on the Mocs team accused the team of racism. Little can be found about it and Morrison himself died in 1989, but things finally were worked out. Morrison finished his coaching career after posting a 9-2 record winning the Southern Conference outright instead of sharing the title the two previous seasons. Mocs football enthusiasm was at its highest point and then the unexpected happened.
Joe Morrison left UTC following the 1979 season to take the head coaching position at New Mexico and then on to greater things at South Carolina.
I never understood why he left a program like UTC’s that he had built into a regional powerhouse that garnered respect from local SEC big boys for their close games. Morrison’s teams twice came close to upsetting Vanderbilt and Auburn. What was there in New Mexico and why would he go there I thought to myself. This was still in the era where coaching changes were rare unless the coach died or came from a small program to take over a marquee program like Bear Bryant when he left Kentucky for Alabama. But New Mexico? Heck, I didn’t know they had a football team and before cable TV; there was no real way to track a team like that.
But alas Joe left to go out west. More than likely it had to do with finances. Despite UTC being located in an area with a lot of money; Lookout Mountain at one time was ranked as having the most millionaires per capita than anywhere in the country, the school was quite frugal. There are stories when Ron Shumate was building a dynasty in the basketball program that won the Division II championship, he would end up having to wash socks in the bathrooms were he stayed because he was given no budget for recruiting trips. So I’m guessing money was a factor – or sports not important to the university.
UTC hired Auburn assistant Bill Oliver to take over in 1980. And while he maintained the program for a couple of years it was obvious that it was starting to slip. Prior to Huesman the last Southern Conference the team won was in 1984 and the team finished only 6-5. And it was nothing but downhill from there. Buddy Nix was a disaster as the team slipped with each passing season. After Nix Tommy Green took over but left after one season. Then came another Buddy – Buddy Green who helped open Max Finley Stadium in 1997 and coached Terrell Owens during his tenure. That was followed by the Donnie Kirkpatrick era. Kirkpatrick brought one of the most prolific offenses to the school but unfortunately no defense.
After three years at the helm Rodney Allison replaced Kirkpatrick. Allison was a top-notch recruiter and constantly Chattanooga’s signing classes were always ranked in the top five and even one year the number one class. The caveat to this was once Allison got the talent, he did not know what to do with them. The team grew progressively worse until they finally hit double-digit losses in the 2008 season. Allison was a product of one bad hire after another and a feeling of settling instead of looking forward.
Things got so bad at Chattanooga during the Allison era that school official brought up the motion to disband the football program referring to it as an albatross and a noose around the neck of the school’s fiancés. At times the coaching hires for Chattanooga seemed as if officials were grasping at straws and hoping for the best.
Add to that the embarrassment of the FCS national championship game played in December of 2007. While the game featured future Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco in losing effort, the only thing ESPN and other sports outlets could talk about was the condition of the field.
Turfgate was a national embarrassment for Chattanooga as pictures from the game showed large chunks of turf all over the field came loose during the game making footing for the players difficult. It was also during a time Chattanooga was trying to remain home of for the FCS nationals championship game. The turf issue put Chattanooga in a bad light as well as attendance.
Chattanooga is notorious for its lack of attendance for big events until recently. Larger concerts avoid Chattanooga like the plague and locals in order to see big names that still draw road trip to Knoxville, Nashville, Birmingham and Atlanta to catch a show. Notorious for waiting until the day of the show to by tickets there was one story of Rod Stewart literally turning around the plane in mid-air when they were alerted that the morning of his concert in Chattanooga that only 80 percent of the seats had been sold.
Football for the Chattanooga Mocs and Finley Stadium were no different. The Mocs moved from their longtime home on campus at Chamberlain Field to their current location beginning with the 1997 season. The school rarely filled the old stadium that seated 8,000 but were talked into a partnership to move off campus and taxpayers were sold on the new stadium that seated 21,000. Originally it was rumored the new stadium was going to seat 50,000 in hopes of securing major events, none of which game to fruition to date. And while the college team filled the stands for its inaugural game at the stadium, it has never lived up to its potential. And as the football team got worse and worse attendance looked even worse.
Despite winning the hosting rights for the FCS national championship game very few people showed up. I was common for the stadium to be more than two-thirds to three-quarters empty during the ESPN-3 broadcasts. Part of the lack of attendance was most of the time the two teams in the championship were not close to Chattanooga and their teams did not travel well – that and the fact they were FCS teams and not large college programs. A big push one year during renegotiations got the stadium half full and after the 2008 nationals championship the city lost out of keeping the game. Huesman was the defensive coordinator of Richmond that final championship game played in Chattanooga and was named head coach of his alma mater shortly afterward.
With the football program on the line Huesman took over the program in 2009 with its fate resting firmly on his shoulders. For the first time in decades am ad campaign to promote the football team was launched. “Restore the Glory” was the campaign that saw the city get involved to promote attendance to the games relying heavily of Huesman being a former player under Joe Morrison, the last time the program was truly a force to be reckoned.
Things seemed to start falling into place for Huesman. B.J. Coleman who was a Tennessee Vols quarterback decided to transfer back home where he went to McCallie after being unable to win the starting position in Knoxville. That game the Mocs perhaps the best quarterback in the Southern Conference and the team was automatically better. The team was automatically more competitive and stands for the first time were in the people in the stands. While there were no sellouts the stadium was over half full and beyond. And just like Joe Morrison he started to build a dynasty.
Under Huesman the Mocs went from also-rans to conference champs and not only a Top 25 ranking but a Top 5 this past season. Hopes were deservedly high for the Mocs and Huesman – a far cry from when the school was debating whether to scrap the program. However a strange feeling became to cove over me this season.
I began to wonder if Chattanooga would be able to keep him as a coach. The school was notoriously thrifty when it came to its sports teams. They lost Morrison, basketball coach Murray Arnold who put the program on that national map with future NBA players Willie White (Denver Nuggets), Gerald Wilkins (New York Knicks) and Russ Schoene (Philadelphia 76ers), and basketball coach Mack McCarthy who led the school to the Sweet 16 round of the playoffs. The latter rumored because he wanted to be Athletic Director at the school when the position came open and they offered it to Buddy Green instead. Mot recently the school lost women’s basketball coach Wes Moore who created a dynasty at the school in his 15 seasons at the helm winning the conference championship 12 times and is the winningest coach in school and conference play. In his case it was a step up as he is now the women’s basketball coach at NC State.
However more times than not the school has mirrored the attitude of many when it comes to business and money when it came to its coaches. Frugal. Many people in this town and at the university look to get the most bang for their buck with the hopes of not breaking the bank or with the feeling they got off easy. It has backfired more than one time. There was a story about a local concert promoter that tried to lowball an offer to a nationally known Billboard artist. The artist turned down the offer and was insulted by the low offer. The promoter couldn’t find another act of that caliber to fill the slot and called back last minute offering almost double of the original offer. The act was already booked elsewhere. The promoter scrambled and found a lesser-known act that was available. The show was a flop.
At times, especially with the men’s basketball program that has had decades of success dating back to when the school was a small private school prior becoming a state university in 1970. After McCarthy left following a Sweet 16 appearance more than likely prompted by being overlooked for the open AD slot, the school hired his assistant and top recruiter. The problem was he was a great recruiter but only a mediocre coach. Where they were perennial conference champs or co-champs and landing bids to either the NCAA or NIT tournaments they saw neither. He was also the first men’s basketball coach to finish with a losing record (72-73) sine the late ‘50s (Ben Boulware 9-49).
That followed the hiring of hot coaching prospect Jeff Lebo who turned around the program his first season. He left after his second season and instead of looking for another hot prospect or name coach they settled for assistant John Shulman who managed to hang around for close to ten seasons and floundered all while the lady’s program came to national prominence.
And much like the downward spiral that the football program was in for 30 years following Morrison’s departure, I fear the same now that Huesman has packed his bags.
For as long as I’ve lived in Chattanooga the university cried poverty when it comes to its athletic programs. Most schools see their athletic teams as moneymakers for their school instead of a burden. Usually sports are the one rallying point for alumni, which has never seemed to be the case with Chattanooga and I wonder why. Why is there such a disconnect between the school, its sports team and alumni. Even the last couple of seasons when the team was nationally ranked Finley Stadium was half full at best for the homecoming game. The only times I saw people in the stands for Lady Mocs basketball was when the Lady Vols came to town, when they hosted an NCAA tournament game and back in the day when McKenzie Arena hosted the women’s SEC basketball tournament.
This has got to stunt recruiting for guys like Huesman, Jim Foster (the current Lady Mocs basketball coach) and Matt McCall (the current Men’s basketball coach). During the ‘70s and early ‘80s the athletic programs grew at a substantial weight with the football and basketball team dominating the Southern Conference, which they had joined in 1976. Only a few years after both Morrison and Arnold left both program’s dominance in league played started to dwindle. Now the university seems to be getting lapped by smaller schools that have gone on to bigger conferences and better play. Teams Chattanooga used to be regularly in sports like Marshall, Appalachian State and Davidson are no longer Southern Conference members. Chattanooga who was famous for snagging recruits and transfers like Gerald Wilkins lost out of Stephen Curry to Davidson. Other schools joined the Southern Conference after Chattanooga and are now FBS programs like Georgia Southern. Why?
The city of Chattanooga is a much more appealing city to live than most of the schools mentioned. The cost of living and quality of life and the easy access to larger metropolitan cities makes it an ideal location. Granted, back in the ‘80s there was a stigma about Chattanooga being a dirty city with not much to offer but that all changed with the redevelopment that stated in the early ‘90s and continues today. Add to that the fact Chattanooga has one of the fastest Internet in the world has dubbed it Silicon Valley East.
So why has the university’s sports programs been financial losers and why doesn’t anyone seem to care most of the time? There is plenty of blame to go around and excuses to be made. Chattanooga will never have a program on the level of Knoxville or Athens, or at least that is the path the powers that be have chosen. Marketing has a lot to do with it. Very little is done to promote the programs and likewise the programs don’t seem to embrace any media outside of the daily paper and the local TV network affiliates.
And while our culture seems to be turning away from live sporting events except for hardcore fans, dedicated alumni and boosters seeing that everyone has the world at their fingertips on their phones and tablets, maybe Huesman saw the writing on the wall as far as Chattanooga is concerned. That and the fact Richmond offered him triple of what he was being paid this season and as a counter, Chattanooga’s offer was still $100,000 less than his suitors.
I hope the university doesn’t have false pride in believing that Huesman had minimal influence of resurrecting a football program that was on the brink of extinction. The hasty hiring of Tom Arth who was a Division III football coach instead of looking for a more established coach only makes me think they are hoping or have blind faith that the program is too strong to falter – at least right away. And if Arth is a quality coach will Chattanooga become a transient city for coaches instead of a destination. Makes you wonder when Huesman leaves is alma mater not to move up but laterally at best.
Huesman brought pride and vigor and a little swagger to the football program that had been missing for decades. And while many may not think much of his departure hopefully administration will more proactive to the athletic department needs than its history has shown.
– David N. Marks
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