AD Wharton Sees Bright Future For UTC Sports
Friday, July 30, 2021 - by Joseph Dycus
Mark Wharton predicted a bright future for UTC athletics when he spoke to the downtown Civitan Club on Friday afternoon. He said that with the university’s ability to recruit talent and their assortment of great coaches and staff, the athletic director and vice chancellor said Mocs teams have high standards to meet.
“Compared to our competition in the Southern Conference, we should be winning everything,” Wharton said. “We have fought about raising resources and corporate sponsorships to put our program in the top three of the league financially.
Then it’s up to our coaches to finish in the top three and win a championship every four years.”
Wharton also emphasized how well many student-athletes are doing in the classroom, with 90 UTC athletes making the Academic All-SoCon team. He said the progress made in this department is especially pronounced in football under coach Rusty Wright.
“The last three semesters in football, our football has had over a 3.00 GPA after the high being a 2.75. Rusty makes it a priority and focuses on the kids that need help to get there. He’s very focused on academics.”
After the last year being dominated by COVID, the A.D said the university is encouraging their athletes to be vaccinated, as the NCAA currently says that if 85 percent of the team is vaccinated, then only unvaccinated athletes are required to wear masks. He said that if the NCAA adopts new rules that require both vaccinated and unvaccinated athletes to wear a mask indoors, it may disincentivize vaccination.
“We’ve been pushing student athletes on campus to get to that 85 percent mark, and it looks with the new CDC mandate we might go back from that. I would like to stay away from that, because we’ve told our student athletes that if they get vaccinated, they don’t have to wear a mask indoors.”
One of the Civitan members asked Wharton about his thoughts on the Olympic Games and mental health, and alluded to Simone Biles withdrawing from the games due to her mental health. She asked if that was an issue with collegiate athletes, and Wharton said the university prioritizes mental health and has a mental health specialist for athletes to speak to. He said it was something he learned the importance of at Penn State.
“After a year (at Penn State), student athletes were constantly going to the specialist. I spoke with Chancellor Steve Angle in my second year when we were seeing a lot of mental health issues on campus, and we hired a fulltime mental health professional. He is very busy.”
Back on the athletic side of things, Wharton said that sustaining the expected level of success is going to be critical. He said that like many FCS schools, their coaches and staff have been appoached by larger schools whenever UTC begins to have success. He stressed the advantages of coaching at a school like Chattanooga, while also remaining realistic about UTC’s chain in the college sports pecking order.
“(Men’s basketball coach) Lamont (Paris) has had a lot of opportunities as an assistant or coach at a power five school to make more money. He loves it here and we talk all the time about the culture we have. Going to a power five school, it’s win or you’re done. Coming here, it’s a rare place where he had four years to build his program.”
“He sees that and Lamont knows he’s going to have opportunities at the power five level. I’ve told him that I’ll be at his house helping him pack. Until then, we’ve taken care of him and made sure he has what he needs to be successful.”
Wharton said that getting the athletic department, be it coaches or players, involved in the Chattanooga and campus community is critical. He said he believes athletes have done a good job of being visible around campus and can often be seen around the University Center with other students.
“I think it comes down to our coaches and players doing stuff in the community. One of the things I talked about in my interview was the involvement of student athletes in the campus community. I think Rusty, Katie (Burrows), and Lamont do a good job of showing up to campus events and being a part of the community.”
In the end, Wharton said that getting people out to games and events will be of the highest importance. He said he expects there to be a great crowd for the football opener against Austin Peay, and that this could snowball into increased attendance throughout the year.
“I think you will see more people at games. We’re playing the first game on Thursday night, and that’s usually a game people come to. Austin Peay is 18th in the country and we’re 20th, so people are seeing ranked football. Hopefully we win big and people will want to come to the next game, and the next game after that, and the next game. Hopefully it’s a domino effect.”
When asked about how fans and alumni can support the university, Wharton had a simple answer.
“Buy tickets, buy apparel, and be a Mocs Club member. That’s the best way people can help the university. This could be a special and historic year for men’s basketball and football, and we could wind up getting some national exposure.”