The sheer joy on Rusty Wright’s face was evident. Or maybe it was more of a sense of relief. Regardless, either emotion was certainly understandable. Finally, the selection overlords of the Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs confirmed what Wright knew in his soul to be true all along.
When the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga was chosen Sunday afternoon as one of the at-large playoff teams, the fifth-year coach didn’t receive the news surrounded by his team. Past disappointments on Selection Sunday led Wright to insulate his troops from another potential punch to the gut.
Instead, he hunkered down with his staff, hopeful that the Mocs’ overall body of work would merit consideration.
“I’ve been in that room when we haven’t been picked,” Wright said. “So, we didn’t bring the team together. That’s pretty tough afterwards when you’re sitting there thinking you’ve made it. I’ve been in there on TV when we didn’t get picked. That’s a tough afternoon. It was just me and the coaches in there, but the players all knew. They were watching.”
This decision to protect his team above all else speaks volumes of Wright’s concern for the young men under his charge. He is a throwback to the days when football coaches were hard-nosed but fair. He bleeds blue and gold having lettered four years at UTC and serving as an assistant here on two different occasions before landing his dream job in 2019.
With No. 16 UTC (7-4 overall, 5-3 in the Southern Conference) headed to Clarksville this Saturday at 3 EST to take on No. 12 Austin Peay (9-2, 6-0 in the United Athletic Conference), there’s a sense of vindication that helps ease the pain of previous playoff snubs.
The Mocs seemed destined for the playoffs last year before dropping three of their last four SoCon contests. A pair of conference losses by a combined seven points ended the 2021 campaign, resulting in another missed opportunity.
In spite of the disappointments and near misses, Wright never made excuses. He just kept his head down leading the program forward, which made the Mocs’ return to the playoffs this year for the first time since 2016 all-the-more satisfying.
“We’ve had some long off-seasons falling short these past couple of years,” Wright said. “We’ve got the right kind of kids here now and the right kind of people in the building where it’s important to them to not only be good at football, but being good students as well.”
A pair of heartbreaking home losses could have derailed UTC’s hopes this year, but Wright continued to steady the ship. The Mocs fell to Western Carolina, 52-50, on a last-play field goal, then dominated second-ranked Furman two weeks ago only to lose in the final two minutes, 17-14, with an automatic bid hanging in the balance.
“We needed this as a program,” Wright said. “We needed to be back (in the playoffs) so our young guys will understand this is what it takes to get there, and this is what it’s like when you get there. Hopefully we can build on this. We didn’t start off as well as we wanted to, but for those kids and those coaches to work like we worked for 10 straight weeks and then to lose Ailym Ford, Jay Gibson and Reuben Lowery along the way is just a testament to the character of our guys.”
Wright understands the opportunity now before his team. He never made it to postseason as a player, but he was part of former UTC coach Russ Huesman’s staff that won in the FCS playoffs three straight years from 2014-16 before being eliminated by the top-ranked team each time – twice by five points and once in overtime.
“As a former UTC player, it’s awesome,” Wright said. “Having an opportunity to lead these guys is something I don’t take lightly. I pour everything I’ve got into it every day. But to take these guys to the playoffs and know that we’re one of 24 remaining is pretty incredible. It’s nice to reset. Everybody starts over at 0-0 and you never know from there. If we take care of things like we’re supposed to, we’re in a good spot.”
Should UTC manage to get past the Governors, a trip to Furman for a rematch awaits the Mocs on December 2nd. But for now, Wright is simply relishing the opportunity to prepare his squad for postseason football.
After processing the loss to Alabama last Saturday on the bus trip back from Tuscaloosa, Wright allowed his thoughts to shift to the playoff possibilities around midnight. In his mind, he knew his Mocs deserved a shot.
“I think our consistency stood out,” Wright said. “We were always in every football game. It wasn’t like we got beat by 20 like some other teams did. The biggest thing was that we were consistent and won six league games compared to other teams that might not have had a winning record in their league. We have an opportunity to do something here that hasn’t happened around here in a while.”
It also serves as a testament to the unwavering leadership of Wright. Never doubt his passion and devotion to UTC. He lives and dies with this program, and his steady hand at the helm has finally been validated with a playoff berth.
In this age of tempestuous coaches who yearn for a large presence on social media, Wright serves as the antithesis of that. He’s all about his players and his alma mater. And he doesn’t apologize for that. That’s why If I had a son wanting to play college football, Wright would be the kind of coach I would want helping mold him into manhood.
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Paul Payne can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org