Former UT-Chattanooga men’s basketball coach Mack McCarthy and current UTC women’s coach Shawn Poppie missed sharing McKenzie Arena by 26 years. Mack’s storied career with the Mocs ended in 1997. Shawn’s began this current school year.
But both men were scheduled to fly to Dallas, Texas, today for the exact same reason: To watch the Virginia Tech women’s basketball team attempt to win its first NCAA championship in its first-ever Final Four.
Not that they’re both going only as fans.
McCarthy’s official role when the Hokies take the court this Friday night against LSU in a 7 p.m. semifinal _ the winner will face the South Carolina-Iowa winner in Sunday’s title game _ is to provide color commentary for the program’s radio network. This will be his 18th Hokies game this season as an analyst on television and radio combined.
“It’s pretty cool,” said McCarthy, a Virginia Tech alum who who now calls Blacksburg, Va., home with his wife Jean. “The girls are super nice, Kenny’s (VT coach Kenny Brooks) been a good friend for forever and I think a lot of Hokies are going to make the trip.”
As for Poppie, he was an assistant at VT for Hokies head coach Kenny Brooks before coming to UTC.
“That’s family,” said Poppie on Tuesday, whose Mocs lost to that family in the first round of this year’s tournament, as Twilight Zone a moment for all concerned as would be possible.
“I helped recruit a lot of those girls.That’s really where my own family became a family. There were a few tears of joy when they beat Ohio State Monday night. I was probably texting Kenny before the final horn sounded.”
It just might be the best coaching story in women’s college basketball this year. After losing at Duke on January 26 _ a game McCarthy worked for radio _ the Hokies started a winning streak that has now reached 15 games.
“Kenny’s brilliant on the offensive end,” Mack said. “And they’re pretty good on defense, too. But I think one of the things that sets him apart is how positive he is. He’s just so positive about everything, and not only in public, but with his players in general.”
Added Poppie, “Nobody’s better at turning your strengths into weaknesses than Kenny. Ohio State was tearing people up with their press in this tournament. UConn turned it over 25 times. After Virginia Tech scored four straight times against it, Ohio State dropped the press. They pressed seven total times the whole game and lost by 10.”
Poppie’s joy in that victory caused at least one problem in his own home Monday night, where he and Regina’s baby boy Cameron is all of 11 days old today (Wednesday).
“I got in a little bit of trouble for screaming at the TV,” Shawn said. “Cam was born at 5:36 p.m. on Saturday, March 18. We took the court against Virginia Tech at 5:36 on Friday, March 17, in the NCAA Tournament. It’s been a crazy couple of weeks.”
Poppie understandably says of that 58-33 loss to the Hokies that brought an abrupt end to the Mocs’ storybook season in his first year on the job, “It was an emotional 40 minutes. Competing against kids you’ve had a strong relationship with for years isn’t easy.”
Not easy, perhaps, but not all that unpredictable given the selection committee’s strange sense of humor sometimes in the pairings.
“We were watching the Selection Show,” said Poppie, “and we’d kind of figured that we might be a No. 16 seed and that Kenny’s team might be a No. 1. When we kept getting further into the brackets and our name hadn’t come up, Kenny texted me, ‘Is this really going to happen?’ Sure enough, as soon as their name came up, ours was right under them.”
Awkward? Yes. But from a potentially uncomfortable moment has come a wonderful side story. It seems that all season the Virginia Tech women have followed Poppie’s Mocs and as the tournament has continued, the Mocs have become big fans of the Hokies, even to the point of numerous UTC players texting Poppie at the end of the Ohio State game, “Can you believe this, we’re going to the Final Four!”
Even as happy as he was that night _ “I couldn’t keep it in,” said Poppie _ he didn’t feel right leaving Regina alone with their three sons, the youngest less than two weeks old.
“But she was amazing,” Shawn said. “Almost as soon as the game ended, she said, ‘So when are you booking your ticket?’”
McCarthy says all you need to know to understand what makes this team so appealing is to check out the podcast of Hokies players Georgia Amoore and Elizabeth Kitley. Called the Queens of Cassell (Coliseum), “it’s 100 percent likable,” according to Mack.
One glimpse as to why he might say this: On the week after they won the ACC Tournament, Kitley and Amoore, who’s from Australia, both wore their ACC tourney title hats.
Briefly removing hers for a moment to show the “VT” logo on the back of the cap, Amoore then looked into the camera and said, “I’m wearing this until I wear a bald patch around the rim of my head. It’s going to rub my hairline off. I’m never taking it off.”
The Queens of Cassell might be 1,000 percent likeable.
McCarthy being McCarthy, the nation’s foremost authority on premiere barbecue spots, he’s already chosen Sweet Georgia Brown’s soul food BBQ joint in Dallas for he and Poppie to eat at least one meal.
“If Mack likes it, it has to be good,” said Poppie.
Then he said something every Chattanooga Moc fan should look for on Friday night when the Hokies face the Bayou Bengals.
“I’m going to wear a Hokies T-shirt over my UTC clothes during their game,” he said. “Then I’ll take it off. But I’ve got to wear it during the game.”
Just look at it as Poppie’s way of supporting his extended family.
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To contact Mark Wiedmer, email email@example.com