Mark Wharton has officially become a Chattanoogan. Now that he’s one of us, perhaps his impossible job as UTC’s new athletics director might become a little bit easier.
Wharton, named vice chancellor and director of athletics after a lengthy search at the end of August, has not spent the ensuing two months merely house hunting. Given the daunting task of helping the school’s nearly destitute athletic program fund the most basic of needs, he is making sure he knows exactly what those needs are – the better to impart that knowledge to potential donors.
“I’ve been very aggressive trying to balance the time getting to know our coaches and learning their needs and meeting with the civic leaders of Chattanooga – the city, not the school,” Wharton said during a break in moving wife Angela and their four kids into his family’s new Signal Mountain home last week. “The reception I’ve gotten was better than I anticipated.”
While the university has been part of the fabric of Chattanooga since 1886, the discouraging reality is that the city’s most affluent athletic boosters have cast their heart – and, more importantly, their money – to the SEC school 100 miles up I-75. On any given weekend, Tennessee orange overwhelms those wearing Mocs’ blue and gold.
What made Wharton uniquely qualified to take the UTC job is that he spent the last four years trying to convince Penn State’s boosters and alumni that their school was not the most notorious institution since Arkham Asylum. Hired in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal, one of the many hats he wore in State College was that of oversight of the 23,000-member Nittany Lion Club, which meant he had a staff of 23 men and women whose job it was to keep the money coming.
And for a time, there was a fear of being associated with the school, a fear that dissipated during Wharton’s watch. The numbers quoted in Wharton’s press release show he helped procure $38 million in cash and support.
Compared to athletic programs like Penn State, Chattanooga’s is a virtual third-world country relating to needs versus donations.
“Our coaches do a tremendous job with limited resources,” Wharton explains. “Fund-raising is part of a coach’s job, but they shouldn’t have to do it to survive. … But I don’t see a disconnect with the community; a lot of Chattanoogans are not aware of our needs. In fact, I’m not sure we’ve ever done a good job of informing Chattanooga about what we actually do need.”
And to the uninformed, those needs might be a little alarming.
“Our scholarships in many in minor sports are not fully funded,” Wharton explains. “Women’s soccer, for one example, have only half of their scholarships funded. Wrestling is not fully funded. Cross country scholarships are not fully funded.
“Several of our sports don’t have a full complement of assistant coaches,” he continues. “And tuition costs don’t stay the same. As tuition goes up, the cost of funding scholarships goes up.”
But in the two months since he accepted the athletics director job, Wharton has been able to get a good grasp of the landscape that is Chattanooga boosterism.
“I understand that many football fans in Chattanooga go to Knoxville. I know that a lot of UTC alumni wear orange on weekends. I get it,” he said. “We’re not going to change the way they feel.
“What I would like is that the local booster reach out to both programs. If you give $5,000 to Knoxville, then $500 to us,” Wharton said. “You’d be amazed at what we could do with $500.”
Wharton’s most recent conversations have actually been about facilities. On the front burner: improvements to Finley Stadium, which just enjoyed its fifth consecutive fiscal year with a surplus. Not nearly the priority is a decision about the decaying Engel Stadium property.
“Finley Stadium, for our level of play, is the best stadium in the Southern Conference,” Wharton declares. “But it’s not perfect. We met with (the Finley Stadium board) and talked about enhancements, about modernizing. I have nothing negative to say about the operations of Finley.”
On the other hand, there has been little talk lately about utilizing the Engel Stadium property, including the future of Engel Stadium itself. The absence of baseball in the UTC athletic program is not something Wharton is thrilled about, as he spent four summers working in the front office of the Kinston Indians.
“There haven’t been any conversations in recent days,” Wharton said. “If $25 million would fall from the sky, we could do some things there.”
Future discussions figure to center on putting a regulation track facility on the property. Wharton revealed that it is part of a “five-year plan” that he hopes to implement. Meanwhile, expect him to be “very visible in the community.
A facility that will be opening soon is the school’s state-of-the-art tennis facility, which figures to have its ribbon cutting in January. One part of the school’s athletic program requires no improvement, however: Chattanooga itself.
“There’s no reason that UTC can’t be the preeminent program in the conference,” Wharton said. “Every coach I’ve talked to said that the city is their best recruiting inducement they have. They tell me, if they can get a recruit on campus, then they’ve got him or her wrapped up.”
Don’t expect Wharton to make any changes in the athletic department, where two of the senior associate athletics directors, Scott Altizer and Laura Herron, have served lengthy terms as interim athletic director during the searches for Wharton and his predecessor, David Blackburn.
“The staff here has been phenomenal,” Wharton explains. “Our administrative support staff people are very good at what they do. You can’t find better people. Any changes that are made will be through attrition only.”
Solving the QB dilemma
Following the disastrous home loss to Western Carolina, in which UTC lost both of its veteran quarterbacks, the question moving forward in this troubled 2017 season would be which of the quarterbacks that saw action against Western Carolina – Alejandro Bennifield (concussion), Nick Tiano (shoulder) or Dominic Caldwell (debut) – would see action against Furman and moving forward.
The answer: none of the above.
Instead, coach Tom Arth reluctantly removed the redshirt from true freshman Cole Copeland from nearby Bradley Central.
The 6-3 Copeland, whose style is much more compatible with Arth’s pro-set offense than the immobile Tiano, got most of the first-team snaps leading up to the Furman game and threw for over 300 yards and a pair of touchdowns in his debut.
But Copeland also threw four interceptions, two in the frantic final minutes.
Still, Arth saw enough to stay with his freshman against Mercer on the road. Running the football more and better, the Mocs only needed Copeland to throw for just over 200 yards and a pair of touchdowns. In the latter game, his only pick came in the game’s final moments.
“It’s a must-win type of scenario,” Arth explained following the 1-6 Mocs’ loss at Mercer. “In order to do right by the older guys and everybody in the program – and what we believe personally – you’ve got to put the best guy out there with the intention of doing a great job and getting a win.”
Arth says he called Copeland’s father before removing Cole’s redshirt.
Committing to UTC last October, Copeland went on to throw for 2,517 yards and 23 touchdowns against only three interceptions for the Bears. For his career, Copeland threw for 7,296 yards and 67 touchdowns in three seasons.
Big and mobile, he has already turned busted plays into big gainers. “It’s tough,” says Copeland, who admitted he was hard on himself. “We’ve got our backs to the wall, and we’ve got to build on it and get better each week.”
Another home game against The Citadel is next up Saturday, followed by road games at Samford and Wofford as Copeland undergoes an education while under the gun.