By Alan Denton
CHATTANOOGA, TN (UTC/The Loop) —The turf gleams in the setting sunlight as UTC football players suit up for yet another practice.
An air horn sounds.
Practice begins, sending a once quiet field into chaos. “Time to punch!” offensive line coach Russ Ehrenfeld screams. The whistle blows, prompting the machines painted in blue and gold to begin hitting. The whistle blows again. Machines pause, desperately sucking in air as if its in limited supply.
“C’mon! Body language! Let’s go!” another coach orders.
It’s just another spring practice. Games aren’t won or lost here. Six months separate this team from the opportunity to win.
They aren’t won in the classroom either. But they are taken away. The Mocs weren’t eligible for the 2009 postseason because of past Academic Progress Report scores. “It was pretty hard to know that,” sophomore defensive lineman Nick Craig said. “Looking at the conference standings knowing that it wouldn’t even matter, it was a tough pill to swallow.”
Coming off a season in 2008 when the Mocs were 1-11, not many people believed they had a shot at the playoffs anyway. People expected more gratification from Nicholas Cage movies than they did from UTC football.
“There were such low expectations from the outside,” head coach Russ Huesman said. “For us to get to the playoffs with those expectations, probably nobody even thought we would have a chance. I think our kids kinda refocused on goals, on game-by-game goals. Let’s play good this week. Let’s get better next week. Let’s try to get better as the season goes on. And then it got to a point where now let’s win six. Let’s have a winning season. And I think that carrot was out there and really helped our guys to stay focused. Now, I think if we weren’t eligible this season I think it would have affected us a lot more because I think our players are expecting more from themselves, their teammates and coaching staff.”
The Mocs finished 6-5 in Huesman’s first season in 2009, tying for the biggest turnaround in school history. Just as dramatically, 36 Mocs made the Athletic Director’s Honor Roll for having a 3.0 or higher grade-point-average during the fall semester, 21 made the Dean’s List with a 3.2 gpa, and a school-record ten made the Academic All-Socon team in 2009, more than double the previous high of four in the 2007 season.
“We just said listen, if you want to go to the playoffs,” Huesman said, “if you guys want to get where we want to get, everybody will carry their weight academically and get the job done. We put that pressure on them. I think as a coaching staff, our emphasis on academics helped, knowing it wasn’t just lip service, but we meant business. And we disciplined when something wasn’t right academically.”
Different plans have been implemented—by Huesman and the athletic department— to improve grades. Freshmen and upperclassmen whose grade point averages were below a certain point are required to attend study hall five days a week. If players missed more than one day of class and were caught, their complimentary tickets were taken away.
The Mocs’ improvement was enough to become eligible for the 2010 postseason, recording a 900 APR score for the entire 2009-2010 academic year; however, they are still subject to scholarship and practice time penalties based on their historical performance in the APR. “We implemented an aggressive APR improvement plan that is working,” athletic director Rick Hart said in a UTC press release. “Our football student-athletes did an excellent job in the fall semester, and coach Huesman and his staff are challenging them to continue that same comprehensive excellence in the spring.”
Their goals are the same though. The team had “Winning a National Championship” posted on their list of goals last year. Impossible. There was a better chance O.J. would be proven innocent the first go-around. Wait…he was. It’s a goal to work toward. Now, this dream is possible. It’s tangible.
Six months separate this team from its chance to win. “There are two big things that are motivating our team during the offseason, and that is one of them,” Huesman said. “In winter workouts, when they are lifting weights, every time they show up for spring practice and throughout the summer, knowing that they can now win a championship and go to the playoffs is huge. The other thing is having Appalachian State the first game of the year.”
One more rep, or an extra sprint, seem to have more bearing this year. Players aren’t finding it as hard to be motivated knowing they have a chance to win the SoCon and the national championship. “I like to say I haven’t done anything different just because I would like to think I’m a better football player than that,” Craig said, cracking a sly smile as if he’s about to tell a dirty joke in church, “but with saying that, I’ve been working a little harder out here.”
That’s exactly what Coach Huesman requires of his players. Hitting a plateau after one successful year cannot be an option. “If our work ethic and our mentality and our approach to preparing for a season is the same as last year,” Huesman said, “then we won’t win as many football games next year. There’s no chance. And I’m trying to instill that in them. I’m trying to make them believe that. I think they are buying into that, but we’ll see.”
A new day may be dawning in UTC football. An opportunity to recapture what once was a solid program. The type of program Russ Huesman was involved in his first time here, as a player. Until that day, it’s “Time to Punch!”