It wasn't so much a marketing strategy for the program as it was an honest way of connecting with the type of players the coaches wanted to bring in. As the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football staff began identifying the combination of standards for talent, academics and character in the players they would recruit, those coaches repeatedly used the word "family" when speaking with prospects.
From early conversations in school hallways to dinner discussions inside each player's home and their on-campus visits, a level of trust had to be established in a short time. And with a rising number of teenagers who are in single-parent homes, Mocs coaches often found themselves recruiting not only the players but also their mothers.
"I'm sure it's the same at every program in the country, at every level," UTC head coach Russ Huesman said. "There are more kids living in single-parent homes now -- that's just the way it is -- and there is a difference in recruiting those kids and how you recruit a player who has both parents together.
"The first thing you have to do is make sure that mom feels good about sending her son here for four years. Single moms are not worried about whether her son will play in a BCS bowl or a playoff game. She wants someone she trusts to look after her son."
That's why UTC coaches made sure that besides showing off last season's Southern Conference championship hardware, they also invested time to create a family atmosphere during recruiting visits and connect on a personal level with the mothers, who often have the most influence in where a player decides to sign.
Huesman even tweeted "Welcome to the family" after each player signed his national letter of intent last Wednesday, officially making them part of the program.
UTC's recruiting efforts landed the nation's top-rated signing class among FCS programs last week. Of the Mocs' 19 signees, 11 come from single-parent homes. Two others live in homes with a mother who has remarried.
"You absolutely have to recruit the mom as much as the player when you're dealing with a single-parent kid," Mocs defensive line coach Marcus West explained. "To a single mom that's not just their son, that's their everything, so you better recognize there's a lot more emotional tie there. You don't have to be a dad, but you do have to let her know you're a good role model and make her feel good about who she's leaving her son with, because that's her baby.
"When you recruit a kid who has both parents, the dad usually wants to talk about ball and playing time and what position his son will play. When it's just the mom, she wants to get to know you as a person, and all she cares about is you giving your word that you will take care of her son."
West added that in his five years on UTC's staff, only two of the 12 players he has got to sign came from homes with both parents together.
McKinley Irvin, one of the nation's top divorce and family law firms, recently published an online article using some sobering figures from the U.S. Census Bureau and National Center for Health Statistics. According to that report, 43 percent of the nation's children are being raised without their fathers in their lives, and 75 percent of all divorced children live with their mother.
Additionally, more than 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce, and of that total, three of every 10 kids live with a divorced parent whose annual income is below the poverty line.
All of which leaves single mothers looking for positive male role models and opportunities for their children to better themselves.
Greeneville (Tenn.) all-state athlete Trevor Wright was part of the Mocs' heralded signing class last week, and one of the players raised in a single-parent home. He admitted that he and his mother, Teresa, have struggled to make ends meet and that the personal relationship they built with UTC's staff played a bigger role in his decision than the promise of early playing time at other programs.
"It's been tough at times just to get by," Wright said. "I know how much time my mom spent working so I could have things and even just to have food on the table sometimes. Earning a scholarship is a huge deal for us. I had put in a lot of hard work and feel blessed and thankful to have this chance, because now all the pressure is off my mom. We wouldn't have had money for me to go to school otherwise.
"Because it's been just me and my mom for a real long time, we're very close, so her opinion and advice were important when I made my decision where to sign."
A two-way player who's talented enough to have UTC coaches debating over whether he'll play receiver or defensive back, Wright and his mother also are part of the majority of signees and their parents who cited "family atmosphere" as the biggest reason for choosing UTC.
"He made the final decision on his own, but it did help that I told him how comfortable I was talking to UTC coaches," said Teresa Wright, who works full-time as a customer service rep at Greeneville Power but has worked a second and even sometimes a third job on the side to help with expenses in raising her son on her own.
"The UTC coaches seemed to understand how close we are and really gave me the impression that they would take care of him, watch out for him. When it was just me and the coaches, I told them, 'You better take care of him.' They knew I wasn't joking, and all of them seem like good men, and that's what counted with me."
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6293.
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 23 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including nine in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers in the nation at the Associated ...
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