Because the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's football season kicks off 155 days from today at Central Michigan, a sports writer decided to ask a couple of the mighty Mocs a far more timely question following Monday's spring practice. Something along the lines of ... "So how's your NCAA tournament bracket?"
"I didn't fill one out," said junior defensive lineman Josh Freeman. "But if I had, I'd be in trouble because I'm a big Duke basketball fan. I wasn't happy when Mercer beat Duke."
Added junior quarterback Jacob Huesman: "One word: Busted. The Mocs are really the only team I follow during the regular season, which could be why my bracket's so messed up. But I did like Dayton beating Ohio State and Harvard over Cincinnati."
Said Jacob's father, Russ, who's also UTC's sixth-year head coach (and where, oh, where did those first five seasons go?): "I didn't fill one out this time. But I'm so happy for [Tennessee coach] Cuonzo Martin after all he's had to go through. What's that Toby Keith song? 'How Do You Like Me Now?' I just love the way they're playing. They're just vicious out there."
Vicious is one way to describe the end of the Mocs' postseason dreams last November, UTC falling at Samford in overtime when what would have been a tying field goal hit the upright and bounced away. A week later came the numbing news: UTC was the last team left out of the FCS playoffs.
"We all remember [FCS] Selection Sunday, not having our names called," Freeman said. "It stung. And I wouldn't say it's gone. The only way to erase that emptiness is to win [the Southern Conference] outright this year."
Young Huesman echoed those sentiments.
"You're supposed to put it behind you the next day," Jacob said. "But it took a little longer than that. I really took it personal. I overthrew Taharin [Tyson] in the end zone. If I hit that pass, we win the game."
But the pass was inches wide, kind of like the kick. So the Mocs have had the winter to stew, and study what went wrong, and start anew to reach the playoffs for the first time since 1984.
"I really like our energy and enthusiasm," Freeman said after UTC's fifth spring workout. "The young guys are eager to learn. Everybody is focused on getting better."
Said Jacob: "We're more confident, especially on the offensive side of the ball. It's just nice being back out there with the guys, back there with the coaches."
The head coach also enjoys being back out there with his team without the pressure of game preparation.
"I'm always excited this time of year," Russ Huesman said. "You're not focused on a game, just player development."
Nor does he intend to spend much time dwelling on what might have been a season ago.
"The only thing I said was that what we did last season wasn't good enough," the coach noted. "Let's do a little more this year. Even if it's just picking a piece of trash off the locker-room floor, let's be better players and better people. Let's be champions in everything we do."
Within the Huesman home, Papa Huesman said it looks like his daughter Emily may become the family's bracket champion against son Levi.
As for Jacob, he contented himself with needling 10-year-old Levi throughout Sunday's Kentucky-Wichita State game, which UK's eighth-seeded Wildcats ultimately won against the Midwest top-seed Shockers.
"My little brother was an adamant Wichita State fan," Jacob said with a grin, "so I had to trash-talk him bad throughout that game. Fortunately, Kentucky won or he'd have been all over me."
Those same verbal wars are sure to surface anew nationwide through this weekend as the Sweet 16 swiftly shrinks to a final four.
But Russ Huesman being a football coach, he couldn't help but view the chiseled, 6-foot-8 Wichita State star Cleanthony Early from a slightly different perspective than most folks.
"What an athlete Early is," he said of the senior who scored 31 points against UK. "I just kept thinking, 'What a wideout he could be.'"
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...