John Hooper is one of HERO Sports' FCS Campus Correspondents, and he resides in the Greenville-Spartanburg area of South Carolina. He's a longtime Southern Conference "expert" and tracks the league for HERO Sports. You can follow John on Twitter @SoConJohn.
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Though there is a Coca-Cola bottling company located in the heart of downtown Chattanooga, it’s clear the ‘Choice’ of the Mocs is more in line with the Pepsi slogan, as Rusty Wright became the Mocs' 'Choice' for head coach on Dec. 21, 2019
Wright was taking over a Chattanooga football program in good standing, but one that needed someone who understood the dynamics of — and the brand of — Chattanooga football, which the previous staff had struggled with Scenic City. The program won only nine games the previous two seasons. Wright is in fact very familiar with the Chattanooga tradition, as both a former player from 1992–95, and then serving as the Mocs’ linebackers coach and special teams coordinator from 2013–16 as a part of former coach Russ Huesman’s staff.
He also understands the dynamics of transition, having played for three different head coaches during his time with the Mocs–Buddy Nix, Tommy West and Buddy Green. Wright will be more understanding to the adjustment period each Mocs player might have, as he is the third different Mocs coach in a four-year span. The program decided to go after someone who understood the area, the recruiting, and someone who had poured blood, sweat and tears for the Mocs as a player, so Wright was the right choice to replace Tom Arth.
"This place [Chattanooga] has given me so much in my career, and coming back here is a way I could give back to a place I care so much about," Wright told HERO Sports. "Chattanooga’s grown as a city in the last 15 or 20 years, but it’s still a small southern town and even though we have a lot more people living in the area, we still treat them like our neighbor and it still has that small southern town feel to it and you get to know folks when go downtown or you’re going out to eat you run into people you know. I think it’s important to be visible to those folks so that they understand that being here is important to you."
Wright was a part of that amazing three-year coaching stint for the Blue and Gold, which saw the Mocs finish with three conference titles from 2013-15, while also earning three FCS playoff bids. He was able to inherit a program still on good footing after a couple of somewhat challenging couple of seasons. The Mocs were 6-5 in 2018, but are 4-3 going into this weekend's key SoCon matchup at Wofford. Both teams are undefeated in league play.
The Mocs had the second most challenging non-conference schedule in the FCS against Tennessee, James Madison and Jacksonville State. The Mocs opened the season with a win over the OVC's Eastern Illinois.
While Wright takes over a program looking to get back to the form it was in SoCon that it was four years ago, it is light years better than when his former boss Russ Huesman took over a Chattanooga program. That transition could best be compared to a dilapidated mansion back in the mid 2000s.
Following a historic run to a national title by Richmond in 2008, it was time for the defensive coordinator of a unit called the “Stonewall Defense” to try his hand as a head coach and return to his alma mater. Russ Huesman returned to his alma mater to take over a Chattanooga football program that had been in the doldrums of Southern Conference football. The doldrums were a very real place for the once-proud Mocs program following a 2008 season, which saw the Mocs post 1-11 record.
During the final three years of Rodney Allison’s reign at Chattanooga, the Mocs posted a 5-28 record, including just a 4-18 record in Southern Conference play. There’s no doubt Huesman would have quite the rebuilding project on his hands when he took over the reins of the program in 2009. But Chattanooga was a program that always could win, despite the fact that it had been 25 years since its last Southern Conference regular-season title. By the time Huesman left Chattanooga, he had the program on stable footing, posting a 59-37 record in eight years, including three-straight SoCon titles from 2013-15, and three FCS playoff appearances (2014-16).
The Mocs have not let the program get too far away from its successes following Arth’s sudden departure last December. Wright assembled one of the better coaching staffs in the SoCon, which includes former South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward. Wright entered the 2019 campaign with 15 returning starters, and his mode of operation in his short time has been instilling a blue-collar work ethic in the Scenic City. One of the biggest elements of the Wright-led Chattanooga football program is doing things the right way, and doing them with an honest appreciation of a day’s work accomplished, which he learned at a very young age from his father. He wants that to filter down to his players in their own work ethic and lives, and be present in everything that they put their mind and hard work into accomplishing
"Off the field, my hero and mentor was always my dad," Wright said. "The thing about that is he worked hard all his life and seeing him go to work everyday and that’s the thing we try to instill in these guys is you strap up everyday and you put in a day’s work and you go about doing it the right way and it doesn’t matter what the situations are or the circumstances are around you, you’ve got to go to work."
The circumstances are that it has been a tough road so far for the Mocs, but hard work and challenges faced will certainly pay off for Wright’s Mocs in the long run. After all, the talent is in place to have a successful finish in Southern Conference play.[divider]
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