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One Chattanooga: Mark Wharton’s Journey To UTC

By Mark Wharton

Deep within the foothills of Appalachia, situated on the banks of the winding Tennessee River, there sits a jewel. The bustling city of Chattanooga, a beacon of culture and commerce at the crossroads of four other great southern cities, its lights spinning like the spokes of a bicycle zigzagging its way down the infinite trails of green and gold which crisscross the city.


I watched this place from afar early in my career. Down the road in Knoxville, I could keep one eye on the giant that slumbered ever so quietly just over the horizon. The University of Tennessee Chattanooga, an institution steeped in a great academic and athletic tradition that ran deeper than the roots of the century old oak and maple trees that inhabit its campus. There was no telling what the Mocs could accomplish or what great potential laid untapped within the program, just waiting to be unleashed.


Perhaps one day my opportunity to lead the program would come. But in the meantime, I focused relentlessly on another mission – to become the most well rounded athletics administrator I could while creating the most value for the institution I worked for at that point in my career.


My journey as an administrator took me across the country, and lead me to learn from the very best leaders the business had to offer. First to James Madison, where I served under the indelible Jeff Bourne and helped build the nation’s premiere FCS athletics program. Then off to the desert and UNLV, where the great tactician Mike Hamrick showed me how to allocate limited resources to maximize impact on the student-athlete experience. East Carolina was next, where Terry Holland taught me how immense organizational success can come from bringing together individuals with different backgrounds and experiences. And finally, the past four years I’ve had the honor to learn under one of the great titans of our industry, Sandy Barbour. It was not until I arrived in Happy Valley that I truly understood why I chose college athletics as a career, and what it really means to serve the student-athlete community.


As faith would have it, the road that has winded its way through my career has now brought me full circle, back to the Volunteer State and right to the doorstep of that great city and university that I only dreamed of leading. An athletics department with more than 350 student-athletes, coaches and administrators has granted me the opportunity to lead the program into a new era.


Indeed, the task is a daunting one. The Mocs have long flirted with greatness, but as the tides of college athletics rapidly changed, sustained success has eluded their grasp. Fortunately, the foundations for prosperity are firmly in place. The department is full of administrators who have been with the program for years. They have been through the ups and downs, and know the challenges that await. With their knowledge and support, I can hit the ground running, knowing they will be there to guide me through the unknown.


Being a first-time athletics director means I will have to learn, and learn quickly. I have spent much of my career in development and external relations, but have worked diligently to study all aspects of the chair. This helped me to appreciate how each role within a department – from the coaches to the groundskeepers to the student-athletes – plays a critical part in the success or failure of a program. I have seen what happens when there is misalignment, communication breaks down and people move toward self-preservation. But I have also seen what happens when an entire organization is on the same page and focused on a singular goal. That is when the magic happens.


I will be faced with many tough decisions in my first few months, and throughout the course of my tenure. The most difficult will be to determine those individuals who are a fit for the culture that we build at UTC. Everyone within the department will be asked to leave their egos at the door. Our institution and our student-athletes are the top priority… and the only priority. We will not bend rules, make sacrifices, nor compromise our values in the pursuit of wins. Our department can and will become a role model for the entire college athletics community when it comes to achieving greatness and doing it the right way.


Of course, with great expectations comes great risks. There’s no denying that there will be times when we fail. But some failure is exactly what an organization needs to become successful over the long term. If there is no failure, then there is no experimentation or growth. And college athletics is filled with examples of programs who have taken the safe route to maintain the “comfortable” status quo. The Chattanooga Mocs will not be among those. We will move daringly, yet competently, into the unknown, equipped with the understanding that our community fully expects us to carry the flag of our city to the rest of the nation.


We will become One Chattanooga. We must do it together, we have no choice.