The Adopt-a-Team Project is one writer’s attempt to become a fan of a college football program and explore the ins and outs of fandom. Last week, he chose the Tennessee-Chattanooga Mocs as his team.
Exactly a week ago, I announced to the world I was a member of Moc Nation, and the reaction has been nothing short of incredible.
There were excited tweets from fans everywhere, including one from Chattanooga head coach Russ Huesman, who was asked about my project from a local TV station. There’s the box of swag coming my way courtesy of the good folks at Chattanooga — I will try to be as transparent as possible when being a journalist will aid my journey — and the countless invitations to come down and see a game in person.
My favorite reactions were those like this one:
It’s something I never considered — I’m a member of a family now.
By Wednesday, my thoughts turned to what was next. I knew the Mocs had a game on Saturday that I’d watch, and that was about it. I came to an important solution: I wasn’t a fan yet. I’m a fan-in-training. It takes time.
I needed some history, context, and guidance, especially from someone I trusted. Someone I grew up with. A father figure of sorts. And that someone was Mr. Belding.
Yeah, that Mr. Belding. I didn’t know it when I chose the Mocs, but Dennis Haskins of Saved by the Bell fame is a Chattanooga native and a die-hard fan. As someone who dreamed of attending Bayside High in my youth, my fandom doubled when I got a tweet and a call from Haskins.
I also asked Mocs fans to point me in the direction of the biggest Chattanooga fan they knew and they all pointed to Erik Gray, a former UTC mascot who heads up the Big Shoe Crew tailgating group. Here’s what they both taught me:
1. That “family” thing I spoke about? Haskins confirmed it.
“You’ll find people who have been in the family a long time,” he told me. “They’ve got fans who have been through thick and thin.”
Gray agreed, informing me his kids have tailgated and gone to games since they were three months old. “It’s hugs, it’s high fives,” he said. “It’s just a good time.”
2. Everything I’ve learned about head coach Russ Huesman is a positive. He’s a former Mocs player who came back to coach his alma mater and sounds like the most down-to-earth bench boss in college football.
Haskins revealed there’s a small group of close friends Huesman meets up with every Monday. The actor said Chattanooga’s draw as a university was its inclusiveness and that Huesman has “that same inclusive mentality.” Oh, and this aforementioned tweet helped:
3. I didn’t look at Chattanooga on a map, but Gray pointed out its proximity to Knoxville (two hours north), Georgia Tech, Florida, Alabama and Auburn. “It’s hometown pride,” he explained, that made for some die-hard fans.
Haskins added further context: “We’re not one of those teams and not trying to be. … Major campuses have millions and millions of dollars. Chattanooga’s pulling this off with a lot less money, but as big a heart as anybody’s got.”
That gave me some pride, knowing I’d chosen a little engine that could (pun sort of intended, there’s a bit of a Chattanooga Choo Choo theme in UTC, including a train whistle blast after touchdowns).
4. Tailgating! I completely forgot that being a fan meant partying before the game. Gray was kind enough to take me through his typical home game Saturday with a schedule and photos from his day. There were Bloody Marys and deep fried french toast. There was the blue and yellow “train” (a jeep, basically, meant to look like an engine) that drove around. There was the “Moc Walk” in which tailgaters arrived at the field two hours before game-time and watched the roster walk into Finley Stadium. I got to live vicariously through the Big Shoe Crew for one day.
5. I thought I’d write about the struggle watch a game from New York City, but all of their contests are streamed online. While watching a 41-21 win over Samford, I saw versatility and balance — quarterback Alejandro Bennifield can throw, pass and occasionally pooch punt with the best of them. The relentless ground attack was led by Derrick Craine (222 yards!) and the defensive line was dangerous when Keionta Davis and Dale Warren (five sacks combined) collapsed the pocket. This team has all the pieces in place to contend for an FCS title. Thrilling!
6. Haskins reminded me that another celebrity is a Mocs fan: Jimmy Fallon, who adopted the Chattanooga hoops team in 2009 when the Mocs made the NCAA Tournament. It turns out Haskins got on Late Night to join Fallon by calling the show and informing them he was a fan:
There’s something about this school, right?
Bonus content I couldn’t help but include: Haskins had a photo of the Mocs’ basketball team behind Mr. Belding’s desk on set, and he made the Saved by the Bell: The New Class writers change his character’s new job as Dean of Students from University of Tennessee to Chattanooga. Now that’s some serious pride.
Where do I stand now? I’m getting to know the current team and overall program well, but I’ve just scratched the surface. It’s time for me to dig deeper — perhaps a trip to the message boards or watching a game with some local alums will do the trick. Stay tuned, and GO MOCS!
Source: USA Today Fan Sports Poll