Wednesday, March 19, 1997



















Big Mack Has 'Em Loving the Mocs

McCarthy's Team, in the Sweet 16, May Even Rate Over Barbecue in Chattanooga

By GEORGE DOHRMANN, Times Staff Writer

     CHATTANOOGA, Tenn.--At Bud's Brainerd, a bar hidden along Lee Highway east of downtown and south of Chickamauga Lake, a man named Wally Witkowski is drinking beers as fast as he can.
      A close friend of Mack McCarthy, the basketball coach at Tennessee Chattanooga, Witkowski has some insight into the Mocs, who somehow ended up in the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16.
      Quickly it is learned that Witkowski, holing up at a table in a dark side room at Bud's, doesn't want to talk about basketball.
     "You know Coach Mack and I once polished off eight pounds of ribs, just the two of us," Witkowski said. "It was over at this restaurant called Henry's Skinny Pig. Yep, just the two of us, eight pounds. Over at the Skinny Pig."
     Witkowski has many stories about his friend, but none better than McCarthy's work in progress. The setting: A school and town with an inferiority complex. The stars: A 14th-seeded basketball team and a coach bigger than Utah's round Rick Majerus, but just as lovable. The plot: A magical run in the NCAA tournament that resumes Friday against Providence at Birmingham, Ala.
     "We're so proud," said Witkowski, who has a one-hour radio show on which McCarthy is a frequent guest. "But Coach Mack knows that. Everybody around here loves the Mocs."
     Maybe even more than they love their barbecued ribs.
     Witkowski was not one of the 500 at the airport to greet the team Sunday after Chattanooga returned from Charlotte, N.C., having upset third-seeded Georgia and sixth-seeded Illinois in the Southeast Regional.
     He, apparently, was not the only fan to miss the arrival. Two of them showed up at McCarthy's home.
     "It was after midnight, and I was in the kitchen in my underwear and I hear this knocking on the door, so I put my pants on and answered it," McCarthy said. "Now I'm not going to say [the fans'] names because I think they were sloppy drunk, but they were hugging and kissing me."
     There is much of that these days as the town celebrates more than basketball success. Chattanooga, both the town and the school, whose 8,300 students are now on spring break, feel this is the moment to introduce themselves.
     "Deep down, although no one will admit it, people [in Chattanooga] have an anxiety about Knoxville," said Moc guard Preston Hawkins, who with teammate Isaac Conner attended a Knoxville high school. "[The Volunteers] get so much attention that we are like a second-rate stepchild. But not right now."
     Several aspects of the Mocs' story need to be cleared up before the world spies them again Friday against Providence, beginning with their name.
     Tom Kunesh, a local resident who also has a radio show (as it seems everyone in Chattanooga does), started a fuss last spring by campaigning for the school to change its nickname from the Moccasins and its mascot and logo because of its reference to Native Americans.
     Kunesh pays $300 to rent an hour of radio time on WGOW and kept talking until the school put together a 17-member panel to create a new logo and come up with a new name. Meanwhile, a sports talk show on WGOW began questioning Kunesh's claim that he was Native American after it was discovered he was born in Prague in the Czech Republic.

[kunesh was actually born in St Paul, Minnesota, USA, in 1956; one of his younger sisters is Tribal Attorney for the Mashantucket Pequot; his mother (registered Standing Rock Sioux) and father were both born in St Paul, Minnesota; all of his grandparents were born in the USA; his maternal grandfather (registered Standing Rock Sioux) was born on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.
"Kunesh" is a bohemian name; and kunesh was arrested and interrogated in Benesov, Czechoslovakia, then handcuffed and driven to Prague for further interrogation after having been seen taking photographs of a tank column on his way to the train station in january 1983. He was released after being detained in city without passport for three days. According to the US Naval Security Group which was informed of the arrest and interrogation after the fact, that was kunesh's one and only 'visit' east of the Iron Curtain.
... But did Haskew or Dohrmann or the L.A. Times ever care to ask or bother to check the facts? No.]

     "That guy," said Jerre Haskew, whose show criticized Kunish, "he started a fuss and kept it going when no one else considered the name offensive to Native Americans."
     Said Kunesh, who is a member of Chattanooga's InterTribal Assn.: "They had a white guy dressed up as Chief Moccanooga, doing fake dances. It was disgusting.
     The panel thought hard and came up with "the Mocs," which is what everyone in Chattanooga called the Moccasins anyway.
     "I think the party line is 'Chattanooga Mocs,' " McCarthy said Tuesday. "But I'm not sure. . . . What are we being called today? Just to be safe we'll answer to everything."
     Also, new uniforms were made so only "Chattanooga" was on the front. No Tennessee. It was another step to rid itself of association with the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.
     Another reason the people in these parts don't like Tennessee is because they believe McCarthy is being snubbed by Tennessee Athletic Director Doug Dickey. Dickey has contacted McCarthy about its vacant head coaching position, but McCarthy is not considered a leading candidate. Chattanoogans believe it is not only a knock on their coach, but also on the school and town.
     When McCarthy was in Chicago on Monday filming a show for ESPN, former Volunteer Coach Kevin O'Neil approached him and said, "So, you're the man who's going to get my old job." McCarthy, an assistant at Auburn who recruited Charles Barkley, simply laughed.
     McCarthy says he doesn't believe will get the job, although it is understood around town that the coach will probably leave. Chattanooga wants one of its own to succeed so much, it sticks to the saying: If you love someone, you have to let them go.
     McCarthy makes $90,000 a year, and in January was offered a five-year contract extension and a raise by interim Athletic Director Buddy Green, who is also the football coach. But because the school's chancellor is retiring, and a committee meeting in March has to determine what to pay McCarthy, he cannot sign a contract.
     "Chattanooga has a bit of a complex," McCarthy said. "But we can be a Cincinnati or a Memphis. I don't want them to wish the best for me if that includes me leaving. I want them to know we can have it all right here."
     The Mocs seem to have it all right now, including some basketball history. Sunday was the 20th anniversary of the school's Division II national championship, and 15 years to the day that it defeated North Carolina State for its only other NCAA tournament victory before this year.
     Also, if the Mocs (24-10) can defeat Providence, McCarthy will move ahead of former Maryland coach Burton Shipley as the winningest coach in the 76 years of the Southern Conference. McCarthy's record is 243-121.
     "We have a great program that nobody knows about," McCarthy said. "And that can continue to be a source of motivation for us."
     Orlando Magic guard Gerald Wilkins is the most famous Chattanooga alumnus, but according to scouts at the Charlotte Coliseum last weekend, forward Johnny Taylor may soon take his place.
     The Lakers, Seattle SuperSonics and Milwaukee Bucks all had scouts watching Taylor, who is 6 feet 8 and a projected small forward in the NBA.
     "He's the most talented player we've ever had," McCarthy said. "If he could really shoot the ball, they'd be talking about him as a lottery pick."
     Taylor is typical of the Mocs in that he wasn't a prep standout at Howard High in Chattanooga. McCarthy lured him back home from Indian Hills (Iowa) Community College, and he was the conference's most valuable player this year.
     The team's best players after Taylor, senior guard Willie Young and senior forward Chris Mims, also were junior college finds.
     "We have some talented guys, but people just don't know about us," Taylor said.
     The team also has a few players who are . . . well, what you think of when you think Tennessee Chattanooga.
     Sophomore point guard Wes Moore is 5-10, 160 pounds and walked on to the team last season after graduating from Chattanooga Christian Academy. He started 24 of the Mocs' 27 games as a freshman.
     Monday, a Chattanooga resident called KGOW to brag because Moore pitched a perfect game in sixth grade against a Little League team he was coaching.
     "There are a lot of people talking about us now," Moore said. "I used to come to all the games as a kid, and I dreamed about playing for UTC. But I never dreamed that people would be talking about UTC more than the Vols."
     Said McCarthy: "Wes is a really neat story. He just came in and said 'I want to play Division I basketball.' He just doesn't make mistakes."
     A caller to KGOW Tuesday, after lamenting for several minutes about Providence being a 7 1/2-point favorite, observed that if Chattanooga wins, it will play in the Great Eight Shootout next season. Another gave the exact mileage to Indianapolis, site of the Final Four.
     After McCarthy did a guest spot on the station later Tuesday, the owner of Henry's Skinny Pig and the owner of another Chattanooga barbecue restaurant were waiting for McCarthy outside to present him with ribs and blackberry cobbler.
     The town is excited, to say the least.
     The 1,250 tickets available sold out in about two hours Monday, and the waiting list has almost 5,000 names. All want to see what the first 14th-seeded team since Cleveland State in 1986 to reach the Sweet 16 will do next. If the Mocs defeat the Friars, they'll play the Kansas-Arizona winner.
     "The opportunity to play Kansas, just the opportunity, now that would be amazing," Hawkins said. "Imagine people turning on the TV and seeing Chattanooga versus Kansas. No one could have guessed that."
     McCarthy's not thinking about the Jayhawks, but he is certainly enjoying the Mocs' unlikely run and says he will have even more fun when the team drives to Birmingham today. The city is home to McCarthy's favorite barbecue, a landmark of the south called Dreamland.
     "We're going to play hard and enjoy it," McCarthy said. "And, we're going to be there long enough for one extra visit to Dreamland."


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