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Big Mack Has 'Em Loving the Mocs : McCarthy's Team, in the Sweet 16, May Even Rate Over Barbecue in Chattanooga

March 19, 1997|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."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday March 21, 1997 Southland Edition Sports Part C Page 16 Sports Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
NCAA basketball--Tom Kunesh, who campaigned successfully to change the Tennessee Chattanooga mascot because it was considered demeaning to Native Americans, was born in Minnesota. His birthplace was incorrect in The Times on Wednesday.

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.

"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.

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