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With the 19th Porky's Open set to begin at Council Fire on Tuesday afternoon, Frank Kinser, the event's founder, looked around at the 136 golfers about to tee off and thought back to the first one.

"We had 72 golfers," he recalled. "And that was the only year the proceeds weren't designated for UTC athletic scholarships. The winners each got a peck basket of tomatoes. Runners-up got a peck basket of cantaloupes, and the third-place finishers each took home a watermelon. We've changed a lot since then."

It's all changed enough that the 17 tourneys before this latest one have raised more than $1.5 million for University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletic scholarships for both men and women.

How important is that to a true mid-major such as UTC, which is constantly scrapping for every penny it can find?

Now in her 11th season as women's golf coach, Colette Murray has, for most of that time, "been going to a gunfight with a knife."

That's because Murray has never had the six scholarships that most of her opponents have. She's had four and a half, sometimes five, but never six.

That is until now, with the considerable help of the money raised through the Porky's Open.

"Now we can bring a pistol to that fight," she said with a smile. "This money, it's a game-changer."

To have been on the job only eight months, almost no UTC administrator has been more of a game-changer than first-year athletic director Mark Wharton. Though previous administrators also deserve credit, the long-needed Wolford Family Athletics Center — named for Mocs football All-American Bucky Wolford, who died last Sept. 1 — will be built under Wharton's watch.

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Though generating far less fanfare, the Mocs will also be the first program in the Southern Conference to have its student-athletes wear GPS monitoring vests, which will record their heart rates while practicing, the quality of sleep they're getting and many other tests to help coaches and trainers stay on top of their players' health.

"We bought 25 of them at $1,000 each," Wharton said. "We'll get input on our players' conditioning so much quicker than in the past. It's also a recruiting tool."

And where did that money come from?

"We've started the One Chattanooga Fund," Wharton said. "I recognized early on that our athletic budget doesn't cover things that pop up unexpectedly. The goal was to find 20 people who would pledge $50,000 each over a five-year period. So far we've found 12. If we can find 20, we'll have an extra $200,000 a year."

It is a huge job and Wharton's done it so well to date that the athletic department has exceeded last year's fundraising total with three months to go in this fiscal year.

That good work has earned him a one-year contract extension and the following praise from school chancellor Dr. Steven Angle in a prepared statement: "I am excited about the direction of our athletics program under the leadership of Mark Wharton. It is important to me to keep talented individuals at UTC and we look forward to Mark and his family's continued involvement with our University."

Added Wharton: "I'm just excited that the leadership of the university thinks enough of the job we're doing to offer an extension. I'm very grateful that my family gets to stay in Chattanooga."

Wharton also announced Tuesday through a release that McKenzie Arena is getting in July a splashy new center-hung video board with high-definition displays — plus LED sideline tables. That's in a partnership with Daktronics.

A single example of his drive and determination to succeed: Seizing every opportunity to meet with staff, donors or potential donors over the past eight months, Wharton said, "I've eaten lunch on my own twice."

Yet money isn't the only benefit derived from the Porky's tourney.

"This is a great opportunity for our coaches and administrators to get together with our alums and donors and thank them for all they do to raise money that supports our student-athletes," UTC football coach Tom Arth said.

Kinser freely admits he never dreamed his little golf outing would generate this kind of revenue stream for UTC athletic scholarships. And 19 years can wear on a guy who wasn't young when this started.

"I'm getting aches and pains I didn't have back then," said Kinser, who'll turn 78 in August. "But it's just been so much fun."

With at least $130,000 expected to be added to the scholarship fund once the final numbers are tallied from Tuesday's Open, that fun should continue to help the entire athletic department.

Said an appreciative Wharton: "It's become quite a tradition. We need more traditions, but it's clear that everyone looks forward to this."

Especially all those coaches who no longer are bringing figurative knives to figurative Southern Conference gunfights.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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