Jun. 30—Jim Reynolds, the ageless voice of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Mocs, doesn’t remember the exact year. But he’ll never forget what equipment manager Mike Royster did that day in Charleston, South Carolina, when he thought the UTC football team had been shortchanged 40 chicken dinners by a catering company following a game at The Citadel.
“I think Mike had ordered 120 dinners,” recalled Reynolds on Tuesday afternoon during a retirement party for Royster at the Naked River Brewery to celebrate his 47 years of service to the school. “The company brought 80. Mike was so mad he decided to block their delivery truck from leaving until they came up with 40 more meals.
“I finally asked, ‘Do you really want to go to jail over 40 chicken dinners?’ and we let the driver go. But I’ll never forget it. It was awesome.”
In the equipment manager field, they don’t come much more awesome than Royster, who, if my math is correct, worked with nine football coaches, nine basketball coaches and seven athletic directors (not including those with an interim tag) after first being hired in 1974.
“In every successful organization there’s a linchpin,” said Tennessee state representative Robin Smith, who was a student trainer at UTC in the early 1980s after graduating from Hixson High. “Regardless of the coaching changes, that linchpin at UTC was Mike.”
Smith then provided details.
“The managers and trainers worked as a team,” she said. “There was great camaraderie, great teamwork. You might tape ankles one minute and pick up garbage off the field the next. I’ve always felt so blessed to be a part of that.”
Southern Conference senior associate commissioner Geoff Cabe drove more than four hours from league headquarters in Spartanburg, S.C., to be there for Royster’s send-off.
“Mike’s kind of an institution in our league,” said Cabe. “We worked so many Southern Conference tournaments together and Mike always knew how to solve almost any problem. And if he didn’t know the answer, he knew where to go to find it.”
As a lasting tribute to the retiring linchpin, Mocs athletic director Mark Wharton announced last week that he intends to make Royster’s name a part of UTC athletics far into the future by beginning an endowed scholarship for equipment managers.
“His legacy is set in stone, but to further his impact on future Mocs, we are starting the Mike Royster Student Equipment Manager Endowed Scholarship,” said Wharton in a prepared statement. “This scholarship will directly benefit our student managers, who have been under Mike’s guidance throughout his career at UTC.”
Anyone interested — “Any and all amounts are welcome,” noted Wharton — can visit www.GoMocs.com/Royster.
But if that endowed scholarship is his legacy moving forward, Tuesday afternoon was a time for so many to reflect on the 47 years in the rearview mirror, where the famously gruff Royster’s bark was almost always much worse than his bite.
“I was pretty intimidated by him, we all were,” said John Gibson, who both played and coached basketball at UTC before becoming the girls coach at Baylor School. “You tried to never ask him for anything, especially a pair of socks, because he definitely wasn’t losing money that way. In the end, you usually got what you needed, but you had to take it (Royster’s barking) before you got it.”
Added Jordan Clark, who was a graduate assistant under former basketball coach Will Wade: “That staff was terrified of him. They’d make me go ask for something whenever we needed it because I already knew him because of my dad (former Baylor School athletic director and boys basketball coach Austin Clark).”
Of course, Gibson also found a way to get even when he was a player. Each time the team took a road trip and ate out at a restaurant, the players would tell the waitress if Royster left to go to the bathroom that that day was his birthday.
“Oh, he hated that,” Gibson recalled. “He was getting recognized for a birthday every couple of weeks.”
Current Alabama-Huntsville coach John Shulman, who guided the Mocs to two NCAA tournaments in nine seasons, drove two hours to wish Royster well.
“When I first came here, I thought my name was (expletive deleted),” said Shulman. “I never thought he liked me. Then one day at Huntsville, he shows up for a game. That’s Mike.”
Mocs team dentist Frank “Bubba” Trundle Jr. will never forget his first road trip with Royster after being warned by his father — the team dentist before Bubba — to never be late.
“We were supposed to leave at 1 p.m. to go to Auburn,” said Trundle of that 1986 game. “I got to campus at 11, and sure enough, Mike’s already got the van running, ready to go. Now Mike doesn’t like to stop for anything. I know this, so even though I desperately need to go to the bathroom, I don’t say a word. I just hold it in. Finally, we stop in LaGrange and I actually had to go twice. So I get back in the van and Mike says, ‘Why didn’t you tell me you needed to go? I would have stopped.”
Now Royster has determined it’s time for him to stop in order to spend more time with his wife Pat, their two children and five grandchildren.
Asked how he intended to spend his first day of retirement on Thursday, he smiled and said, “I’ll probably sleep late.”
After 47 years, he’s certainly earned it.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com.