By Chuck Wasserstrom
Every university needs local business people lending support to their institution.
Sometimes, it’s a simple path. Local kid grows up … goes to the hometown school … remains close to home after graduation … and stays connected with the university as a supporter/donor.
And sometimes, the story takes a very circuitous route – even if the supporter lives nearby.
Meet Mark Smith, who refers to himself as a four-letter acronym: F.O.T.O. – Friend of the Organization. His business – the Smith Family McDonald’s group – owns and operates 11 restaurants in southeast Tennessee.
Despite growing up a Notre Dame fan and graduating from the University of Tennessee – and being a backer of several other institutions, including Arizona State and the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay – Smith has quickly become one of the most vocal supporters and donors of the UTC athletic program.
“Things are growing leaps-and-bounds at UTC, and the athletic department is a perfect example of it,” said Smith, who lives in Cleveland, TN, about 35 miles northeast of Chattanooga. “The biggest and most important part of any university is the academic administration. They have to support the programs. I remember the comments that Dr. Steve Angle made when he came in as chancellor – that athletics are the front door of the university. That’s huge – because winning on the football field means people are giving money to the university. People want to be associated with winners. Dr. Angle and the chancellor before him, Roger Brown – they got it. They understood the role athletics play. Academics come first for student-athletes, but athletics play a big part in the university culture.
“At UTC, it’s really amazing the cooperation you have between academics and the athletic department. That doesn’t happen everywhere. The fact that they have professors that come to games on Saturdays and help out in the recruiting process is huge. There are a lot of great things going on here.”
Smith came on board just a few years ago – although he had lived in the region since 1973, when his family moved to Cleveland from the northern suburbs of Chicago. His father, Hank, moved the Smiths to Tennessee in order to open the first McDonald’s restaurant in the area.
“In the McDonald’s culture that I grew up with, you support the community in which you live,” Smith said. “Our restaurants raise a lot of money for Ronald McDonald House Charities (of greater Chattanooga). It’s a great cause, and my father was chairman emeritus. The athletics department has a great relationship with the Ronald McDonald House.”
Smith’s relationship with UTC began in earnest several years ago, when a friend of his – Rusty Scott – got him involved with the Chattanooga Quarterback Club.
“Rusty is a graduate of UTC. He knew of my involvement with some other schools – Tennessee, Arizona State, Notre Dame – and he said I should get involved with UTC. He convinced me that they would be good stewards of my money,” Smith said. “Then they had (former athletic director) Rick Hart speak at the Quarterback Club. I always go up and thank the speaker for coming. Rusty is sort of an instigator, and he came over and told Rick that I’m someone who should give.”
The giving didn’t take place immediately. But Hart reached out to Smith to continue the dialogue – and the building of a relationship began.
The more Smith talked to people from UTC, the more he liked the direction the athletic program was heading. Before too long, he was lending his support both monetarily and through engagement.
“How do you get more people involved? You just tell the story,” Smith said. “This is what’s going on at UTC. This is what they’re doing with your money. This is what’s happening. Here’s the need, so how can you be involved? Then, you don’t take ‘No’ for an answer. You find ways for people to be successfully involved in your program. If there’s a will, there’s a way. And there’s a right way to do it.
“I live close by and I can see the results. I see the hard work and success of the football program the last few years. The women’s basketball program under Jim Foster continues to take off. The success in bringing back the glory of the men’s basketball program.
“You give people an opportunity to help – and people want to be involved with a winner. I call it F.O.T.O. – Friend of the Organization. That’s what I say my title is. And these are my friends. I want my friends to be successful.”
Throughout the conversation, Smith spoke glowingly of his parents – who gave him his value system of helping others. His father passed away at the age of 79 in 2015. His mother died at the age of 40 – when Mark was just 15.
“I realize I’ve been given much – and it’s important that I give back,” he said. “I’m no biblical scholar; anybody will tell you that. But one verse has stuck with me from Luke’s gospel 12:48. ‘From everyone who has been given much, much will be required.’ Every time I hear that verse, I think of my mother. That’s how I think when it comes to philanthropy – whether it’s UTC or Knoxville or Notre Dame or Arizona State or any place where I have friends or a financial relationship. We’ve all been given different skills and talents. Some people, it’s to write. Some people, it’s to talk. Some people, it’s to help raise money. Some people, it’s to hit a baseball or catch a football. If we don’t use our talents, we’ve cheated ourselves and we’ve cheated all the people that we’re involved with.
“I’m a firm believer that if I take care of my friends, everything will take care of itself and I’ll be taken care of. We’re all in this together. If I have to lead and pull people with me, fine. I have no problem doing that. I've been given big shoulders … to carry, to help do things for others.”
Smith refers to himself as an “oddball donor guy because I’m an outside guy,” but the importance of local people supporting their locals team is something every institution covets.
And his success as a businessman has allowed him to make a lot of relationships … which evolved into friendships … which evolved into becoming a big supporter/donor/follower to numerous institutions and organizations. UTC is now benefitting from that connection.
“When you develop relationships with people and they become your friends, you want them to succeed,” Smith said. “Because of Rusty Scott, I became involved with UTC. Jayne Holder was nice enough to include me as part of the Alumni Association, even though I didn’t graduate from UTC. It’s been a great pleasure to be involved with Rick Hart, David Blackburn, Roger Brown and Dr. Steve Angle, Terry Denniston in the chancellor’s office. The people are great.
“The UTC folks do more with less, and they have become very good at what they do. Not only do they win, but they win within the rules – not only on the fields and courts but in the classroom. What they’ve been able to accomplish and what they’re doing is amazing. I love UTC. They’re very appreciative of what people do for them and they make you feel like part of the family.”