Wiedmer: ETSU out to do football right this time

Wiedmer: ETSU out to do football right this time

August 22nd, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

East Tennessee State associate athletic director for communications Mike White and his staff first hatched the idea last spring.

Hoping to convince a group of Southern Conference school administrators to allow ETSU to return to the league it left behind in 2005, White's wordsmiths created a David Letterman-style Top 10 list of reasons to re-embrace the Buccaneers.

Numero uno on that list: "Because Chattanooga needs somebody to really hate."

"I got a good chuckle out of that," said UT-Chattanooga's Laura Herron, who was still the school's interim AD at that time, as well as a member of the SoCon committee visiting ETSU's Johnson City campus that day.

"I told them, 'Our fans have been dying to hate ETSU again, too.'"

Every college fan base needs a rival to revile, someone whose losses make you feel almost as good as your wins. Be it Alabama-Auburn, Duke-North Carolina, Michigan-Ohio State or UCLA-USC, hate's heaven on an athletic field or court.

But ever since both Marshall and ETSU abandoned the SoCon, UTC's Mocs Maniacs have been forced to work up lukewarm loathing for Appalachian State, Davidson and Georgia Southern, all the while missing those colossal confrontations with the Bucs.

Former UTC point guard Benny Green punching the ETSU cheerleader during the 1989 SoCon tourney in Asheville, N.C., was clearly the low point of the rivalry. But the fact that former Mocs coach Mack McCarthy had once been an assistant with the Bucs, that the two schools were both state-funded universities in east Tennessee and relatively similar in budget and mission also helped.

And now we have this: new ETSU athletic director Dick Sander played college hoops for Chattanooga, graduating in 1968.

To make matters more intriguing -- since Sander will be overseeing the return of football to the Bucs after a 10-year absence -- the Cincinnati native originally signed on to play quarterback for the football Mocs.

"But Leon Ford [then Chattanooga's basketball coach] told me he'd give me the same [financial] scholarship to play basketball," Sander said Tuesday night during a ETSU fundraiser at the Walden Club. "So I gave up football."

ETSU gave up football 10 years ago for budgetary reasons. It almost immediately began to question that decision, especially on autumn weekends when there was no longer a central gathering point for students and alums.

When Dr. Brian Noland took over the school in January of 2012 he quickly came to believe that football's public relations value far outweighed its heavy financial burden. Or as he said when announcing its return for the 2015 season: "Football is an American tradition. It builds school spirit, it builds school pride, and it builds engagement -- engagement with our students, with our community, and with our alumni."

He then turned to UTC alum Sander to help get the program off the ground, despite the fact that Sander's previous job has been running Virginia Commonwealth's football-less athletic department for 25 years.

"I'd been retired for a few years, I was consulting, playing golf six days a week," Sander said. "But helping start football again was a critical piece to me being interested."

So was former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer, who was brought in as a consultant.

"I can't really talk football," Sander said. "You start getting into great detail, it's Greek to me. But Phillip must have helped us vet 150 candidates. He knew who to call and what to ask. And in the end we ended up hiring Carl, who'd grown up in Knoxville."

Carl Torbush was more than an East Tennessee native and Carson-Newman grad whose wife grew up in Kingsport. He was once the head coach at North Carolina, as well as a defensive coordinator at Alabama.

Much like Sander, starting a program from scratch intrigued him immensely.

"If you're from the South, football plays a huge role in college life," Torbush said. "We don't want ETSU to ever consider dropping football again. If we do it right, we've got a chance to have something special here."

There are those who believe everyone in college football not tied to a BCS conference such as the Southeastern or Big Ten has a chance to spectacularly collapse, especially if the big boys make good on their threat to form their own division, taking most of the fan interest with them.

But neither Fulmer nor Torbush believes that will destroy either the Bucs or the Mocs before ETSU begins SoCon play against UTC, Western Carolina and the like in 2016.

"What you want to be is in that next level, just below those (BCS) schools," said Torbush. "I think there will be a new Division I or II, whatever they call it, that can still be very successful. We want to be in that group."

Added Fulmer: "The opportunities are going to be out there for those who can position themselves for that second tier. They'll still have TV games, still have a chance to draw big crowds. Think about this: Who'd ever heard of Central Florida or South Florida 15 years ago? ETSU can get to that level."

It's all about football for now. But soon the leaves will turn, the thermometer will drop and the round ball will bounce true. ETSU basketball will spend one final season in the Atlantic Sun, then return to the SoCon for the 2014-2015 season, where it will again play UTC on a regular basis.

"Knowing that UTC was in the Southern Conference was critically important to us," said Sander of ETSU's return to its former league. "We need that rivalry."

So do the Mocs, because sometimes hate is a good thing.

Email Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com