Bucs no longer stopped: ETSU football returning

Carl Torbush, shown during the 2000 season — his final year as head football coach at the University of North Carolina — will lead East Tennessee State University this season as it returns to the football field for the first time in 12 years.

What happens when you add Phillip Fulmer and Steve Spurrier?

You get the resurgence of East Tennessee State University football.

Twelve years after the program disbanded for financial reasons, the Bucs were back at media day for Southern Conference football Wednesday in Spartanburg, S.C., though still a year away from competing for a conference championship. They will be considered a Football Championship Subdivision independent program this year and return to Southern Conference action in the 2016 season.

Their first game this season is Sept. 3 at home against Georgia's Kennesaw State University, which is launching its FCS program and will compete in the Big South Conference. While their own stadium is being built, the Bucs will play their home games at Kermit Tipton Stadium, the site of Steve Spurrier Field, where Johnson City's Science Hill High School also plays its home games.

Tickets for the Bucs' opener sold out in 24 hours.

"Now it's our job to put an exciting product on the field and win," ETSU coach Carl Torbush said Wednesday. "The most intriguing thing for this program has been starting it from scratch and seeing where we can take it. Passion for ETSU football is at a fever pitch, and we have a lot of good pieces in place."

One of the biggest contributors to helping bring the program back was former Tennessee coach Philip Fulmer, who was a friend of Torbush from their playing days for the Volunteers. (Torbush finished his career at Carson-Newman after spending his freshman year as a walk-on in Knoxville.) Fulmer was initially asked to be the new head coach for the Bucs, but he ultimately declined and chose a role as a consultant.

Torbush, a former head coach at Louisiana Tech and the University of North Carolina, had 95 players participate in the spring game, and the number on the roster will jump to 120 when school starts. His wide recruiting range has included the Chattanooga area, where he has signed 10 players out of high school while adding former Cleveland standout quarterback Austin Herink in January.

The former Blue Raider, who spent last season as a preferred walk-on at Middle Tennessee State University, participated in the spring game and could be the starter for the season opener.

ETSU players have already spent a year practicing and scrimmaging against each other on a daily basis.

"The coaches have got us to buy into the program," linebacker Dylan Weigel said. "We can't be freshmen; we're playing grown men, so there's no time to be freshmen. We're looking forward to getting after other guys when that first game starts."

The program will play an 11-game schedule in preparation for next year, with six of those contests at home. Receiver Demetrius Anthony said that while the program is out to win, it's just time to enjoy putting game jerseys on and hitting somebody other than the teammates they've hit for the past 12 months.

"We're just trying to come together, enjoy the season and get to the best of our ability," he said. "We want to jell together and enjoy each game that we play. I'm trying to be the best I can be, not only for me, but to make the team better."

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com. Follow him at twitter.com/genehenleytfp.