Story published: 09-25-2013 • Print ArticleE-mail Story to a Friend

ETSU Bucs will hit the field again in 2015

By Jonathan Pleasant

The last official football game that the ETSU Bucs played in was a 16-3 win at home over the Citadel on November 22nd 2003. That last game signified the end of tradition that began all the way back in 1920 when East Tennessee State Normal School fielded their very first program. In those early days the team was known as the “Normalites” finally changing to the more recognizable Buccaneers in 1935.

In that 83-year span ETSU was home to numerous athletes that went on to hold respectable professional positions as coordinators, coaches, and as players both in the NFL and even in international positions. Many of the Bucs roster were recruits interested in scholarship offers, but many more were local boys from the surrounding region just trying to get an education and play the sport they loved.

While that last fall game played at the campus’s notorious mini-dome definitely carried an extra weight of remorse and sadness, it didn’t take long for University leaders to begin looking at restarting the program from scratch. The original reasons behind the school’s decision to end their relationship with the Southern Conference and consequently football at ETSU were financial in nature. Rising costs, coupled with revenue shortfalls and budget cuts simply put too much pressure on a sport that was already seeing minimal attendance and support.

Yet these substantial burdens did not diminish the hopes of those who strongly desired to see football’s return. Even top officials like Dr. Paul Stanton who was then President of the University were looking ahead to a potential future resurgence. Stanton laid out plans for an entirely new program in the winter of 2006, putting together a football task force to investigate potential costs. Stanton was hopeful to have the program up and running by the 2010 season, but quickly hit a stumbling block when it was revealed that the student body would be facing a potential $200 fee increase per semester.

Had that increase been accepted, the school would still have faced millions of dollars in funding to construct a new stadium to replace the largely unpopular and under-maintained mini-dome. Funding was already coming in from sizeable donors across the Tri-Cities, but the whole project really centered on a referendum voted by the student body to accept the fee increase. Held in April of 2007 support seemed high coming into the vote, but a low turnout saw a negative response. Failing to pass the fees, the issue was quiet again for the next five years.

By 2012 ETSU had a new president in Brian Nolan and a renewed sense of excitement about the University’s athletic programs. This time around student support was high, leading the Student Government Association to finally ratify a resolution to approve support for an athletic fee increase. The document formally made its way to the Tennessee Board of Regents in March of 2013. Giving their consent to the proposed rates, the TBR officially set the wheels turning for the return of Buccaneer Football.

With the extra funding in place, President Nolan held a news conference on April 2, 2013 revealing that the team would likely be back on the field by the fall of 2015. “Football is an American tradition,” Noland said.  “It builds school spirit, it builds school pride, and it builds engagement – engagement with our students, with our community, and with our alumni. Conversations about the presence of football at ETSU have been taking place for more than a decade. These conversations have put people on opposite sides of the table.   It was one of the first questions I was asked when I interviewed for this job, and I have been talking about football on a daily basis ever since.  The time has come to move these conversations forward.”

Noland concluded by saying that information concerning the head coach, conference affiliation, and playing field would be announced at a later date. Fortunately it did not take long for some of these big questions to be answered, as it was revealed just a couple months later in June that ETSU had been invited back to the Southern Conference. Commissioner John Iamarino was on hand at a press conference at the school to officially extend the invitation, which was eagerly accepted.

“We’re extremely happy to welcome East Tennessee State back to the Southern Conference,” Imarino said. “The strength of its athletic programs, the commitment to the academic well-being of its student-athletes and the ongoing addition of quality playing venues makes ETSU a great fit for the SoCon. We are looking forward to the Bucs joining us in 2014 and hope their loyal fan and alumni base is as well.”

ETSU first joined the conference in 1978 and was a part of the organization until switching over to Atlantic Sun in 2005. The school won SoCon’s Commissioner’s Cup during the 1982-83 school year and sponsored 18 teams in total. Now with money to build a program and a conference to play in, the next step was to begin looking at personnel, starting with the appointment of a head coach.

Former UT head coach Phillip Fulmer was asked to help with this process, and in just a couple of months the initial pool of names had been reduced to one. Working with Director of Intercollegiate Athletics, Dr. Richard Sander, an announcement was made on June 21st that former UNC Head Coach Carl Torbush had been selected to lead the Buccaneer football program.

“As we started to develop a profile for the person to lead this team, it became apparent that due to the complexities of starting a football program we needed someone with an array of experience and talent,” Sander said. “The more we identified these characteristics and qualities, it was clear that Carl Torbush met the criteria to not only lead, but to also build this program.”

Torbush was pleased with the decision, expressing his gratitude to the selection committee and his dedication to see the program off to a good start. “I am honored, excited and humbled to be named head football coach at East Tennessee State University,” Torbush said. “The opportunity and privilege to lead such a tradition-rich ETSU football program into a new beginning is a responsibility that I cherish and look forward to. I would like to thank President Dr. Brian Noland, Athletic Director Dr. Richard Sander, and Coach Phillip Fulmer for having the confidence in me to lead East Tennessee State University into this new era of football.”

For his part, Coach Fulmer was very confident in Torbush’s abilities. “I believe Carl Torbush is the right coach at the right time to bring ETSU football back,” Fulmer said. “I also believe he will be competing for Southern Conference championships very soon. Carl brings a wealth of experience and unlimited energy to the challenges ahead. He has had success at all levels of football, and he understands recruiting student-athletes that make their academics important. He will be a great mentor as these young men grow from adolescence into manhood. Carl knows how to build character and leadership on his team and staff, and he knows how to communicate with the administration and faculty. He will work at making football relevant and important to the ETSU family.”  

The most recent announcements have included selections for key positions such as assistant coach and defensive coordinator. The process of building the program continues and there are still many questions, including exactly where the Bucs will play. However, excitement continues to grow and by the time the first game is held in 2015 hopefully ETSU will be ready to turn a new and successful page in their long athletic history.