All things considered, Paul Hamilton is pleased to hear that East Tennessee State football is on its way back.
Of course, few could have more mixed emotions about the turn of events than the coach who slogged through the last seven seasons, right to the bitter end in 2003.
“I’m really happy for them,” Hamilton said from Brevard College in North Carolina, where he’s been the head coach for the last six years. “I think it’s something that’s needed there at the university and will be a win-win for everybody involved.
"I know coach (John Robert) Bell will be smiling in heaven, and I’m happy for Jerry Robertson and Lee Morrow and the guys like that, who put a lot of their lives into ETSU football.”
Hamilton put a fair amount of his into it, too, and didn’t always have much to show for it.
The program was poorly funded and supported long before then-president Paul Stanton pulled the plug. It won only a couple of championships in eight decades of competition and made one playoff appearance in its 25 years in the Southern Conference.
The team went out with a patchwork roster of about 50 players during a final, gut-wrenching 5-7 campaign.
Hamilton knows a lot of men were molded through some tough times -- players and coaches alike. He still connects with many of them.
“The thing that’s sometimes difficult,” he said, “is when I hear some of the things that are said about the program back in those years. It’s human nature, I guess, because sometimes it looked like we had no success. But to be honest, there was a seven-year time period there where football was de-emphasized – basically from the time we first got there and lost the AD. Things were taken away from football right on through until the point where the program was dropped.
“We fought like crazy for the first four or five years to keep that thing going, while everybody else in the league was building their programs up. Our last two years we were on life support, and we still managed to win some games. Our last two games, we beat Chattanooga 68-7 and then beat one of the best Citadel teams in the last 20 years.”
Hamilton moved on with a 38-41 record. He notes his program produced 36 all-conference players, five All-Americans and the SoCon’s career leader in total offense at the time in quarterback Todd Wells.
Most went out with their heads held high.
“If you look at it, we were 38-41 during my time as head coach, which is the third-most wins in school history,” said Hamilton. “Twelve of those 41 losses were to App State and Georgia Southern, who were pretty good. Seven of the others were to Division I teams. We were 26-13 at home and beat the No. 1 team in the country, and the No. 6 team in the country. So I’m proud of what we accomplished under the circumstances.”
A new set of circumstances is quickly developing, now that ETSU has been cleared for takeoff. There’s an excitement about new conference affiliation (or perhaps an old one), a new coaching staff, a new outdoor stadium and a new start.
Hamilton says he wants nothing but the best for the university.
“East Tennessee State can go as far with football as it wants to go. They can be as good as anybody in the country,” he said. “There’s so much upside with the great people in that area and the university itself.
“I’m really happy for all the alumni, the former coaches and support staff. I will be pulling for the team in every way possible.”