BRISTOL, Va. — The Niswonger Golf Classic continues to draw Hall of Fame Hokies and Vols, and now the Niswonger Children’s Hospital fundraiser is generating a few Bucs.
Monday’s gallery of stars at The Virginian Golf Club included Tennessee’s Jason Witten, Phillip Fulmer, Condredge Holloway and Bill Bates, as well as Virginia Tech’s Bruce Smith, Frank Beamer and Dell Curry.
But East Tennessee State had unprecedented presence at the annual event thanks to Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith and new Buccaneers football coach Carl Torbush. In fact, Fulmer, who led the search that landed Torbush and continues to aid ETSU football’s reboot, is now representing the Bucs, too.
The 61-year-old Torbush grew up in Knoxville and has known Fulmer since not long thereafter. Torbush was a defensive coordinator at Ole Miss when Fulmer was an offensive line coach for Johnny Majors, and Torbush was coordinating against Fulmer’s Vols while at Alabama (2000-01) and Texas A&M when UT played the Aggies in the Cotton Bowl during the 2004 season.
“Of course, Phillip and I have been friends and competitors for many, many years,” Torbush said. “But over this process, to really get close to him as a friend has been special to me. … I think one of the best things East Tennessee did was get Phillip Fulmer involved, because there’s nobody with more name recognition, especially in the East Tennessee area.”
Torbush has also known Smith the majority of his coaching career, and he was an assistant for Louisiana Tech and Southeast Louisiana teams that played ETSU when Smith was an ETSU linebacker.
“I knew Mike since he was coaching at Tennessee Tech,” Torbush said. “And I was coaching against him when he was playing at East Tennessee. He’s still as humble as he was back when he was an assistant at Tennessee Tech.”
Torbush, like many other coaches have said in recent years, remembers Smith being ahead of the curve with computers.
“He was one of the first guys that truly knew how to make a computer work way before computers became famous,” Torbush said. “So I was kind of mesmerized and interested in that. I think I was at Ole Miss at the time. He was way before his time in that respect.”
Smith has led the Falcons to the playoffs four out of five years since taking over the mess left with the Bobby Petrino and Michael Vick controversies, and the Falcons were within minutes of reaching the Super Bowl this past season.
Smith was eager to see his alma mater bring back a football program that hasn’t fielded a team since the 2003 season, and appears pleased with the defensive-minded coach ETSU president Brian Noland and athletic director Richard Sander have hired to do it.
“Coach Torbush is, without a doubt, I think, one of the most respected coaches in all of college football,” Smith said. “He’s got a great defensive mind and I think he’s gonna do very well. He’s from the region here, from Knoxville.”
Indeed, Torbush knows the region. He recruited Science Hill’s Toby Patton to play receiver at North Carolina, and recalls Patton being in line to become a Tar Heels starter the week the small-but-swift receiver gave up college football.
“He played for Mike Turner at Science Hill,” Torbush said. “Mike and I played together (at Carson-Newman). And (former ETSU player) Greg Stubbs was coaching up there at Science Hill.”
Torbush was somewhat concerned with then-UNC coach Mack Brown’s potential reaction when he saw the puny Patton. But Patton’s state championship speed (100 meters) loomed larger.
“I figured Mack was gonna wear me out for bringing him over there,” Torbush said, “but after Mack saw the highlight tape on him — he could fly.”
Torbush also mentioned former Science Hill player Van Williams, who played at ETSU, Carson-Newman and in the NFL, and other exciting ETSU players from that era such as quarterback Mark Hutsell, Earl Ferrell and Johnny McFall.
Torbush smiled while bringing up Dobyns-Bennett coach Graham Clark, and pointed out signing D-B players Mike Faulkerson and Shane Pierson while he was at North Carolina.
“There’s always been great football up here,” Torbush said. “And that’s the thing I’m excited about recruiting — getting them back where they’re supposed to be.”
ETSU will begin play in 2015, but Torbush’s first signing class is some eight months away from being announced.
Torbush knows he’s beginning to climb a mountain. He played at Carson-Newman when it beat ETSU three straight seasons (1971-73).
But he knows it could provide a great view. He coached at Louisiana Tech, where a decade earlier Terry Bradshaw’s Bulldogs were sacked convincingly in a Grantland Rice Bowl loss to ETSU.
Torbush emphasized he was using the comparison loosely, but likened ETSU football’s rebirth to a cure being found for a previously fatal disease.
“To see the people that fought so hard so many years, to see them be rewarded for it, the amount of excitement is unbelievable,” he said. “Of course, you’ve got the perfect president in Dr. Noland. He wants East Tennessee State to be something special academically, athletically, socially.”
So does Smith, and he indicated Torbush being a step in that direction.
“I think Dr. Noland, coach Fulmer and Dr. Sander,” Smith said, “have got the right guy to lead our football program back.”