When the return of football to East Tennessee State was announced back in April, university officials vowed to do it the right way.
So far, so good.
Billy Taylor’s recent hiring to new head coach Carl Torbush’s staff will go down as one of the best moves the program could have made. Nobody wants to be here more than Taylor, who played and coached at ETSU. Nobody will work harder to sell the university to recruits because few care about the place as much.
“When you get an opportunity to do something that’s really a dream and an answer to a prayer, there was no way I could turn my back on that,” Taylor said. “With ETSU football coming back, that was something I prayed for. When God gave me that opportunity, it was really something special.”
When the Bucs last played a football game on Nov. 22, 2003, they beat The Citadel, 16-13. Taylor was the team’s defensive coordinator then as he is now. So he will have the distinction of running the defense in its last game before the program was disbanded and its first game back.
“I remember after that last game was played, bringing the players all together and I told them the way they performed the last two weeks is gonna make this university bring football back,” he said. “Our kids showed a lot of character. Going out by beating Chattanooga so badly (68-7) and beating The Citadel on the last play ... If we had gone out and laid down those last two weeks, everybody would have said getting rid of football was the right decision.
“I give that 2003 team a lot of credit.”
As Taylor walked off the field at the Minidome that day, his mind was swirling with emotions.
“I reflected back on my playing days, having my mom and dad there,” he said. “My mom passed away between me playing at ETSU and coaching here. Every time I ever walked off the field, I always thought of my mom and dad. That was a very emotional moment, that last game.”
Taylor was a linebacker and team captain for the Bucs. When his playing days ended after the 1987 season, he turned to coaching. He was most recently at Tennessee Tech, where he spent five seasons as defensive coordinator and was assistant head coach. Along the way, Taylor has worked for Mike Ayers, Watson Brown and Paul Hamilton.
“I’ve been blessed to work with some really good players and coaches,” he said. “Now having a chance to coach with coach Torbush, all I can tell you is God blessed me to be around some really good people.”
Some day, if ETSU continues its current trend of enlightened vision, Taylor would be a great choice as the team’s head coach.
Taylor was part of some memorable moments in ETSU football history. As a player, he was on the team during the 1987 victory at North Carolina Sate. He was also on the 1986 team that posted the nation’s largest turnaround, going from an 0-10-1 record the previous year to 6-5. The Bucs beat Furman that season when the Paladins were ranked third nationally.
While Taylor was on the coaching staff, ETSU beat Georgia Southern, then ranked No 1. in the country.
Taylor’s hiring became official on Monday, and he got right to work.
“It’s all gonna come down to recruiting right now,” he said. “That’s where we’re gonna put all of our emphasis. These next few months will be nothing but recruiting and trying to get the right people.”
ETSU doesn’t even have a football field and won’t be playing any games until the 2015 season. That means the first recruiting class won’t see action until its second year on campus.
“The selling point is they going to be part of something real special in bringing back an entire program,” Taylor said. “That’s something they can have for the rest of their lives. And kids all want to play. The first group will all be redshirted, giving them a chance to spend a year developing their bodies and developing their skills. They’re gonna have a chance to be four-year starters.
“We’ll be looking for self-motivated young men with vision and who want to be part of a brand-new football program.”
Taylor’s first recruiting job began at home before he even signed his contract. He realized how tough it will be to move his family with his daughters age 12 and 15, both of whom were born in Johnson City but had spent nearly six years in Cookeville.
Then he noticed his oldest daughter, Mikaelah — whose name was chosen to honor Mike Ayers, Taylor’s coach while at ETSU — wearing an ETSU cheerleading sweatshirt. It was one she was given when she was very young and it never fit until recently.
“I think that was her way of telling me everything’s gonna be OK,” Taylor said.
Joe Avento is a sports writer for the Johnson City Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.