It’s still almost two years before East Tennessee State University will restart its football program, but the impact has already started at the high school level.
And the program that could benefit the most is Science Hill.
“It brings more attention to football in the city, for one thing,” said Hilltoppers’ head coach Stacy Carter. “It helps us, and hopefully we can help (ETSU) in some ways. I think it’s a win-win for both sides.”
High school coaches and players are starting to get a feel for the Buccaneers’ revived program as college teams have entered the contact period, where coaches can have direct contact with high school players.
It’s the start of a process that should be a positive gain for Northeast Tennessee football in general. Area prep players who might not have given more than a passing thought about college football may have a different outlook these days.
“I think it creates a different opportunity for the kids,” said Sullivan South head coach Sam Haynie, who played at ETSU in the late 1990s. “There is Tennessee, but it takes a pretty high quality player to go there.
“If you are a good (Football Championship Subdivision) player, it gives you a chance to go play. But even if you walk on, you’ve got time to give it a shot instead of going out of state where it costs so much money.”
Having the chance to play at the next level sometimes comes down to money, said Carter. The return of ETSU allows one more outlet for players to explore.
“I think it’s a heck of an opportunity to go play that caliber of football,” said Carter. “A lot of Division III schools, it’s outrageous what it costs for kids to go there. They get academic money, but end up paying big time money.
“Some kids may not have to do that anymore. A player could go to ETSU and walk on and play for a lot less, if he proves himself. Just having that option is a good thing.”
Another former ETSU player, Cloudland head coach Brock Pittman, said ETSU should turn the heads of area players.
“ETSU bringing football back will get the kids to stop looking at Appalachian State and starting looking at Johnson City,” said Pittman. “The opportunity is a lot closer than it would have been.
“Some of these guys really want to play college football. Now there’s a school 45 minutes away (from Roan Mountain). It’s not quite home, but it’s not too far and it’s another opportunity.
From the ETSU side of the coin, the Buccaneers might eventually “steal” a player who is close to a higher level — if the relationship is already established between the college program and the high school program. Carter said those steps are already being taken by Buccaneers’ head coach Carl Torbush.
“I think he’s really interested in the kids around this area,” said Carter. “I think he’s contacted all of the coaches around here, and it should be a special relationship with us because we’re in the same city.
“But overall I think he will do a good job finding kids and recruiting a great team all around. I think it will be a good relationship for both of us.”
Haynie said he will steer any FCS-type players toward ETSU.
“Definitely any players who are interested in ETSU, I would support that wholeheartedly,” said Haynie. “It will give them a chance to play local, whether it’s scholarship or walk on.”
Success will eventually be the main driving factor for kids being attracted to ETSU. It certainly was part of the equation when Mike Cavan was the Bucs’ head coach and Haynie joined the program.
“He had been there a few years and was starting to get things going,” said Haynie. “We had the opportunity to be competitive in the Southern Conference. And in 1996-97, we had a couple of pretty good teams. It was an opportunity to be at a local place that was competitive.”
One way high school coaches could benefit is by having more players come out for football — making better teams — if the interest level in ETSU grows.
“I think it could have a big impact,” said Haynie. “I’ve always said if they bring it back, they need to do it right. I said they need to get a stadium, get back in the Southern Conference, and have a first-class deal. It seems like everything they’ve done is headed in that direction, and that’s the encouraging part for me.”
Pittman said the return of college football to Johnson City will help even more than just the players.
“I think it will help all the coaches around here, and make them more excited about the game,” Pittman said.