Knowing this will be the last homecoming weekend without football at East Tennessee State was a comforting feeling for the school’s former players who got together on Saturday morning.
“Being a former player and an alum, it has hurt me deeply the last 10 years to not be able to come back to school and see a football game, meet former teammates and have experiences that last a lifetime,” said Greg Stubbs, who played at ETSU in the 1970s. “Just knowing it’s coming back has made me happy.
“I’ve always said that football’s the engine that pulls the train. It is the pivotal foundation of an athletic program.”
Stubbs was one of numerous players who participated in a meet-and-greet with new head coach Carl Torbush and other ETSU officials Saturday morning at the Minidome.
“I didn’t expect this many people,” Torbush said. “It looks like we have 100, 150. I thought we might have 20 or 30. To see this many — you’re dealing with former players, cheerleaders, managers, coaches — it’s a good feeling.”
The morning’s festivities began with a rousing pep talk from ETSU President Brian Noland, who said he could feel the pulse of the university quickening, in part, because of football’s return. Phillip Fulmer, the former Tennessee head coach now in the College Football Hall of Fame, was also on hand. He’s been instrumental in helping Richard Sander, ETSU’s athletic director, get the program up and running.
“You have the right leadership in Dr. Noland, Dr. Sander and Carl to take advantage of this moment in history like no other,” said Fulmer, who was on crutches thanks a bad knee that will require surgery. “I’ll be there to help any way I can, as long as anybody wants to me to help. But the guys in the trenches every day, they need your support.”
The dignitaries were trying to drum up support, financially and otherwise, for a program that has sat dormant for a decade. Homecoming weekend has rung hollow for many since the program was dropped.
“To not have football has been hard,” said former player Derek Fudge. “When they didn’t have it, a lot of guys I talked to were not in the mood to come back because football is not here. The way they bring it back will create that forgive-and-forget moment. If it’s brought back correctly, we’ll forget everything and well go from there. I’m excited about it.”
ETSU won’t return to the field officially until the 2015 season, but the school will have players on campus next season — they will all be red-shirted — and the plan is to play several games against other schools’ club teams. The games won’t count, so none of the players will use any eligibility.
The home games will be played at Science Hill’s Kermit Tipton Stadium while ETSU’s new facility is being built.
Getting back into the Southern Conference was a unanimously popular decision among those in attendance on Saturday.
“These places close to ETSU are great,” Stubbs said. “You can get in your car on a Saturday morning, drive to Furman, tailgate in their parking lot, watch a football game and be back home before dark. That’s gonna be a great thing.”
Until the school actually gets some football players and begins building its stadium — the site has not been announced yet — Torbush will spend his time being the program’s biggest salesman.
“It’s been very well received,” he said. “I’m enjoying doing it. I see a lot of passion and enthusiasm right now, and we need to keep it that way. This is a lot of fun, but the most fun for me is practice. We’re going to be able to see the product we put together and put on the field. That’s where it all ends up.”
Getting the right players will be a big part of the new job.
“Good players make good coaches, great players make great coaches and bad players make fired coaches,” Torbush said. “I like that second one the best.”