Some 400 East Tennessee State football supporters were wined and dined at the Millennium Centre on Wednesday while the rebooting program touted the local flavor in its first recruiting class since the program was discontinued following the 2003 season.
Some 17-20 scholarships will go toward a massive 47-player class, and 35 of those are from Tennessee. Area players signing included David Crockett’s Colt Jenkins, Elizabethton’s Adam Mullins and Terrence Turner and Science Hill’s Chance Pierce and Gad Nagba.
“When it came right down to it, I felt like being home,” said Nagba, who added that he got great family vibes from head coach Carl Torbush and his staff, which thus far is comprised of Billy Taylor and Teddy Gaines.
Northeast Tennessee programs represented in the class include Dobyns-Bennett and Tennessee High.
“We want our stands filled up,” Torbush said, “and I’m smart enough to figure out, I mean, if I’m from Johnson City and I’ve got three or four guys I’ve been watching for four years, I’m gonna continue to watch them and see how they develop as a college player. If I’m from Kingsport and I’ve got three or four of those D-B kids, or wherever it may, then I’m gonna come watch them play. There is enough really good talent in this area, in my opinion, for us to compete for a SoCon (Southern Conference) championship. We’ve just got to make sure we don’t share them with other teams.”
ETSU president Dr. Brian Noland introduced the first player to commit to the Buccaneers, Knox Bearden’s Caleb Bartlett. Taylor and Gaines introduced 46 of the 47 commitments while highlights and the players’ taped intros played on a big screen. The 47th commitment came late in the day. Another handful are expected to join the class.
NCAA rules limited Torbush’s contact.
“We were basically a two-and-half-man recruiting staff doing what 10 do,” said Torbush, who was quick to thank a horde of others, including everyone from ETSU baseball players to Bristol Motor Speedway.
Torbush said 8-10 players visited BMS, and speed apparently helped steer speed to ETSU. Bristol Motor Speedway’s Kevin Triplett said players rode around the track with a BMS staffer in a Mustang. It was unclear how fast they went on the high-banked half-mile, but it would’ve probably satisfied Justin Bieber.
“I don’t think any of them who finished it felt like they needed to go any faster,” Triplett said. “It seemed to go over really well and we were glad to do it.”
Former ETSU players such as Wes Jones, Josh Kerr and Greg Stubbs have coached some of those in this class. Stubbs was happy to see Tennessee High receiver Adam Mitchell choose the Bucs.
“I knew Adam was gonna be a great one,” Stubbs said. “He’s got the best set of hands I’ve ever seen.”
Stubbs said he arrived at ETSU when Torbush arrived at Carson-Newman in ’69, and their teams played one another throughout their careers.
“We’re fortunate to have Coach Torbush here,” Stubbs said. “He’s a wonderful individual.”
Many of the local signees mentioned the family atmosphere they sensed at ETSU.
“First of all, we’re excited about football back at ETSU,” Science Hill coach Stacy Carter said. “Here’s the thing I would say about playing for Coach Torbush: if my child was going to play for him I definitely would feel he’s gonna get good instruction and he’ll help him grow up to be a great young man. … They’re getting a top-notch man, not just as a football coach but his faith and how he carries himself and how he treats people. … I feel like they are going to a place where they’re gonna work them and they’re gonna hold them accountable, but they’re gonna treat them like they should be treated. I mean, they’re not gonna get cussed at. It’s gonna be how it should be.”
David Crockett coach Jeremy Bosken initially came to ETSU as a Carson-Newman transfer, but said he learned the program was being halted the year he transferred. He’s happy his players will have the opportunity he didn’t get, and he’s pleased they’ll be able to play for Torbush.
“They’ve done a great job reaching out to the community and making sure that they know who our kids are and they know the assistant coaches in the area now,” Bosken said. “I’ll do anything I can to help Coach Torbush, Coach Taylor and Coach Gaines.”
Craig Charles was recruited to ETSU out of Hargave Military Academy by Mike Cavan after Cavan had landed his buddies, Anthony Stringfield and Mike Scott. He said it’s fulfilling to know alumni such as Seattle Seahawks director of player development Maurice Kelly have a program to return to now.
“Just the fact that he’s able to come back for that is important,” Charles said. “The football program is going to bring that excitement for former players to come back.”
Many former Bucs are now unofficially recruiting. Aaron Fenimore came to ETSU from Peachtree City, Ga., to play offensive line for ETSU in the early ‘90s. But it wasn’t necessarily assistant coach Gunter Brewer’s sweet talk that sold him. Fenimore’s mother, the former Brenda Boles, grew up in Greene County.
“And my mother,” Fenimore said, “was on scholarship here in the ‘60s in the marching band. … This is a great day for my family. … I come from a hotbed of football in Georgia, so hopefully I can funnel a lot of kids this way.”
Lee Morrow, ETSU’s strength coach for parts of four decades, is helping steer players this way in an official role. He’s helping ETSU recruit, as is former assistant coach Steve McGill, who coached under Cavan when the Bucs beat Villanova to reach the FCS quarterfinals before losing at Montana in 1996.
“To have this much going on this early is shocking to me,” McGill said. “We had a pretty good day recruiting, obviously, and then the turnout for this event really shows support in the community.”
Morrow ached in silence while the program was dormant, but Wednesday he looked 10 years younger than he did 10 years ago when the program vanished.
“I’m glad I don’t have to get up and speak, because I think I’d tear up,” Morrow said. “I can tell you that straight up. I’ve waited a long time.”
ETSU’s span without football, a time, by the way, in which its athletics department budget doubled and the first series of student athletics fees were implemented, has only strengthened the love of the program for many. Scott Carter played fullback at ETSU when Science Hill alum/close friend Matt Wilhjelm was the quarterback on the Buccaneers team that beat top-ranked Georgia Southern in 2001.
On Jan. 14, Carter was named ETSU’s senior associate athletic director/chief operating officer. Such a title might sound like just another “suit” with no soul, but that’s hardly the case with carter. He wrestled emotions Wednesday thinking about how many former Bucs were somewhere smiling, and how ETSU lettermen such as Wes Jones and Josh Kerr were now coaching some of the signees in this historic class.
“This has been a special day … a pretty awesome day,” Carter said. “As Dr. (Brian) Noland has said about our history as a teaching institution, college athletics produces great leaders. I think these are all great young men, and they may turn around and be high school coaches.”
Carter’s emotion might’ve very well been sparked at mention of Jerry Robertson, who was ETSU football’s head trainer from 1959-2003 and spent countless hours since then trying to revive the program and the marching band through his Buc Football and Friends Foundation.
It’s safe to say no one in attendance was more fulfilled than Robertson. Many gradually lost faith at his annual reunion cookouts in June, but he never did.
“This day was on my bucket list,” Robertson said. “But now my bucket list says I want to be here in five years to shake these guys’ hands when they graduate with honors.”