Former East Tennessee State and Science Hill receiver Mike Rader caught his first big break in coaching this week.
Rader, 31, was hired as the head football coach at Maryville College, an NCAA Division III program that’s been around since 1892. The position reportedly drew in excess of 175 applicants.
“The good Lord definitely opened some doors on this,” said Rader, who worked the past eight seasons at D-III Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Ala., as an offensive assistant and recruiting coordinator. “I definitely have to give him the praise and thanks on this; I promise you that.”
Rader knows the football gods can be crazy. His first year in coaching in 2003 – as a graduate assistant at ETSU for Paul Hamilton – was the final season of ETSU football. He got a graduate assistant job at Troy State in January of 2004, but the following June he landed a job at Huntingdon, which had started football the previous year when ETSU was stopping its program.
“When they killed the football program at East Tennessee State, I landed on my feet in Troy,” Rader said. “When this job at Huntingdon presented itself, it was a chance to become a full-time coach.”
Rader grew up as the only child of a coach. His father, Mike, coached 25 of his 32 years at Happy Valley, and led the Lady Warriors basketball team to a state runner-up finish in 1989 and the state semifinals in 1995.
The younger Rader recalls being employed as a scout teamer in practice against some of those Lady Warriors teams that included 6-foot-2 Erica Babb, who went on to an All-Southern Conference career at ETSU.
“I was an only child and I kind of grew up in the gym,” Rader said. “Dad always called me a gym rat. He was a basketball coach, and I watched him coach for years and years. My mom tells the story of when I got my first basketball goal, and kept playing it and playing it and playing it, and she figured out pretty quickly that I definitely wanted to do something in sports.”
Rader quickly discovered he wanted to make coaching a career while working with Happy Valley on a voluntary basis in the spring of 2003.
“I helped Coach Stan Ogg during some of the spring practices … and I just looked at dad and said, ‘I really think this is what I need to be doing,’” Rader said.
Rader had a charmed life at Science Hill. George Pitts’ Hilltoppers basketball team won the state tournament when he was a freshman in 1995, and Bernie Young’s baseball team won the state championship when Rader was a senior in 1998. Rader had actually quit basketball that year to play baseball for the first time on a school team. Rader fondly recalls the competitiveness and talent of the Crowe brothers – Brandon and Nick.
“Brandon Crowe was a year younger than me and Nick Crowe was a phenomenal freshman,” Rader said. “Those two guys were unbelievable baseball players. I was just happy to run around in the outfield and try to get on base and steal bases as a leadoff guy. I was a lefty, and if I could get it on the ground I’s trying to beat it out.”
Giving up basketball was a difficult decision. Rader still considers Pitts and ETSU receivers coach Daryl Mason as probably the two most intense coaches he played for, and says Pitts, Mason and another former ETSU football assistant, Jerry Mynatt, were among the most inspirational.
Along with Science Hill basketball stars like Nathaniel “Nookie” Bailey and Jovann Johnson, Rader fondly recalls grueling battles in practice with teammates such as Roy Jackson, Nick Phillips and Jared Ridley.
“Coach Pitts demanded the best out of everybody, and he would never settle for less,” Rader said. “I definitely took that from playing for him. I always respected that. His philosophy was – if we didn’t bring it every day, that was unacceptable. Practices were as grueling as anything I’ve ever been part of, and games were fun. …
“And I felt like we were pretty cutting edge as far as the schemes we were running defensively. I remember if we scored in the paint we were running a 1-3-1 (press) and if we scored outside of the paint we were running a 2-2-1 press. And each one of those presses went back into certain zones. Fist was man, double-fist was full-press. … Red was our 1-3-1 half-court defense. Green was our 1-3-1 half-court trap. Blue was our 2-3 zone. I want to say black was 2-2-1. I can’t believe I’m remembering all of this, to be honest with you, and that’s a credit to how well he trained us. I’ve been around a lot of coaches, and he can coach with the best of them.”
Rader’s talented teammates in football included Aubrayo Franklin, quarterbacks Brian Miller and Matt Wilhjelm, who played with him at ETSU, and receivers such as Brad Fields and David Cassell, a Little All-America at Mars Hill College. Rader’s most gratifying gridiron victory came against Elizabethton in the season opener his senior season. Elizabethton, which had players like Shawn and Jason Witten and Ryan Presnell, had beaten Science Hill during Rader’s junior season, and he says they had T-shirts with “Bigger, Faster, Stronger on Paper” to needle Science Hill.
“That definitely fueled us for my senior year, and going into it, you know, it was kind of role reversal,” said Rader, whose father played at Elizabethton. “They had the Wittens, Presnell and a very talented team, and they were basically gonna come in and steamroll us … and it was a great game – a highly emotional game for everybody – and we were able to get them that night.”
Rader’s favorite memory from ETSU was beating top-ranked Georgia Southern – coached by Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson – in 2001 in the Mini-Dome. Wilhjelm was on the throwing end of a couple of exceptional catches by Cecil Moore, and a defense that included Dallas Cowboys safety Gerald Sensabaugh stymied the high-powered Eagles.
Another highlight that’s taken on added significance recently was Rader’s first career catch, which came at Furman during his redshirt freshman season in 1999. Jamey Chadwell threw him the pass. Chadwell was hired as NCAA Division II powerhouse Delta State’s head coach this month after doing an exceptional job at fledgling North Greenville College.
Chadwell and Rader stay in touch. It’s hard not to talk about how so many programs have begun since ETSU killed its while all but assuring that programs were going to begin dropping like flies – or how schools like North Greenville and Maryville can afford football when ETSU can’t. The athletics budget has increased drastically and student fees have been implemented to go toward athletics since the football program was killed.
“Yes, I have the burning desire to see the football program come back, so I can be proud of where I played,” Rader said. “There is no homecoming anymore. There’s no football anything.
“I know (longtime ETSU trainer) Jerry Robertson is relentless in his pursuit to get the football program back, and I commend him for that. I went back to the alumni deal last summer (held by Robertson’s Buc Football and Friends Foundation). … I was excited about seeing (speaker) Gerald Sensabaugh. We texted a few times throughout the season.”
Rader, who has been married four years, cleaned out his office Saturday. He will move into an on-campus apartment at Maryville. His wife, a teacher, will finish the school year in Montgomery.
Aiding the transition is assistant coach Shaun Hayes, who was retained from previous coach Tony Ierulli’s staff.
“(Hayes) is a go-getter,” Rader said, “and out there recruiting for us as we speak.”
Rader hopes to tap the local talent more consistently, not the least of which is produced by Maryville and Alcoa.
“That’s the plan – to really get into the local schools … and keep some of the best players in house,” Rader said. “You want the community behind you, and they’ll definitely want to see Maryville guys and Alcoa guys playing on the field. We’re definitely going to try and establish that. …
“It’s got around a 118-year history, so there’s definitely a lot of tradition here, and I definitely want to tap into that and use all the resources available to develop a successful program. I believe we can.”