For four decades, “Hilltopper” might as well have been spelled with a V.
Newport News, Va., native Mike Voitlein, a handsome, square-jawed man’s man, inspired and instructed at Science Hill for 33 years (1974-2006), and athletes and students alike seemingly always pronounced “V” with reverent affection.
Voitlein started at Science Hill as an assistant football coach in 1974 and concluded a seven-year stint as athletic director in 2006.
“I came to Johnson City to play football at ETSU – when they had football – and I’ve never even thought about leaving,” Voitlein said.
He was an assistant football coach from 1974-92, and the head coach in boys tennis (1976-99), girls tennis (1991-99) and wrestling (1982-83). He was also an assistant in wrestling (1975-82), tennis (1975-76) and golf (1984-99) while making friends with guys like Barry Tolley, Tony Farrace and Ray Judy.
Football coach Bob “Snake” Evans hired Voitlein to be his JV coach and help on the varsity with linebackers and running backs. Voitlein was struck by the thorough scouting, especially for Dobyns-Bennett, as well as Evans’ insistence on involving the wives and families in the program.
“Tommy Hundley and Snake Evans and Bob May – I got to work for some great football coaches,” Voitlein said. “All of those guys gave me the ability to use my expertise and coach. They didn’t micromanage us back in those days. They just turned you loose with your position and you worked your butt off. …
“The preparation was amazing. It was just hours and hours of it. All of the junior high coaches did scouting. We did an evaluation of every kid, every game. And sometimes it almost seemed fruitless, because the best kids we had – I don’t care if they graded high or low – they were still gonna play the next week.”
Van Williams was perhaps the most dynamic player Voitlein saw, not that he ever graded low or failed to prepare. Whether he was lifting weights or running all over the field to beat Morristown East with a surreal, last-minute touchdown catch, Williams always impressed.
“I think Van and I spent most of our time together down in the weight room during winter workouts and springtime,” Voitlein said. “He was just crazy on the weightlifting. He couldn’t get enough of that. And he and I used to compete against each other. That was an incredible play against Morristown East. He was something else.”
Voitlein enjoyed coaching players like J Sam Daniels, Jeff Miller, Drew Austin and Tano Leanza.
“I had a lot of good linebackers,” Voitlein said. “But Tano, I guess pound for pound, was the hardest-hitting kid that I ever had. He was unbelievable.”
It was hard to believe tennis player Matt Czuchry could win a state title when the private schools were still in the draw in 1995, but Voitlein had faith.
“When he got against those private schools we weren’t expected to win, and he just wore them all out,” Voitlein said. “The private school mystique didn’t affect Matt.”
Voitlein enjoyed coaching Todd Howren, Jonathan Looney, Clayton Stout and Haynes Wilkes. He credits current Science Hill coach Pete Zannis with the instruction of most of his successful tennis players, including Czuchry. But Becky McAvoy, who teamed with Susanne Land to win the state doubles titles in 1991 and ’92, believes Voitlein had more than a cameo role.
“It was a pleasure to call Coach V my tennis coach, and perhaps he didn’t have the fundamentals to teach tennis, but he had the heart to drive us to be the best we could be on any given day,” McAvoy said. “He knew that coaching was more than just the sport itself, it’s also a commitment to his players both on and off the court. There was no better voice to have cheering for you than his and … Coach V touched my life in so many ways, whether in school as a teacher, in tennis as a coach, or as we get older – a friend.
“His presence at Science Hill was a blessing that didn’t go unnoticed. He respected the students and with that came the respect for him. He was a teacher that any student could go to with school or personal problems and he would take the time to listen and offer support where he could.”
Voitlein also found many mentors at Science Hill, none more invaluable than Coach May.
“Bob May was quite an inspiration to me … a good Christian man,” Voitlein said. “I mean you talk about a 9-to-5 guy, he just strapped it on and went to work. I still think a lot of him. …
“He came up through the school of hard knocks. He always teased about coming up at – what was it, Maupin Row Beach?”
May and former players such as Toby Patton mention “energy” and “intensity” when describing Voitlein.
“Man, Coach V was intense,” Patton said. “And Coach V would do anything for you. The one thing I liked about Coach V – sometimes you’d hear about some of the people playing politics, but not Coach V. He was just like, ‘Let’s get it done.’ He was gonna get the best out of you.”
May isn’t the demonstrative type, but appreciated the fact that Voitlein is.
“Mike Voitlein was a coach that had a lot of zip and fire about him, and he wanted to kids to play that way,” May said. “He got so fired up on Friday nights. He was a fire-eating coach if there ever was one.
“And he was a very loyal and hard-working coach. If the field needed mowing, he was the first one out there. … He was on that fine (ETSU) football team that beat Terry Bradshaw and that group down South.”
Voitlein coached his first year out of college at Holston Valley, and might’ve taken a job at Sullivan East had he not done his student teaching for Snake Evans.
“It was just destined for me,” he said. “Man, I loved being around the kids, loved coaching and it was a great 33 years at Science Hill. It went by really fast.”