Still, a part of him always had the desire to be back home, and at 63 years old, Torbush finally has his “dream job” as the head coach of the East Tennessee State University football team.
Torbush, who went to high school in Knoxville, talked about how those past experiences helped him get back to East Tennessee.
“Coaching on that level, there is a lot of stress and strain, but there is a lot of reward,” he said. “I wouldn’t have survived some of those days without the Christian faith that I have because there have been some dark days as well as the great days. I’ve been very fortunate to be at those schools.
“But anytime we had three days off, my wife and I headed back this way to Knoxville, Sevierville or Kingsport. This area has always been home. If you would have asked me 25 years ago, a job I wanted to have, it would have been East Tennessee State. To have this opportunity this late in life, it’s a special touch.”
Torbush’s Bucs are ready to kick off a new era of ETSU football with Thursday’s game against Kennesaw State coming nearly 12 years after the program was disbanded.
Torbush, who was hired as a coach with a vision but little else in place two years ago, finds all the progress made since his hiring hard to believe.
“I don’t have a lot of time to think about it now, but when you look at it, two years ago, we didn’t have any players,” he said. “To have all the guys in those jerseys, to have the coaches, including in my opinion the best strength coach in America, great facilities, it’s really a humbling experience. It makes me have great pride in a positive way, not in a prideful way, seeing where this thing has come.
“There is no doubt the enthusiasm is at an all-time high. The way we keep that is to win some ball games and make people proud of the product we’re putting on the field.”
Still, he has been around the game a long time and he is realistic the opener won’t likely start a string of undefeated seasons.
Even though both programs are new, ETSU is an eight-point underdog to Kennesaw for the opening game. That’s not a surprise to Torbush when he sees the kind of athletes on the Kennesaw roster. Still, he doesn’t feel this Bucs team will back down from them or anyone else.
“We’re going to go through some growing pains, but we’re not going to bow down to anybody,” he said. “We’re going into every game feeling like we have a chance to win. I’m not into making predictions by any means. But if we take care of the things we can do and control, we have a chance to be competitive. We need to gain a lot of experience this year because next year will be tougher when we get in the SoCon full time.”
Torbush knows all about being in a tough league. He has been associated with five different SEC schools during his football career.
After high school, he spent one year as a walk-on linebacker at Tennessee before transferring to Carson-Newman.
As an assistant coach, he has been at four different SEC schools — Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Alabama and Texas A&M.
The two-year stint at Alabama, a school which has a record eight Associated Press national championships and claimed 14 national titles going back to the 1920s, was quite a memorable experience. The list of Alabama head coaches include legendary figures of the game like Wallace Wade, Frank Thomas, Nick Saban and Paul “Bear” Bryant. Torbush explained, however, that even the assistant coaches are incredibly popular with the fans.
“There is a mystique there,” Torbush said. “The players know they’re not only playing for themselves, but everybody who is an Alabama fan. When I say fan, it’s not just being a fan, it’s a true love for the program. If I go back there today, people still recognize me as a coach at the University of Alabama. It’s a special place as far as college fotball.”
If there is one regret over his career, Torbush points to leaving Alabama for a higher-paying job at Texas A&M. While the Aggies have their own great traditions, like the 12th Man, Torbush knew it wasn’t the right move for himself or his family.
“I should have stayed at Alabama, and I had the chance to stay,” he said. “That’s the only time in my life I remember making a decision based on money instead of heart and prayer. I’m a firm believer the Good Lord has a plan for you and he’s going to put you in a different place in your life to do the next thing.
“I had a great time in Alabama and my son still lives in Tuscaloosa because he fell in love with it. I went to A&M and it was a great job, but it was time to come back home. That was one reason I came back to Carson-Newman. That, and I had a special love for (head coach) Ken Sparks.”
One person whom Torbush got to know while at Texas A&M was a basketball assistant named Steve Forbes. The two quickly became good friends and remain so to this day with Forbes now in his first year as basketball coach at ETSU.
“Coach Forbes is a great guy,” he said. “We didn’t see each other much at Texas A&M because we had guys who would work us to death, but our wives were in the same Bible study. He’s a great guy with a great personality, who as I call it, came up the dirt road. If you go through his history, he had to work to get where he is.”
Torbush has made it a point to become friends with coaches in the other sports, something that proved valuable over his career.
It doesn’t hurt that he has such an appreciation for all sports and in his 60s, he still plays summer baseball against guys half and even a third of his age.
He’s often seen at ETSU baseball games supporting coach Tony Skole and has known women’s basketball coach Brittney Ezell since she was a player at Alabama.
“I’ve always been an athletic guy and I like to watch the other teams play,” he said. “We’re going to be there for them and they’re going to be there for us. I think we’ve got a great family atmosphere here at ETSU and that’s not true most places where coaches are usually out for themselves. We do it because we’re friends when we’re not coaching.”
Friendships with other coaches have paid off through the years.
In fact, it was one of college basketball’s most revered figures who endorsed Torbush heavily for the head coaching job at North Carolina.
“Dean Smith was one of the reasons I got the head coaching job when Mack (Brown) left,” Torbush said. “He went in there and told (former athletic director) Dick Baddour that I should be the guy they hire. I always had a great relationship with coaches Smith and (Bill) Guthridge. Both of them have passed on, but they’re two of the smartest men I’ve every been around.
“Everybody said that North Carolina was a basketball school, but I saw it as an athletic school because they were great in baseball, soccer, a lot of sports. Football held its own, obviously not to the level of those other sports, but if I had a football player and Coach Smith was getting ready to play Duke, I could bring him in there and he would talk to that kid just like he was getting ready to play a scrimmage game. That’s how open and helpful he was.”
North Carolina was, like ETSU, a place Torbush had always dreamed of coaching.
He was born in North Carolina and lived there 11 years before his father’s railroad job took the family to Knoxville.
Back in North Carolina for 13 years as a coach, including three as the Tar Heels’ head coach, Torbush made his reputation as a great defensive mind. With a line led by future Dallas Cowboys star Greg Ellis, the Tar Heels had back-to-back seasons of 10 and 11 wins in 1996-97.
“Over a three-year period, we led the nation in total defense by 40 yards,” he said. “I wish I could say it was all good coaching, but we had guys who were top-two or three draft choices. We had a great run there and I enjoyed my time there. We had some great players like Dre Bly and Robert Williams who were the starting cornerbacks and were the reason we could do so much up front. They wouldn’t let anybody catch the ball. They were that good. I had some great, great times there. Obviously with a lot of those guys over the years, we’ve gone from a player-coach relationship to a friend-friend relationship.”
There have been plenty of friendly relationships in Johnson City since athletic director Richard Sander and special football consultant Phil Fulmer asked Torbush to come out of retirement.
Torbush, who stepped down as Kansas defensive coordinator in 2011 after a bout with cancer, talked about he and his wife being happy to be back home with the dream job in hand.
“We’re really happy now, but we haven’t lost any games yet,” he said. “But, I had that run with prostate cancer and we came back home. We went to Liberty (where he served as linebackers coach one season) and got homesick, but it wasn’t the Lord’s will that I retire.
“Coach Fulmer and coach Sander called and the rest is history. Obviously, it’s been a great, great time for me personally to build it from scratch. It’s a place I call home and I have a lot of friends here so it’s a lot of fun to see where we can take this in 3-5 years.”