Chattanooga’s long-time Southern Conference basketball rivalry with East Tennessee State, one of the most hard fought and entertaining in the league’s history, was left for dead 10 years ago when ETSU was drummed out of the league after it dropped its football program.
After years of rumors about whether ETSU, which landed in the Atlantic Sun, would be welcomed back into the SoCon, it finally happened in June, and by January of 2015, the Mocs and Buccaneers will be reunited on the court. Few doubt the series will be any less intense than it was in its glory days.
Eight or nine months later, the football rivalry between the two schools will be resurrected too, thanks to ETSU’s young, energetic, sports-loving president and three experienced principal characters who could be sipping sweet tea on the back deck of their summer cottages but couldn’t resist the challenge of giving the school a mulligan in football.
Call them the Sunshine Boys.
The movement to bring back ETSU football began almost as soon as the program was unceremoniously dropped in 2003. The school’s administration made that critical decision without consulting with the SoCon, without even telling then-coach Paul Hamilton. There was never even a formal announcement; the story was broken by the Johnson City Press after someone slipped the newspaper an email detailing the program’s demise.
Fans and alumni were shocked, disappointed and bitter. There were hard feelings that never went away.
Enter Dr. Brian Noland, hired at age 43 in 2011 to succeed outgoing president Dr. Paul Stanton, under whose watch the death knell tolled on ETSU football.
Young for a university president, Noland understands the importance of intercollegiate athletics but was also smart enough to know what he didn’t know. It was apparent to him that his constituency—students, alumni and fans—wanted to see football returned to Johnson City. To do it, Noland recruited a veteran support group.
It started with Dr. Richard Sander, who last January was persuaded by Noland to come out of retirement and take over as interim athletic director. Sander’s role was supposed to be advisory in nature, and temporary, as he stressed during a February visit to Chattanooga for an alumni gathering.
Four months later, Sander, 67, who had been retired after a long career in athletic administration, was announced as full-time athletic director.
“He can be very persuasive,” Sander said of Noland.
But even before Sander agreed to shed his interim label, he had already reached out to another gentleman of a certain age and unique experiences. Former Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer, 62, had largely stayed out of the spotlight since being fired in 2008 despite a 152-52 career record and winning the 1998 national championship. His name had been mentioned when various coaching jobs came open around the country, but Fulmer resisted the urge to jump back into the game, content with helping run an investment business and spending time with his family.
When Noland and Sander approached Fulmer to become a special assistant to the AD, the challenge laid before him was too much to resist.
“Dr. Sander and Dr. Noland both promised me that if I’d get involved in helping, that we would do it right,” said Fulmer, who was in Chattanooga on Tuesday night meeting with ETSU alumni and supporters. “Do it in a first-class manner. We’re expecting to compete at the highest level of the Southern Conference—quickly.
“We fully think there will be a division eventually of college football—the haves and the have nots. We will be in that second tier. And we want to be at the top of that second tier.”
After Fulmer became involved, he made it clear he wasn’t interested in coaching. “That came up,” he said. “But it was quickly dispelled. It was an attractive offer. But I had made the decision that I was going to play with my children and grandchildren instead of somebody else’s.”
Fulmer’s involvement sent a message that ETSU was serious about its commitment to football. That much was evident by the number of coaches who were interested in the job.
“We vetted a lot of people,” Fulmer said. “We’re talking about 100 plus. We wanted to get it right. Then we brought about 15 guys in [to interview]. And there were some really good candidates. But I could never get over the feeling, what this job is going to take … it’s going to take an incredible amount of experience. Knowledge of the area. Understanding of the culture and the people, putting a staff together that understands those things and competing in a conference that’s very competitive.”
A couple of months after the search began, a candidate who fit that criteria was announced. Carl Torbush, former head coach at Louisiana Tech and North Carolina, could have spent the remainder of his career as an assistant coach, but at 61, he too was still ready and willing to embrace a challenge.
Torbush remembers feeling shocked and saddened when ETSU dropped football. He’s from Knoxville and his wife’s from Kingsport. He coached at Carson-Newman, where his teams played ETSU. He knew what the program meant to people.
“When they dropped football 10 years ago, it didn’t hurt me as much as it did the former players and alumni, but it still hurt,” said Torbush, who joined Fulmer and Sander in Chattanooga on Tuesday night. “If you’re from the South and you’re from Tennessee, football plays a very important part of college life. It was a shocker, and I think it shocked everybody back into reality that something like that can happen.
“And we really don’t want it to happen again, so we’re going to do it right this time and do it in a first-class manner so we’ve got a chance to win.”
Torbush was convinced ETSU was serious about bringing back football when he heard his old friend Fulmer was helping guide the process.
“One of the smartest things ETSU did was getting Phillip Fulmer involved in the program,” Torbush said. “He brings instant credibility, instant name recognition and a great deal of respect.”
Fulmer says much the same thing about Torbush. Together, the grizzled veterans are committed to ETSU football’s second act.
“I tell everybody it’s kind of like buying a lot that’s got a lot of trees on it,” Torbush said. “You don’t know what it’s going to look like. You start clearing it, build that foundation, dry wall it in, then you finish it off inside.
“And you say ‘boy, did I do a great job of building this thing.’ That’s what we’ll do at ETSU.”
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