By Dave Ongie
When Carl Torbush took the podium last Friday to step down as head football coach at East Tennessee State University, he did so inside a press box overlooking a football stadium that didn’t exist when he first took the job in June of 2013.
As Torbush glanced out the window toward the field, he couldn’t help but notice it was covered in a blanket of snow, just as it was when the Bucs convened for their first scrimmage. To Torbush, that seemed to be a fitting end to what he believes is an unforgettable chapter in the history of ETSU football.
“What a way to go out. It’s like the Good Lord put us here today just to be able to see that,” Torbush said. “The first time I came here to right now – if you haven’t been here the last four or five years, you have missed a great story. Ten years from now, it will be amazing what people are talking about with this program.”
Many people have had a hand in rebuilding ETSU’s football program since it was resurrected in 2013, but there is no question that Torbush was the chief architect of what the program is today. ETSU president Dr. Brian Noland remembered the blank slate ETSU football was when Torbush came on board, and he said the opportunity to build a culture from scratch was enough to pull Torbush out of retirement and back into action.
“When he accepted the job as our head football coach, we had one football,” Noland recalled. “Everything about this program, he built. He played a visionary role in the stadium; he recruited every coach at this institution; he recruited every single student-athlete.”
On Friday, Torbush announced his impending retirement, which will take place when his contract runs out next June. ETSU athletic director Scott Carter said a search is underway for the next head coach, and Torbush will participate in a transition period as the new regime settles in.
‘Coach is retiring, but it’s not effective tomorrow,” Carter said. “His contract runs through June of 2018. We’ll start our pursuit of our next leader of ETSU Buccaneer football, and when that person is announced, we’ll go through a very professional and classy transition.”
During his time at ETSU, Torbush built a roster of players from scratch and presided over the move to William B. Greene Jr. Stadium, which opened this past fall. During his three seasons at the helm, the Bucs went from a young team that won two games in 2013 to a team full of upperclassmen on the cusp of becoming serious contenders in the Southern Conference.
Along the way, the Bucs knocked off Western Carolina at Bristol Motor Speedway in front of 13,863 fans – the largest home crowd in school history. The Bucs then capped 2016 with a shocking upset victory over No. 18 Samford. The 2017 season was defined by its near misses as the Bucs suffered several tantalizingly close losses, and by the time it was over, Torbush got the feeling the time was right to move on.
When Carter showed up in his office the Monday after Thanksgiving to talk contract extension, Torbush was having none of it.
“I went down to coach’s office and spent about an hour and a half,” Carter said. “I used to think I was a pretty good salesperson, but I was proven wrong.”
For Torbush, it became clear this past season that retirement was the right choice. He knew he didn’t want any part of a five-year extension, but a one- or two-year deal would make it difficult to recruit players looking for a place to spend the next four years. On top of that, Torbush said an anonymous survey he took of his players at the end of the season elicited an overwhelming bit of feedback when it came to his coaching style – “Way too old-school.”
“Today could be a sad day, but it’s not,” Torbush said. “Somebody asked me why I’m doing this now – it’s time. I hate to admit it. I don’t want to be 72 and coaching football. I want to be able to enjoy football and some of the other things in life.”
Torbush said he’s excited to watch the next coach take the program another step into the future on the firm foundation that has been established over the last four and a half years.
“I just feel like I’ve built this thing about how far I can take it,” he said. “I think the timing is right. I think we’ve got this thing on solid foundation. Now it’s ready for someone to come along and build a house.”