By Trey Williams
The last time East Tennessee State’s football team hosted a playoff game, quarterback Greg Ryan was wrapping up his career as the Buccaneers all-time leading passer, junior receiver B.J. Adigun was well on his way to becoming ETSU’s all-time leading receiver and freshman Brandon Walker was beginning his journey to become ETSU’s all-time leading rusher.
The defense was loaded, too. Linebacker Mario Hankerson would become ETSU’s all-time leader in tackles and defensive end James Russell set the Buccaneers’ career sacks record.
Indeed, coach Mike Cavan’s fifth and final team at ETSU exceptionally talented in 1996 – deep enough, in fact, to overcome the losses of Russell (ankle) and Adigun (wrist) during the program’s first playoff victory, a 35-29 defeat of Villanova in the Mini-Dome.
The victory advanced tradition-poor ETSU into the Division I-AA (FCS) quarterfinals, which Cavan was quick to note after the game.
“We’re one of eight teams still playing,” Cavan said in the postgame press conference. “If I’d told you that five years ago you’d have sent me to a psychiatric ward.”
ETSU had recorded losing seasons in eight of the previous nine years, including all five seasons under Cavan’s likeable predecessor, Don Riley.
But Cavan, who’d landed Herschel Walker for Georgia, recruited speed like seemingly no other ETSU coach ever had, and before long, the Bucs dashed onto the national scene. The win against Villanova gave ETSU its first 10-win season since 1969.
“We knew we had an opportunity to be something special in ’96,” Ryan said. “I had a lot of guys to throw to. When I first got there I had Jeff Johnson, Scotty Dykes, Chris Beatty, who’s coaching for the Los Angeles Chargers. He was the slot receiver. And then here comes Anthony Stringfield and BJ and Greg Johnson.”
The smallish Stringfield was a dyanamic quarterback in high school in Largo, Maryland. His many offers included one from Michigan State, where he would’ve been a slot receiver/kick returner. But he had to attend prep school (Hargrave Military Academy), where he met Craig Charles and defensive back Mike Scott. All three came to ETSU and Stringfield helped convince Adigun, his top target in high school, to transfer from Virginia Tech to ETSU.
“I went to Hargrave and ended up falling in love with ETSU with the help of Chris Beatty,” Stringfield said. “If it wasn’t for Beatty, I never would’ve been at ETSU. … Chris knows what he’s doing and he’s a great recruiter. He always said he was gonna be an NFL scout or an NFL coach and he did it. …
“And we had a quarterback. Greg Ryan was a winner, man – a bona fide winner. And look at what Jamey Chadwell (Ryan’s backup) is doing over at Coastal Carolina now.”
Adigun went down in the first quarter against Villanova. Stringfield reeled in the slack, catching 11 passes for 86 yards and two touchdowns. He caught a 38-yard TD on double pass from Greg Johnson for a 21-3 lead and a 14-yard TD pass from Ryan for a 28-3 lead – both in the second quarter.
Stringfield also returned a punt 32 yards to set up a TD and ran a reverse 12 yards for a first down.
“In the Villanova game and the Montana game (quarterfinals loss), I gave it everything I had,” Stringfieldsaid. “I was just trying to win.”
ETSU had a ground attack in ’96, too. Walker rushed for 1,303 yards that year as a true freshman. Brian Edwards had rushed for over 1,000 in ’94 and ran for more than 800 in ’97.
Walker ran 30 times for 128 yards and a TD against Villanova. “It was definitely exciting,” Walker said. “With the history of ETSU, it wasn’t like we were going to playoffs every year. We knew it was a big deal. The excitement in the locker room (afterward), everybody was hugging and cheering and all that stuff, it was wonderful.”
ETSU had essentially no running game in ’95, which made Ryan all the more thankful for Walker’s arrival.
“We had balance that year,” said Ryan, a competitive football junkie who wasn’t afraid to check out of a play – occasionally even when Cavan or offensive coordinator David McKnight had basically dared him to.
Ryan checked out of a third-and-long run call for a game-winning touchdown against Georgia Southern after being ordered by Cavan not to audible at halftime. It made a for a memorable postgame press conference.
“Coach Cavan starts tearing up,” Ryan said, “and says, ‘I want to publicly apologize to my quarterback Greg Ryan. I told him at halftime not to check and I’m glad he had the (guts) not to listen to me.’”
Ryan said left tackle Sam Haynie was once in the huddle suggesting to run the ball wide because his defensive end was crashing down so aggressively. In doing so, Haynie distracted Ryan from getting the signal from McKnight. So the quarterback decided to go with Haynie’s suggestion, and the play worked for a score.
“So Coach McKnight said, ‘What was that,’” Ryan said. “I said, ‘Oh, that’s something I just came up with.’ He said, ‘Oh, that was a good plan.’ And Sam was like, ‘Hey, you (jerk).’”
Villanova’s offensive coordinator was Dave Clawson, now the head coach at Wake Forest. Twelve years later, when he was the offensive coordinator at Tennessee, Clawson recalled ETSU’s speedy defense, one which included linebackers Mario Hankerson, Derek Fudge and Terrieic Robbins and defensive linemen such as Russell, Curtis Eason, Shon Galloway and Craig Charles.
But Clawson figured out how to rally the Wildcats, whose top threat, future NFL wide receiver Brian Finneran, had been lost for the season in the previous game.
Villanova got within 28-26 in the third quarter and would’ve tied the score if not for one of the 17 stops Hankerson was in on.
“They figured us out at halftime,” Stringfield said, “and they came back storming.”
Ryan connected with Greg Johnson for a TD pass with 14:48 left to stretch the lead to 35-26.
The Wildcats got another field goal and were driving when they came up inches short on a fourth-down play while advancing the ball across midfield. Hankerson and cornerback Bron Witten stopped Curtis Sifford just shy of the marker on the fourth-and-eight screen pass.
“Momentum started working in their favor,” Walker said. “But I really don’t think we lost our edge. I know I didn’t. …
“I figured we’d find a way to win just based off the season and our players. I figured somebody’s gonna make a play. We had a lot of athletes.”
The dome was over half empty that day. The announced attendance (4,939) appeared to be generous.
“I don’t wanna say it was disappointing,” Stringfield said. “I was focused on winning. But it was a letdown.”
The light turnout didn’t dampen the postgame spirits.
“The excitement in the locker room – everybody was hugging and cheering and all that stuff,” Walker said. “It was wonderful. That atmosphere was great. I definitely miss those days.”
ETSU’s season skidded to a halt on the frozen tundra of Montana the following week.
“Montana – the weather, that (frozen) field,” Walker said. “I look up and I see the mountain in the background with elk walking on it and stuff. We were sliding all over the place. They knew what they were doing. They knew how to maneuver in all that ice. We’d be in position and go sliding by. I would’ve loved to have played them at the Dome.”
ETSU’s only loss in the Mini-Dome that season came against Randy Moss-led Marshall. Villanova was confident it could repeat the feat.
“Beating Villanova was a great win and it’s the 25th anniversary,” Stringfield said. “It’s crazy. Time flies. You better make the most of it.”