By Scott Robertson
Money games are as much a part of college football as pads, helmets and making fun of Lane Kiffin. Every autumn, big time college programs take a break from lining up against like-sized programs to drop a quick 60-or-so points on a smaller school. The big school gets a chance to catch its collective breath and virtually assure its fans of a home win. The smaller school gets a cash infusion that only playing in a 70,000-plus-seat stadium can bring.
So when East Tennessee State University announced it was starting a new football program (kickoff is now fewer than 200 days away), one of the first questions on the lips of local media was, “When’s the first money game, and who’s the opponent?” Last week, the ETSU athletic department confirmed media speculation that the best possible money game had been signed. ETSU will travel to Knoxville to play on Shields-Watkins Field in Neyland Stadium against the Tennessee Volunteers.
It won’t happen until 2018, ETSU Assistant Athletic Director Scott Carter told News & Neighbor, and there’s a very specific reason why.
“We have to be established in our steps of building a program from a scholarship base before we are actually what the NCAA calls ‘a counter,’” Carter says. “A program has to be at 90 percent of its awardable scholarships before it can play what I still call a 1-A opponent like Tennessee. You actually could still play them, but a win against you would not help them toward bowl eligibility. 2018 is likely to be the first year that ETSU will be eligible by that standard.”
Many observers have speculated that Carter’s association with U.T. (his most recent position before taking his current job at ETSU was in development at the athletic department in Knoxville), combined with his history as a Buccaneer player (Carter played fullback during the Paul Hamilton era at ETSU) made it easier for ETSU to get a game in Knoxville than it has been in years past. The Bucs have never played the Vols.
Yet it was another ETSU man with history at Tennessee who first posited the idea. Carl Torbush, ETSU’s head football coach grew up in Knoxville and walked on at Tennessee before playing his collegiate ball at Carson-Newman.
“Coach Torbush and I were working on this before I ever set foot on campus (in Johnson City),” Carter says. “I had about a two-month time period when I was making sure that I left my position at Tennessee the right way. During that time, Carl and I were talking. He was bringing me up to speed on what was happening with the program in Johnson City, and he dreamed (an ETSU-UT game) up. I began working on it then. So it’s been on our minds for 14 to 15 months.”
Tennessee has hosted most of the other universities in the state at one point or another. Austin-Peay, Memphis, Tennessee-Martin and Tennessee-Chattanooga have all played money games at Neyland Stadium in the last few years. Tennessee Tech is an upcoming opponent for the Vols.
“It’s good for Tennessee to play the other universities in the state,” Carter says. “It’s good for the area. It’s good for kids that grow up here and dream of playing college football.”
“That was part of the discussion I had with (Tennessee Athletic Director) David Hart before I left Tennessee, during my transition from Tennessee to ETSU. I said, ‘Dave, you know you gotta play us.’ And he smiled and he said, ‘Well, you know, that’s something we’d like to talk about.’”
“I said to him, ‘It would mean so much,’” Carter remembers. “’I’m not asking for every year,’ Carter told Hart, ‘but just put us in the rotation. It’s a really good thing that a lot of other state schools have started to do.’”
Carter says he knew that if he could get Hart to verbally commit to hosting ETSU, the game would happen. “If Dave Hart tells you he’s going to do something,” Carter says, “then he’s going to to do it. He’s a man of his word.”
Early in the fall of 2014, Hart told Carter, “In 2018 it looks like it will work out. Let us get through the 2014 season, then sometime in the spring we’ll get a contract executed.”
Terms were discussed at that point, Carter says, but ETSU wanted to be respectful of the timeframe Hart had outlined. So Carter kept the faith until Tennessee had ended its season. At that point, he says, he, Torbush and ETSU Athletic Director Richard Sander had a conversation in which they came to the conclusion that if Tennessee could expedite the process, ETSU’s recruiting could benefit from it. “So rather than release it in March or April, we thought maybe we could do it right before signing day.”
John Gilbert, executive senior associate athletic director for Tennessee, agreed in principle to that idea. “He said, ‘I can’t promise you anything, but I understand why you’re calling. We’d be calling to if we were in your position,’” Carter remembers.
Tennessee originated a contract within 24 hours and ETSU endorsed it and sent it back. That was the last week of January.
The Johnson City Press’ Joe Avento broke the story that ETSU would play UT before the contract was signed by all parties involved, though Carter says he did not leak the story. “I gave (Tennessee) my word,” Carter says.
Still, word of ETSU’s money game got out in time for national recruiting day.
The Sept. 8, 2018 ETSU-Tennessee game will be played almost 20 years to the day after Carter had his first money game experience. Carter was a redshirt freshman when the Bucs traveled to play the University of Miami in the Orange Bowl, Sept. 5, 1998. “If I’m not mistaken, Miami had nine players that went on to play NFL football on that team,” Carter remembers. “We took it on the chin that game.” The final score was 66-17.
Carter would later play in money games at Mississippi State, Colorado State, North Carolina State and Pittsburgh. The Bucs lost each of those games, but Carter says the memories of playing in front of huge crowds against overwhelming odds have long since overshadowed the bumps and bruises.
“Those are good memories.,” Carter says. “You remember those games. I think (money games) are a great part of college football.” And in 2018, a whole new team of Bucs will have the chance to find that out for themselves.