By Trey Williams
The East Tennessee State football team’s comeback victory against Mercer on Saturday clinched the first outright conference title for the Buccaneers since John Robert Bell’s squad won the Ohio Valley Conference with a 6-0-1 record in 1969.
Of course, that team is best known for capping the season by sacking Terry Bradshaw 12 times en route to a 34-14 upset of Louisiana Tech in the Grantland Rice Bowl in Baton Rouge.
Greeneville alum Doug Linebarger, a senior All-American linebacker, had two sacks and an interception, and ends Willie Bush and Ronnie Mendheim repeatedly sacked and pressured Bradshaw.
In fact, Bush sacked Bradshaw for a 13-yard loss on Tech’s first play from scrimmage. Two plays later, Mendheim sacked him and Bush recovered a Bradshaw fumble at the Louisiana Tech 17.
“We were just on him like you just couldn’t believe,” Bush said half a century later. “That first play, Ronnie Mendheim – oh, he was out of his head that day. He was a character.”
The Bulldogs were two-touchdown favorites, which was understandable. Tech was the defending Rice Bowl champion (33-13 over Akron) and Bradshaw was not only the reigning Rice Bowl MVP, he was six weeks away from being selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers with the first overall pick in the NFL Draft. Bradshaw would quarterback the Steelers to four Super Bowl victories and was twice named the Super Bowl MVP.
And the sixth annual bowl was being played for the first time in Baton Rouge, where a large crowd essentially made it a home game for the 6-foot-3, 220-pound, strong-armed Shreveport native.
As for ETSU, as 9-0-1 teams go, it was rather underwhelming. The Bucs opened the season by scoring 11 points in the final five-plus minutes to defeat Appalachian State, 18-16, at home. It was the first of six one-score victories in ‘69.
ETSU concluded the regular season with narrow victories against Middle Tennessee (27-21) and Austin Peay (14-12), which recorded respective next-to-last and last-place finishes in the OVC.
The Bucs’ tie came against Murray State (10-10) on a rainy October 25th in Johnson City, dropping them from No. 7 to No. 10 in the Top 25. From there, ETSU would drop all the way to No. 20 despite finishing the regular season with wins against Morehead State, Middle Tennessee and Austin Peay.
But the Bucs defense was formidable. It held No. 4 Eastern Kentucky (7-0), Western Kentucky (16-7) and Tennessee Tech (30-7) to a combined 14 points, and those teams accounted for second place and a third-place tie in the final OVC standings.
Linebarger said the defense had excellent coaches. First-year coordinator Franklin Brooks had played guard at Georgia Tech in the early ‘50s when Bell was on Bobby Dodd’s staff. Secondary coach Buddy Bennett – the defensive backs were known as “Buddy’s Bandits” – was later Bill Battle’s first secondary coach at Tennessee, where Tim Priest and Bobby Majors helped the Volunteers intercept 36 passes that season.
“Quarterback pressure was the tool we used to combat Bradshaw’s superior passing game,” Linebarger said. “Not that we had a bad pass defense; we had a really good pass defense. We intercepted 34 passes that season. But, given time, Terry Bradshaw could thread a needle at 40 yards. He really could. He was something.”
Brooks, who later coached with Pepper Rodgers at Georgia Tech, noticed that Bradshaw dropped back 2-3 steps farther than most quarterbacks, allowing receivers to get downfield and utilize his arm strength. So Bush and Mendheim lined up wider than usual.
“And that made the angle that the defensive ends rushed not so steep,” Linebarger said. “The offensive line had to expand their range and go wider, and because they included a tight end in their pass schemes a whole lot, that left one of the ends wide open.”
Bennett’s secondary included safety Al Guy, brother of future Oakland Raiders Hall of Famer Ray Guy, and cornerbacks Bill Casey and Jerry Weston. Guy recovered a fumble, accounted for one of Bradshaw’s three interceptions and deflected a pass that linebacker Bubba Timms intercepted.
Bennett’s charisma was still apparent at Bell’s funeral in 2009. He said his defensive backs were always willing to work – and it paid off.
“I thought those two cornerbacks, Casey and Weston, were the strength of our defense with what they were able to do,” Linebarger said. “They were so good at what they did that they allowed us to play man-to-man and they just shut down the receivers. And if they felt the wide receiver blocking them, they shut down the run coming to their side.”
ETSU’s offense was led by quarterback Larry Graham, who some teammates described as relatively pedestrian.
“He was very good,” Linebarger said, “but his statistics are nothing like (Wink) Baker or a lot of those guys before or after.”
Graham was 11-of-17 passing for 137 yards and two TDs against Louisiana Tech. Jerry Daughtry ran for 106 yards and a TD, and his 62-yard run set up a TD run by Mike “Snake” Young. Young also threw a 37-yard TD pass on a halfback option toss to Pat Hauser, who went on to return kicks for the Miami Dolphins in exhibition games before tearing up a knee.
Young had played at Hampton. Bush was from Appalachia, where he played his final two seasons for Jim Riggs after integration.
Prior to that, he’d played for Bland in nearby Big Stone Gap. Bush recalls being outmanned when Bland played Langston (Johnson City).
The ’69 Bucs’ Mountain Empire products included Weston (Ketron), All-OVC center John Walton (Dobyns-Bennett) and offensive lineman Butch Buchanan (Science Hill).
Linebarger noted his Greeneville team defeating Buchanan’s Hilltoppers, which was especially satisfying after losing to Steve Spurrier-led Science Hill earlier in his career. Linebarger, who has homes in Johnson City and Gulf Shores, Alabama, was an All-American at ETSU.
Linebarger went on to become an SEC official and officiated some of Spurrier’s games at Florida and South Carolina. He officiated the 2005 national championship game when Reggie Bush and Southern Cal raced past Oklahoma.
“Doug, I must say, was a heck of a linebacker,” Bush said. “I think he was the epitome of a linebacker. … Doug could fill holes with backs coming into the gap. Doug would hit you. He’d bring the lead.”
The Buccaneers came out of nowhere in ’69. Bell’s record at ETSU prior to that season was 11-17-1. They were always home for the holidays.
“When we were practicing to go to the Rice Bowl we had no experience in postseason at all,” Linebarger said. “Our season was over in the middle of November, always before Thanksgiving. So we had to stay on campus for Thanksgiving and practice.”
The Bucs had three weeks to prepare for the Dec. 13 bowl game.
“It got to be drudgery about the start of the second week,” Linebarger said, “and we had a really bad practice where we were hanging our heads. Coach Bell called everybody in together and said, ‘All right, boys, I get the feeling you don’t really want to be here. So just take the rest of the day off, and we might come back tomorrow and we might not. Check in with us and we’ll see.’”
Bush described Bell as a “father figure” – and seeing him frustrated helped swing the momentum for the remainder of bowl preparation. And what game-planning it was.
Linebarger’s cousin, a corporate executive, was at a banquet in Texas once where Bradshaw was the speaker.
“My cousin was at the table,” Linebarger said, “and he asked him something about that game and Bradshaw said, ‘Oh yeah, I remember that game. Who was your cousin?’ And he told him, and he didn’t remember the name but he remembered the number. One of them said, ‘Sixty-three,’ and he said, ‘Oh, yea, I remember him.’ And he sure remembered 89 (Mendheim) and 85 (Bush) and 24 (Bubba Timms) – all those guys. He told my cousin it was a very tough game and we wore ‘em out.”
Bradshaw did gain respect from ETSU. Despite being sacked 12 times and picked off three others, he completed 20 of 39 for 299 yards, often while scrambling.
Along with all the sacks, Bradshaw absorbed hard hits on a number of non-sacks, including a shot to the ribs from Bush on a pass that Timms intercepted after Guy had tipped it. Bradshaw had to be helped off the field, but returned.
“I’ve gotta give him credit,” Bush said. “He was a fighter, because he stood upright. And he had an arm. As we would say back in those days, he had a rifle. Man, he could sling that ball. And he was faster than we had thought once he got going.
“He was pretty good and on target … when he was standing up.”