By Trey Williams
Mark Hutsell came to East Tennessee State in 1976 with a rifle arm accurate enough to shoot down the likes of and Phil Simms-led Morehead State, nationally ranked Chattanooga and eventual national champion Eastern Kentucky.
He was also the free spirit of ’76, a swashbuckling Buccaneer who could burn the candle at both ends and light up scoreboards in an era when wild and wooly Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler proved you didn’t have to beat curfew to beat quality opponents.
Hutsell, who’ll tell you he’s long since quit painting towns red, wouldn’t have been at ETSU if not for his thirst for adventure. A senior at Boone High School in Orlando, he was being recruited by the likes of Miami, Georgia, Kentucky and North Carolina State when he picked the wrong time to enter the wrong nightclub when he was a few months shy of the legal drinking age.
Hutsell and teammate Craig Adams, who was getting calls from Bear Bryant, ran into the junior varsity coach, and come Monday, Hutsell was off the team.
His phone quit ringing. But former ETSU player John Rauch had been the offensive coordinator under a different head coach during Hutsell’s junior season, and Rauch steered Hutsell to Johnson City.
Before he knew it, Hutsell was a regular at Sammy’s Apex bar and grill and running with senior tight end “Big” Tom Buchanan – a Saltville, Virginia product who became a star of sorts on the “Survivor” TV show.
“He was the toughest player I ever played with and, by far, the funniest,” Hutsell said. “He was the most one-of-a-kind person I’ve ever met. I followed him around like a puppy. I knew we were going to have a blast.”
Hutsell could see early on that he was going to have a ball on the field, too. With skill players around him such as future NFL running backs Earl Ferrell and Van Williams and receivers Arnold Thomas, Dennis Law and Myron Chestnut, Hutsell ushered in the Mini-Dome era by engineering exciting offenses and filling the indoor air with spirals.
Arguably the most memorable game was a 35-0 rout of undefeated Chattanooga in October of ’79. Hutsell, who set all of ETSU’s major passing records, was 23 of 32 for 284 yards and four touchdowns while making surprisingly light work of the nationally ranked Mocs. It was the 10th game ever in Memorial Center and the first sellout (12,331).
The upset proved to be the only Southern Conference loss for Chattanooga, which went on to finish 9-2 and win the league title.
“I think they were 20- to 25-point favorites,” Hutsell said. “So we just caught them on a day where, you know, we couldn’t do anything wrong, man. Obviously, you shut somebody out, all you have to do is kick a field goal to win the game. I mean, I only played a little more than a half, which was shocking.”
Hutsell said if the teams had met 10 times, Chattanooga probably would’ve won eight or nine times.
“It was one of those days in your lifetime that you had one where it’s like, ‘Wow, you beat somebody way better than you are,’” Hutsell said. “It was just our day. No question, it was the best overall team game that I’ve ever been a part of – just not even close.”
Hutsell threw his first TD pass to Ferrell, who could later be seen on TV with the St. Louis Cardinals. Another TD pass went to fullback Johnny McFall and two went to Thomas.
“My all-time favorite, because I got to play a lot more with him, was Arnold Thomas,” Hutsell said. “He was a phenomenal receiver. But we had a guy the first two years here, Dennis Law, and he was a third round pick with the Cincinnati Bengals. He ran about a 4.3 40. He could fly.”
Law had five catches for the Bengals in the 1978 season.
Hutsell also greatly appreciated the high-leaping, sure-handed 5-foot-8, 155-pound Chestnut, who had been a running back at Miami Central in the same backfield as Elvis Peacock (Oklahoma).
Chestnut said Hutsell’s adventurous style made quite an impression, especially during the final two seasons under old-school disciplinarian Jack Carlisle.
“Mark was competitive and fun loving, you know, happy go lucky,” Chestnut said. “He wanted to have his cake and eat it too, so to speak. He wanted to go out and do his thing on a personal level, enjoy life. So he would — he would take his risks. We were supposed to be in and he did a lot of things behind the scenes that I’m sure most of us probably knew about it — the players did.
“But you know, at the same time, he did not sacrifice coming out on that football field and doing what it took to make sure he was up to the task in performing his job. The two never interfered with one another. But yeah, he did not relent when it came to his personal enjoyment. He had a good time. And I’ll just put it that way. I remember, I mean, after games, oh, my goodness, I would just hope that they would never get in trouble or they would never, you know, have any issues outside of the campus and what have you, because, you know, they let it – they let it loose.”
Everyone felt like partying after the rout of Chattanooga in ’79, a victory aided by a rocking atmosphere.
“I saw people when we were coming to the stadium – and you talk about filled to capacity – there were people outside standing, wanting to buy tickets,” Chestnut said. “They’re asking, ‘You have any extra tickets? You have any extra tickets?’ You know, so it was vicious noise from the crowd that really helped us out too, because it was a dome stadium and, you know, the noise level was like playing in a big basketball arena.”
Chestnut and Hutsell each noted the overall athleticism of the Bucs in the late ‘70s. The dome was certainly beneficial for recruiting at the time.
“We had NFL players,” Hutsell said. “I love Van Williams. Him and Earl split time. We had a fullback, Johnny McFall. We ran the veer, but we threw a bunch out of it. So I had Van and Earl back there. … Van went on to Carson-Newman and had a great career and then got drafted by the Buffalo Bills. But we loved having him and Earl in there at the same time.”
Beating Chattanooga was Hutsell’s most gratifying moment in terms of team victories. But beating Appalachian State 35-34 in Boone in ’78 and defeating Morehead State with future Super Bowl MVP Phil Simms in ’77 provided his favorite moments personally.
Ranked 11th nationally in passing prior to the memorable game at Appalachian State, which featured four ties, Hutsellcompleted 23 of 35 passes for 297 yards. He drove the Bucs 69 yards in nine plays for a game-winning 2-yard TD pass to Jimmy Dykes with 47 seconds left.
“I was the AP national back of the week after that win against Chattanooga,” Hutsell said. “But the best game I think I played was the year before that, my sophomore year, when we came from behind to beat Appalachian State, 35-34. And I got to throw a touchdown pass to my roommate, Jimmy Dykes, who was an all-state running back at Church Hill. So that was probably the best game I’ve played, because I think it made more of a difference in that game. …
“We went down and had the last two-minute drive to win it. Against Chattanooga the whole team played unbelievable.”
Coming back from an ankle injury at Morehead State in ’77, coach Roy Frazier’s final season, Hutsell spelled Sammy Simpson in the final 90 seconds for the hurry-up drill.
The Lexington Herald’s Barry Forbis wrote, “With his team trailing by two points, the gutsy sophomore signal caller hobbled onto the field. His heavily taped ankle ruled out any chance of a run. He was in there to pass.”
And Hutsell passed the test, connecting with Charles Clark for a 20-yard score in the final minute to lift the Bucs to a 37-34 victory.
ETSU might’ve won again the following year against Simms’ Eagles during Carlisle’s first year, but Hutsell was scared to check out of a two-point conversion play-call that Carlisle made after he’d thrown a last-second 45-yard TD pass to Thomas.
It was the fourth scoring strike of the game for Hutsell, who was 19-of-27 passing for 244 yards. But his two-point conversion fell incomplete.
“The Hail Mary was the weirdest thing ever,” Hutsell said. “Most of those Hail Marys are a tip-job or whatever, but they had a freshman free safety that stopped about the 5-yard line and I threw a line-drive right over his head. And Arnold caught it like a deep post. You never see a Hail Mary like that. He was open and I threw a touchdown.
“Well, our head coach, Jack Carlisle, threw his headphones off (excitedly) and he called the last play and we went for two to win it. He calls the wrong play and our offensive coordinator (Keith Daniels) was furious. I thought I was gonna change the play but I said, ‘If our head coach calls this, I can’t.’ And they brought a blitz and got to me and I couldn’t do anything. I threw it up in the air. We didn’t get the extra point and we lost, 31-30.”
Hutsell saw the safety creeping up on the play and was certain that if he called an audible it would work. But he wasn’t going to risk landing in Carlisle’s doghouse.
“I loved Coach Carlisle,” Hutsell said. “He was so kind – after you graduated. But there was a fear factor with him you can’t imagine. He had a wooden leg. Yeah, he had an artificial leg, probably weighed 135 pounds and there was not a guy on our team that wasn’t scared to death of him.”
Carlisle called for a sprint-out to the right on the conversion.
“I would’ve checked to the other side,” Hutsell said. “The play wasn’t that bad a play, but they brought the strong safety. I saw him coming but I couldn’t check off. If our offensive coordinator would’ve called it he would’ve said, ‘If you need to check, check.’
“But I could not do it with the head coach calling the play. And we had no timeouts for me to go, ‘Coach, are you sure you want to do this?’ And so we ran it anyway. I figured I’d try to make something happen. It didn’t happen.”
As it turned out, that wasn’t Hutsell’s last encounter with Simms.
“Eight years later, Phil Simms wins MVP of the Super Bowl against the Broncos and has one of the best games a quarterback’s ever had,” Hutsell said. “He comes to Orlando for a big boat show to cut the ribbon. My cousin Jodie was Miss Orlando. So I said, ‘I’m gonna go down and see if Jodie can get me to meet him.’ And so I brought a bunch of my buddies down there to meet him. I wanted to see if he remembered the game.
“She got us in there to get to meet him right before he’s cutting the ribbons. He said, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ I said Phil, ‘I got to ask you, I’ve got my friends here, ‘Do you remember that game?’ He said, ‘Man, I’ll never forget that game. Are you kidding?’ So that was kind of neat for me — for my buddies to see him like, ‘Yeah, that’s true. That’s what happened.’
“I actually threw four touchdown passes. I think he only threw 12 passes because he’s got a hurt shoulder. And, of course, you know, he’s the seventh person picked in the ’79 NFL Draft by the Giants.”
Hutsell was certain he’d be drafted in 1980, especially after capping his ETSU career by becoming the first Buccaneer to play in the Blue-Gray Game – an all-star game played in Montgomery, Ala., on Christmas Day. He completed a pass to future San Francisco 49ers running back Earl Cooper and admired the talent of the Blue’s Art Monk.
Hutsell also enjoyed the daily $25 per diem for food. An abundance of available free food left him proud to have pocketed $150 that week, and the chuckling he may or may not have heard from other All-Stars when noting his payday could’ve been when he found out that playing football at other schools would’ve been more lucrative.
“That was pretty cool to be on TV playing on Christmas day,” he said.
Hutsell got rave reviews from coaches, which were packaged for a Blue-Gray pregame release.
“In my four years here at Northern Illinois, I can’t think of a better quarterback we have seen,” said NIU coach Pat Culpepper, whose Huskies beat ETSU 21-14 in ’79 in DeKalb. “I can’t think of a cooler quarterback under pressure I have seen. … He is an outstanding field leader, and that is the bottom line in quarterbacking.”
Hutsell was 16-of-23 passing for 204 yards, including a 9-yard TD pass that gave the Bucs a 27-17 lead, in a 27-20 defeat of Eastern Kentucky in 1979. The Colonels went on to defeat Lehigh 30-7 in the national championship game at Orlando Stadium.
“I was actually down there at it,” Hutsellsaid.
The Colonels’ Kidd might’ve gotten bad vibes had he seen Hutsell in Orlando.
“Mark Hutsell is the best we have gone against in a long time,” Kidd said in ’79. “He can lay the ball in a tight spot and can do so much. He is a good option quarterback. I have a lot of respect for that kid.”
But Hutsell got no respect from the NFL. Listed at 6-foot-1, he was precisely 5-foot-11 1/2 inches tall. He thought he would go late in the NFL Draft and is sure his height is why he came up short of his dream.
He’d passed up multiple offers from the Canadian Football League, which started prior to the NFL Draft back then. In hindsight, he’d happily have pursued a career in the CFL.
Instead, he played a season in a league for a team in Charleston, W.Va., where he got one percent of the gate. It translated to roughly $500 a week. One season was enough.
“If I had it to do again, I should’ve went to Canada,” Hutsell said. “I heard from British Columbia, Edmonton, Toronto, you know, four or five teams. But I kind of made it known to them that I wasn’t gonna go there. In fact, Toronto came here and I told ’em, ‘I’m gonna wait for the NFL Draft’ – because at the time when I was coming up, the Canadian League actually started prior to the NFL Draft. And they can only have so many Americans on the team. … They said, ‘Okay.’ Well, they went right down the street and signed Jimmy Streeter, the quarterback at Tennessee.”
Hutsell greatly enjoyed his time at ETSU. Everything from the suds at Tu La Fe to floating the Nolichucky River could wet his appetite.
“I loved the mountains and being away from heat and humidity of Florida,” he said. “The prettiest day I’d been on this earth back in ’78, about mid-October, was when we went and beat Appalachian State. What a beautiful ride over there. And we came from behind to beat ’em, you know, and just the bus ride back through Elizabethton and all those mountains – it was beautiful.”
Playing for Carlisle could get ugly. His artificial leg somehow made him more intimidating.
“He was a tough son of a gun,” Hutsellsaid. “He gave the greatest halftime speeches in the history of football. And he got me one time. He said, ‘Hutsell, my mother could outrun you.’ When I went into halftime, he was so mean and funny that I would just take the towel that I was wiping off with and just bite it because I didn’t want to laugh, because, you know, I wouldn’t have played. And then he turned around and said, ‘Hell, I could outrun you.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, coach, I think I could take you.’
“But I didn’t say anything. I was biting that towel as hard as I could. And our punter Reed Nelson said, ‘ Don’t worry about it. You’d kick his (butt) in the 40.’ Of course, I just bit into that towel as hard as I could. But he was a classic.”
Carlisle praised Hutsell when he was preparing for the Blue-Gray game.
“Mark can read a defense as well as anyone I have ever seen,” Carlisle said. “He has a strong arm, is intelligent and very coachable.”
Hutsell enjoyed playing for Frazier and offensive coordinator L.T. Helton as well. He recalled linebacker Gene “Torch” Venable setting fire to the ETSU cheerleader float during the homecoming parade. Frazier’s wife Jean was the cheerleading coach.
“How funny is that,” Hutsell said.
Semi-retired from his packaging business, Hutsell moved back to Johnson City some 5-6 years ago, around the time that ETSU’s rebooted football program went back to a new on-campus stadium. And not long afterward, Hutsell began commentating on ETSU games for ESPN3 and the Buccaneer Sports Network.
He’s excited about the Bucs hosting Chattanooga on Saturday afternoon. The Mocs, who have routed all three of their FCS opponents (Wofford, Eastern Illinois, North Alabama) this season, will likely be favored. But Hutsell knows stranger things have happened to UTC football teams on Saturdays in Johnson City.