By Trey Williams
Lightning forced East Tennessee State’s Saturday night intrasquad football scrimmage from Kermit Tipton Stadium to the Mini-Dome, where galloping ghosts stormed the field.
Saturday football in Johnson City was strange enough when coach Carl Torbush’s Buccaneers were warming up at Tipton Stadium, especially if you were talking to Derek Fudge and Adam Walton about the era when they helped ETSU reach the FCS quarterfinals in 1996. But when the Bucs had to audible and reroute to the dome, blasts from the past blitzed the setting.
Mobile quarterback Nick Sexton evoked images of Mark Hutsell, and Sexton’s 45-yard TD pass to Anthony Spagnoletti brought to mind plays when B.J. Adigun and Cecil Moore dashed under long throws from Greg Ryan and Todd Wells.
There was no need to conjure visions of ex-ETSU receiver Mike Rader or linebacker Billy Taylor; they were on the field coaching.
Rader, who returned to ETSU after a successful three-year stint as head coach at Maryville College, said being in the dome’s “surreal.” He played football, basketball and baseball at Science Hill, and was on Bernie Young’s state championship baseball team in ’98. He was a senior receiver at ETSU in 2002 and a graduate assistant the following year, the final season, it appeared, the Bucs might ever play football.
So ETSU’s second chance to make a first impression, Rader says, isn’t being taken lightly. And everything from Phil Fulmer’s consulting to Scott Niswonger’s investing is resonating.
“The support we’re getting in the community is phenomenal,” Rader said. “And I think that starts with President (Brian) Noland. I think it starts with him and the administration he’s assembled. … Everywhere I go I see the new logo and it just makes me proud to be a part of it.”
Rader arrived at ETSU the same year as teammate Scott Carter, who’s now the senior associate athletic director under AD Richard Sander.
“Scott and I have been close since we came in in ’98,” Rader said. “Scott and I took every single grad-school class together. Our wives are friends. He had the entire staff over today (Sunday). … It is a really fun working environment.”
Torbush is the catalyst for the uplifting atmosphere. He grew up in East Spencer, N.C., a railroad town between Charlotte and Greensboro, before moving to Knoxville. He graduated in the first integrated class at Austin-East (’69), played football and baseball at Carson-Newman and played in the Kansas City Royals organization in 1975 in Sarasota, Fla., where the players included Clint Hurdle.
ETSU had options when it chose Torbush, including Billy Taylor. But whether he’s dining with the likes of Harry Harman, P.C. Snapp, Pete Paduch and Jack Cox at the Shamrock or visiting with local legends such as Ernie Ferrell Bowman, Eugene “Red” Gillespie, Graham Spurrier, Skeeter Swift and Johnny Russaw (ETSU football’s Jackie Robinson), Torbush has faith he’s where he’s supposed to be.
“Coach Torbush is as fine as any man I’ve ever been around,” Taylor said. “He has high character and he lives his faith every day. He’s a positive influence in my life and I’m blessed to be around him.”
Taylor’s been associated with some dandies. He was Buddy Sasser’s first recruit at ETSU in ’83 and played on Mike Ayers’ team that beat North Carolina State in ’87 (Bucs assistant Mike O’Cain was on Dick Sheridan’s NC State staff).
Taylor was the first coach Paul Hamilton hired when he succeeded SMU-bound Mike Cavan in ’97 and he was Torbush’s first hire after spending a combined 10 seasons at Elon, Chattanooga and Tennessee Tech.
“The whole time I was there at those different places it never really felt like home, because ETSU’s the only place I’ve ever wanted to be in my coaching career,” said Taylor, who played at Morristown West. “I’d rather be coaching at ETSU than Notre Dame or UT or any other place in the country. This is the place that I chose to go to school and I had such a great time while I was playing and forged such great relationships while I was here.
“I would not have gone to college if it wasn’t for football. I remember my brother went to Tennessee Tech, and his first game as a college football player was in the dome in 1981. They opened up at East Tennessee. I walked in the dome that day and whenever I walked in I thought, ‘This is where I want to go to school.’ … And now it is a privilege to be a part of watching other young men have the same experience as I did.”
Standouts in Saturday’s scrimmage included receiver Malik Styles. Rader said Styles (Jefferson County), Adam Mitchell (Tennessee High) and Charlie Moore (Sullivan South) have all had their moments. Frontrunners to start at receiver are Drake Powell (Clinton), Hunter Wike (Canton, N.C.) and Demetrius Anthony (Fountain Inn, S.C.).
Torbush complimented quarterbacks Sexton (Seymour) and Austin Herink (Cleveland), linebacker Dylan Weigel (Pickerington, Ohio) and running backs Cory Colder (Ashburn, Va.), Tony Drew (Nashville-MBA), Artevius Smith (Pinson, Ala.) and JaJuan Stinson (Knox Central).
“It’s an exciting time right now,” said Torbush, whose Bucs open Thursday, Sept. 3 against Kennesaw State. “I see a lot of athleticism. I see some guys really working hard to get better.”
Following the scrimmage players waved to spectators before Torbush briefly thanked the “wonderful crowd” via megaphone.
“Thank y’all for coming out. God bless, and go Bucs,” Torbush said in a southern gentlemanly voice that echoed in the dome long enough to summon a final spirited vision – the smile of ETSU legend John Robert Bell.