By Trey Williams
The East Tennessee State football team’s dramatic comeback victory against Kennesaw State on Saturday secured the program’s first FCS quarterfinals berth in 25 years.
The Buccaneers’ only previous quarterfinals appearance, on a half-frozen field at Montana, is where all-time leading passer Greg Ryan’s career was completed.
ETSU never had a chance, slippin’ and slidin’ to a 44-14 setback against the second-ranked Grizzlies. Along with essentially no footing, Mike Cavan’s Bucs were without second-leading receiver B.J. Adigun. And career sacks leader James Russell (ankle) and starting center Wes Jones (illness) were unavailable the majority of the day.
The outcome seemed obvious early enough that much of the second half was spent reflecting on Ryan’s exceptional career.
The record-setting quarterback from Class A Greenback – ETSU coaches and teammates called him “Greenback” – could’ve gone to Middle Tennessee, which was moving up from FCS. And hours after he signed with ETSU, Ryan got an even bigger offer.
“The day I signed,” he said, “and I’d already signed the papers and sent ‘em off, and then got offered a scholarship by Ole Miss.”
Not that Ryan is sure he would’ve accepted Mississippi’s offer.
“What I couldn’t visualize was sitting out and getting red-shirted,” Ryan said. “I was too competitive to sit. Coach Cavan said, ‘Hey, if you can win the job, then you’ve got a chance to play.’ So that’s what made ETSU really attractive to me.”
Ryan was pretty much assured by MTSU that he’d be Kelly Holcomb’s backup for three years. Holcomb went on to spend most of two decades in the NFL.
Ryan laughs recalling a discussion about Holcomb with an MTSU recruiter.
“I said, ‘So you’re telling me even if I compete in practice and win the job,’” Ryan said, “and he (interrupted) and said, ‘Ah, you’re not gonna beat him out.’ Of course, I didn’t know Kelly Holcomb at the time.”
Ryan started his first game as a freshman on Oct. 16 at home against Western Carolina (ETSU lost, 25-24). Cavan told Ryan he should discuss playing with his father before stripping his red-shirt. Ryan assured his coach no further discussion would be needed.
And before you knew it, Ryan was checking into a quarterback sneak – without telling anyone. Not that it was his first audible. Cavan and colorful offensive coordinator David McKnight quickly acquired a taste for Ryan’s swashbuckling style.
“I did a lot of checking off,” Ryan said. “I will say Coach Cavan and Coach McKnight gave me that flexibility. I think that’s why they liked me so much. I mean the very first game in my history I started was against Western Carolina my freshman year, and the very first play of the game I checked off.
“And the first touchdown we scored, we had some kind of run called from the 3-yard line and there was nobody on the center, so I ran a quarterback sneak and didn’t tell anybody and scored. And they loved that kind of stuff. But all that credit goes to Coach McKnight, because he just drilled into our heads to take what they (defenses) give us.”
Cavan gave Ryan freedom and weapons. Ryan played with two 1,000-yard rushers – Brandon Walker and Brian Edwards – and a number of talented receivers.
“When I first got there I had Jeff Johnson, Scotty Dykes, Chris Beatty, who’s coaching for the Los Angeles Chargers,” Ryan said. “He was the slot receiver. And then here comes (Anthony) Stringfield and BJ and Greg Johnson.
“But the one thing I noticed, those guys never complained – at least they didn’t to me. The only thing they’d ever say to me is, ‘Hey, I was wide open’ – just like every other receiver does.”
You didn’t have to be wide open for Ryan.
“He could thread the needle,” said Adigun, ETSU’s all-time leading receiver and the 1997 Southern Conference male athlete of the year. “Greg would usually deliver the ball between the numbers or in stride.”
Jeff Johnson and Ryan were roommates Ryan’s freshman season.
“Me and Jeff Johnson had a lot of success throwing the fade ball,” Ryan said. “He made me look good. I could underthrow him and he’d come back and get it. I could throw him a 50-50 ball and he’d go get it.”
Ryan was slightly undersized and hardly fleet afoot, but he could engineer an offense. He had some swagger, too.
“Greg was confident. How about that? I won’t say cocky,” Jones says. “Greg just said, ‘Look, this is how it’s gonna happen. We’re gonna win this game, we’re gonna win that game and we’re gonna win this game. … He starts rattling all this stuff and you’re like, ‘Alright, sounds like a good idea.’”
Ryan predicted ETSU would beat Appalachian State in ’96. The fourth-ranked Mountaineers had beaten the Bucs 14 straight times when Ryan told some media members that ETSU was going to put the streak, uh, behind it.
Cavan encouraged his players to be vanilla during pre-game interviews, but Ryan failed spectacularly before the rivals’ 1996 meeting in the Mini-Dome.
“Coach Cavan had always drilled us to be politically correct and say, ‘We’ll do the best we can and see what happens,’” Ryan said. “And that particular week I’m sitting on the couch in his office and there’s some writers and TV guys talking to me and they say, ‘Give us your opinion on App State this week.’ And I said, ‘We’re gonna beat their ass.’
“Coach Cavan said, ‘What’d you say?’ And I said, ‘I told ‘em we’re gonnabeat their ass this time.’ He laughed and said, ‘Well, we’ve gotta back it up now.’”
Indeed, the Bucs backed up Ryan’s butt-kicking prediction, upsetting the fourth-ranked Mountaineers with a 31-10 victory. Ryan threw touchdown passes to Greg Johnson and Stringfield.
“I wouldn’t trade Greg Ryan for anybody,” Cavan said afterward. “He got us out of trouble offensively.”
Indeed, Ryan made an audible on the game’s first score, a 33-yard TD pass to Greg Johnson. He’d noticed on film that App would get in a “Bear” front, where every offensive lineman was covered, and future NFL linebacker Dexter Coakley could blitz from the edge.
He asked McKnight how to react if that front appeared against ETSU’s five-wide, empty formation.
“I said what if they’re in this and Dexter Coakley’s coming off the edge,” Ryan said. “He said, ‘Ah, they ain’t gonna do that.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ But I met with the receivers early in the day and said, ‘I know we didn’t talk about it, but I’ve seen this on film and if we get this at the line of scrimmage here’s what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna call Red and that means slide protection to the left.’”
That allowed everyone to be accounted for other than Coakley, who would be the furthest away from Ryan.
“That way I can at least see Coakley,” Ryan said. “Well, our very first drive we come out in Nickel (five-wide) and they’re in that exact defense. I just changed it on the spot and throw a touchdown to Greg Johnson on a little speed-out that he ends up running for probably 30 yards after a five-yard pass.
“Coach McKnight said, ‘What was that?’ I said, ‘Oh, that’s just something we just come up with.’ He said, ‘Oh, that was a good plan.’ He was funny.”
ETSU players from the ’96 team are confident the Bucs could’ve beaten Montana in the Mini-Dome. Ryan wasn’t surprised when Randy Moss-led Marshall manhandled the Grizzlies in the national championship.
It was Marshall’s final year in Division I-AA (FCS). The Herd kept ETSU from winning a Southern Conference title.
Who knows, ETSU might’ve won more than that if Marshall wasn’t around.
“The biggest thing that I regret from ’96 was that Marshall moved up to I-A in 1997,” Ryan said with a chuckle. “I mean how unlucky is that for me and the ’96 team? Marshall was just something special. I mean they had Chad Pennington as a backup quarterback. They had Eric Kresser transfer from Florida starting at quarterback. They had Randy Moss. They had Orlandis Gary at tailback. It was just a different animal.”
Granted, ETSU did put up a fight for a while in front of a sold-out crowd when Marshall visited Johnson City that season.
“To see the fans lined up to get tickets the night before the game and to see the Dome sold out and playing for the conference championship in 1996, you know,” Ryan said, “it was something special for all of us and something I’m sure a lot of us will never forget.”
For a lot of ETSU fans, that description would apply to Ryan’s career.