The Mini-Dome vision
The conversation about how the Dome is falling apart led me back to the dome's founder for all practical purposes...John Robert Bell. This article is the best I've found covering the history of Buc football.... This may have been posted before...if so...sorry about that. Nah...it's so good it needs to be posted again.
AC 1: The Irony Of ETSU Football- John Robert Bell
in NCAA Football / Southern Conference
January 30, 2009, 2:00 pm
The man who pulled off the greatest season and possibly the greatest win in East Tennessee State football history, inadvertently had something to do it it's demise.
If there is a face to the rise and fall of the East Tennessee State University football program, it is the face of John Robert Bell. He led ETSU to its greatest season and the biggest football win in school history. But unknown to him, he unintentionally had a lot to do with its eventual demise, or at the very least, spearheaded that part of a 3 pronged attack that would doom the ETSU program.
THE EARLY HISTORY
Located in Johnson City, Tennessee, ETSU started out as East Tennessee Normal School and had its first ever football season in 1920. Sporting the school colors of blue and gold and going with the nickname of “The Teachers”, the Bucs played 5 games that inaugural season, going 3-2 thanks to having to schedule two local high school teams.
They started out as members of the SMOKEY MOUNTAIN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE and in 1925, the school changed its name to East Tennessee State Teachers College.
It was at this point in time that the future fortunes of ETSU may have been changed forever. Just down the road about 90 miles, the University of Tennessee hired a new football coach in 1926 named Robert R. Neyland. Coach Neyland recruited a lot of players out of the Northeast Tennessee/Southwestern Virginian area, and they are some of the greatest names in Tennessee history. If it weren’t for Neyland, those players could have very easily ended up at ETSTC.
After a very uneventful first decade, in which ETSTC finished 31-40-3 and administrators needed a change. Again, the first thing they changed was the name of the school and it became State Teachers School, Johnson City. In 1932, they brought in Gene McMurray, who would go on to be the winningest coach in program history in terms of winning percentage. He ushered in the nicknames change in 1935, when the student body voted for the nickname of BUCCANEERS. He coached them to their first ever SMAC championship in 1938 and was the coach when STC-JC suspended its football program when World War II broke out. He returned to the sidelines for one last season in 1946, where he went 7-1. He finished his ETSU coaching career at 51-29-5 and a .629 winning %.
The era from the 1930-40 were the most successful of any 20 year period in the programs history. In 1943, STC-JC became East Tennessee State College. But playing in the small SMAC those winning teams were largely going unnoticed.
The 1950s brought about great change in the entire landscape of college football. Games could now be televised. Schools and conferences began realizing the scope and potential of a new revenue stream coming from broadcast TV rights.
At ETSC, the orders were handed down to coach Star Wood….find a larger conference for the Bucs to join. In 1957, the Bucs left the SMAC and landed in the Ohio Valley Conference, which was comprised mostly of schools along the Tennessee/Kentucky border. Then, in 1963, the final name change came about. ETSC had become a full fledged university and remains East Tennessee State University to this day.
The early OVC years were tepid for the Bucs. Under Wood’s leadership, they shared one OVC championship in 1962. In 1966, after struggling to a 2-6-1 record, Coach Wood retired as the winningest coach in ETSU history with 64 wins.
But it also ushered in the FACE of the ETSU program, John Robert Bell.
THE BELL YEARS
John Robert Bell was a football prodigy and if Georgia Tech assistant coach Bobby Dodd didn’t have strong ties to his alma mater, Kingsport (TN.) Dobyns-Bennett High School, Bell could have very easily followed most of the star players from northeast Tennessee to Knoxville. But history shows that Dodd was able to lure Bell away from his Kingsport home and play for Georgia Tech.
After his playing days, which were interrupted by a tour of duty during World War II, he joined the Georgia Tech staff, under now head coach Bobby Dodd and coached not only with Dodd, but also with Frank Broyles and Ray Graves. He also was the Tech position coach of future GT, Alabama, Kentucky and current Georgia State coach, Bill Curry.
In 1966, a call was made and John Robert Bell came marching home. He left the Georgia Tech staff to become the head coach at ETSU.
It comes as no surprise that the first 2 years under his leadership, the Bucs struggled, winning only 6 games. But the 1968 season, they finished at 5-5 and served notice that the following season, the first season with all of Bell’s recruited players, they would have the greatest season, and arguably the greatest win, in ETSU history.
His first players ever recruited went 10-0-1 in 1969. They won their first outright OVC championship. Since the NCAA did not have a playoff at the Division 1-AA level yet (it didn’t happen until the 1978 season), the only post season the Bucs got to enjoy was in a small bowl in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the Grantland Rice bowl. It was one of 4 "Regional" bowls that would crown 4 NCAA recognized NCAA regional champions.
And it was possibly the greatest story ever told about any ETSU team.
The game was pretty much a “road” game, in that their opponent was Louisiana Tech. Tech had on their roster a much ballyhooed Quarterback named Terry Bradshaw. But ETSU was led by “Buddy’s Bandits” (self imposed nickname of the defensive unit, named after coordinator Buddy Bennett), this future #1 overall NFL draft pick and 4 time Super Bowl winning quarterback only found the endzone twice and the Buccaneers won handily 34-14. The “Bandits” sacked Bradshaw a remarkable 12 times that day.
Bradshaw probably wasn't smiling after 12 ETSU sacks
With the win, and the way the NCAA had their pre-playoff structure set up in those days, ETSU was crowned and proclaimed the NCAA’s MID EAST REGIONAL champions, one of 4 regional champions in the NCAA that year.
Bell went on to coach 3 more seasons at ETSU. He was never able to sustain the level of excellence of that 1969 season. But after his dismissal after the 1972 season, Bell showed that he didn’t just return to northeast Tennessee to coach. He came back to spend the remainder of his life as an educator, instructor, and leader of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Ironically enough, the very man responsible for pulling of the biggest victory in ETSU history, may have been the very man who, inadvertently, led to its demise.
A FATEFUL DECISION
The ETSU "Mini Dome"
Coming off the momentum of that 1969 Grantland Rice bowl win, the administrators of the Athletic Department felt that renovations were needed to Memorial Stadium (now Spurrier Field, named after former Johnson Citian, Steve Spurrier). Forever the fair man, and committed to the overall opportunities of all ETSU athletics, coach Bell lobbied hard for not only renovations of the football facilities, but also the basketball facilities and track and field facilities.
Finding it cheaper to congregate all of these facilities into one venue, a plan was hatched to create a Mini-Dome, modeled after one that was located on the Idaho State University campus in Pocatello, Idaho. After gaining financing from both alumni and state funds, the ETSU Mini-Dome construction began and was completed in 1977, late and over budget.
Football fans of ETSU never really took to the “Memorial Center” (its official name). In their eagerness to keep the costs down, planners made “The worlds biggest Quonset hut” (by buddy Jeff’s name for it) narrower, which made plays along the sidelines pretty much un-viewable for people in the stands.
A stadium that could seat 14,000 for football, rarely was able to get half that many people into the stands. Locals became less and less interested in the BUCS and interest waned. Coach Bell’s idea to improve all areas of athletics on the ETSU campus, in football terms, was a bust.
But the Mini-Dome was only part of the problem. Part two of the downfall of the program was geographic.
With the advent to TV broadcast of NCAA football games, ETSU found that they had neighbors…neighbors who were bigger and played on a different level than they could.
STUCK IN THE MIDDLE
Johnson City, Tennessee is located roughly half-way between Knoxville and Blacksburg, Virginia, the homes of Division 1-A powers Tennessee and Virginia Tech. The problem facing the ETSU teams through the years were the fans Saturday football interests were to the east and the west of Memorial Center. Even more irony is that a lot of Tennessee fans drove by the Mini-Dome on their way to Knoxville.
Winning could have helped. If you look around the local area, winning college football teams don’t seem to have a problem drawing fans away from Blacksburg and Knoxville. Appalachian State is only 40 miles from the Mini-Dome. Carson Newman College in Jefferson City was king of NAIA football before they joined the NCAA. Tusculum College in Greenville has already tasted success in making several Division II-A playoff appearances.
Failure to sustain a winning program is the biggest factor in fans not turning out to games. Or is the having to watch a game in the Mini-dome? Either way, people did not get behind the program, which leads us to reason 3 for the downfall….revenues.
$$$ AND TITLE IX
The Bucs left the OVC and joined the Southern Conference in 1978. The best way to describe the Southern Conference is ‘The SEC of Division 1-AA football”. A scan of any 1-AA poll in recent years and it’s very easy to see no less than 4 SC teams in that poll. Led of course by Appy State, it also boasts Furman, Georgia Southern, Western Carolina, Davidson, et al. Having to play these powerhouse 1-AA teams every year didn’t translate into wins. Even the revenue sharing that is going on among SC teams wasn’t enough for ETSU President, Dr. Paul Stanton.
The passage of the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act (A.K.A. “Title IX”) didn’t help matters. When Title IX reached across the social areas of our world and crept into the NCAA, colleges across the country were affected. But those like ETSU were crippled by it. They were being mandated, by law, to create sports for women, that is proportional to the ratio of men to women of the general student body.
They found that their athletic department budget was expanding, while they were generating fewer revenues. And though football was bringing in the most money, it was also the most expensive to maintain.
To Dr. Stanton, it was a simple matter of economics. The University pocketbook could not sustain a $10 million dollar program that only generates about $7-8 million in revenues. Faced with state funding being cut back in 2002, and based on an ETSU committee’s recommendation, Dr Stanton made the announcement that would seal his fate in the annals of ETSU history.
He was discontinuing the football program at the end of the 2003 season.
What is in store for the future? That remains unclear. There are and have been attempts to bring back the ETSU program and there is still hope that it will return, albeit in a diminished form. Some have advocated dropping down a level or joining a different conference, to help generate a few more winning seasons. But before either of those things can happen, the money would have to be found to resurrect the program.
In 2006, a task force was formed by the ETSU Presidents office, to explore the possibilities of resurrecting the ETSU football team. They found that it would cost in excess of $15 million to restart the football team. The committee recommended that the university raise the Student Activity Fee on each student, from $25/year to $250/year. Bylaws mandate that any such change would have to be approved by not only the student body but the Tennessee Board of Regents as well.
It never made it past the student body. In April of 2007, 3,500 of the 14,000 ETSU student body voted down the increase in the fees, by a 59% to 41% margin. Dr. Stanton announced after the vote that the return of ETSU football was dead, at least for the immediate future.
But there is still a small undercurrent to get it back so stay tuned.
There is no greater outcry for the return of ETSU football than from the former players. All agree that ETSU is lost without its football program. “ETSU SPIRIT WEEK”, a yearly tradition that used to be the week of the opening home game of the season, is not the same without a football game to culminate the festivities. The same can be said about “ETSU HOMECOMING”…coming home? To what?
A PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
In the last days of the program, I was privileged to be near the teams. A local boys club team of 10-12 year old kids that I was an assistant on, got to visit the dome and get “coached up” by the last ETSU head coach, Paul Hamilton and a few of his players. Among those players was current Jacksonville Jaguars Safety Gerald Sensabaugh.
That night, fires were kindled inside of the Dome. The ETSU players energize our young team and our young team seemed to energize the ETSU players. By teaching our kids the basics, they seemed to get themselves back to the techniques of the game, to find the “fun’ of the game. So much so that 48 hours later, the ETSU Bucs pulled off another great win, upsetting THEN #1 ranked Georgia Southern, shutting down their heralded running back, current Chicago Bear Adrian Peterson.
MOMENTS IN HISTORY
ETSU football existed from 1920 to 2003. But there were plenty of memorable moments and great players along the way:
1969- The Bucs cap off a 11-0-1 season with a thrashing of future NFL Hall-of-Fame QB Terry Bradshaw in the Grantland Rice Bowl. ETSU is crowned Mid East Regional champions by the NCAA.
1977- The Bucs open up the “Mini Dome” with a 37-21 loss to Northern Alabama
1980-81- The Bucs are led in tackles in both seasons by LB Mike Smith, currently the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons. His 186 tackles in 1981 is still at the top of the record books.
1982-89- Former ETSU RB Earl Ferrell becomes the first ever Buc to start for an NFL team, after being drafted in the 5th round by the St. Louis Cardinals. His final 2 seasons (88 and 89), he was a member of the Pro-Bowl.
1985- Citadel Bulldog LB Marc Buoniconti, son of legendary NFL player Nick Buoniconti, was taken off the field of Memorial Center, completely paralyzed. He spent several weeks in a Johnson City hospital. Upon his return to his Miami home, his father started THE MIAMI PROJECT, a research program to cure paralysis.
1987- ETSU upsets N.C.State, 29-14 in Raleigh.
1988- Linebacker Thane Gash is drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the 7th round. He played in all 64 games as a member of the Browns and the San Francisco 49ers. His best season was in 1989, when he started 15 games, had 3 INTs, two of them returned for a TD.
1996- DB Donnie Abraham was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 3rd round and became the first ever rookie to appear on the cover of their media guide.
ETSU hosted its only playoff game ever, defeating Villanova 35-29. They lost in the 1-AA semi-finals the following week at Montana.
Head Coach Mike Cavan left Johnson City for Dallas and take up the reins of his Alma mater, the SMU Mustangs. Paul Hamilton, assistant on the Defisher Berry staff at Air Force, is named, what turned out to be, ETSU’s final head coach.
2001- ETSU upsets top ranked Georgia Southern, 19-16.
2003- In its final game, ETSU kicked a last second FG to beat the Citadel, 16-13.
Just a few weeks ago, prior to the idea for this article came about, John Robert Bell, on Christmas day, the face of the ETSU program, died at his daughters home in Johnson City at the age of 86. It would have been very easy for me to get to talk to the man because he was forever talking about ETSU football.