I consider myself quite fortunate to have played football for and been a student under legendary Coach E.B. “Red” Etter, who died Wednesday evening at the age of 92.
I first became aware of Coach Etter in 1971, when he spoke at our elementary school football banquet when I was in the sixth grade at Bright School. By that time, he was already in a class by himself for leading Central High to numerous mythical state championships and was on his way to making Baylor the premier program in Chattanooga and one of the best in Tennessee during the 1970s.
My first direct contact with him came during the1974-75 school year, when I was in the ninth grade at Baylor and had him for first-year Latin. By this time, I had become aware of stories about him. My father told me he used to see him load up students (who happened to be pretty good football players) in his station wagon to take to Central back in the 1950s. Others would tell me stories of seeing him draw up football plays on the church bulletin during services at Red Bank Baptist Church.
As a student, I found him to be a good teacher who was always prepared for class. Actually, he was probably so smart that he had to do little preparation work. I am sure he knew Latin backwards and forwards. Although his phone would often ring during class for football-related matters, causing us students to laugh and realize where Coach Etter’s priorities were, the only time I remember us not really having class was one day when a man showed up at the door and Coach Etter quickly dismissed us to the library or somewhere. The man who came to see him was Tennessee head football coach Bill Battle, who wanted to talk with Coach Etter about junior Jeff Aiken, whom numerous colleges were recruiting at that time, (although Aiken would decide not to play college ball after enrolling at North Carolina).
From his first-floor Barks Hall classroom that adjoined a film room, Coach Etter would sit with his legs crossed next to his overhead projector and write various declensions of Latin words. This overheard projector was also used countless times over the next few years when he would diagram football plays to us. At those times especially, he was a master instructor in his natural environment.
When I went out for the first spring practice as a halfback in 1975, I felt like I already knew Coach Etter pretty well and that he had taken a liking to me. However, his apparent interest in me certainly did not give me an advantage over the numerous other running backs, many of whom had enrolled at Baylor as day students from the area junior high schools or as boarding students. Baylor had won a state championship in 1973 and was second in the state in 1972, so many parents wanted to have their sons playing for Baylor at that time.
He was the backfield coach and offensive coordinator during most of my time there, so I was fortunate to receive his direct instruction more than the others did. Although he usually had one or two assistant coaches at both Central and Baylor who focused on the passionate and emotional aspect of football, Coach Etter was a man who emphasized fundamentals, instruction and game preparation. It was not his nature to give stirring pep talks. But by the time I left Baylor, I was a much better football player at blocking, running with and catching the ball, and generally playing smart. I even felt like I knew how to get down in a running back’s stance pretty well. Coach Etter was running the wishbone offense then, and I also felt like I knew that offense as well as a coach might.
The Baylor players at that time had a lot of pride, although I never remember our team seeming brash – at least from our perspective. I think Coach Etter’s modest nature was a big reason.
And, of course, Coach Etter’s best gift was picking out opponents’ weaknesses on film. I remember we were playing Tyner when I was a sophomore at a time when former “Red” Etter player Ernie McCarson was just in the beginning stages of successfully rebuilding the program, and Coach Etter said that week that Tyner was susceptible to the draw play. I think we must have run 8 or 10 draw plays that game for an average gain of 20 yards each. As a young reserve, I was even able to run one for about 20 yards late in the game, although it was brought back on a penalty.
Because he was always preoccupied with football, Coach Etter could occasionally be absent minded. All of us players, who were perhaps too young at the time to appreciate fully his coaching skills, were always enjoying a good laugh – usually behind his back – over his antics and unique mannerisms. More than one player used to enjoy mimicking the way he would move his head, shoulders and arms during conversation. And he would occasionally have ink or chalk marks on his clothes from being so preoccupied with football and not paying attention to what he was doing.
All of us running backs and quarterbacks also used to get a kick out of watching him show us how to run plays. Although looking back, it was actually kind of impressive to see a man in his early 60s run around as swiftly as he could, to us teen-agers at the time, it always brought a few snickers. More than one player would later imitate him, when Coach Etter was not looking, of course.
And one time he kept mistakenly referring to 1953 when he meant 1973, the state championship year. After about the second or third time, he finally confided to us that he kept saying 1953 because that was the year in which the great Bobby Hoppe gained more than 300 yards in a game.
Because he was always thinking about football, Coach Etter would occasionally ask me or other players a football question while passing us on campus during the day.
During the three years I played for Coach Etter – 1975, 1976 and 1977 – we were both good and not so good. In 1975, we were undefeated during the regular season, ranked No. 1 in the state, and were tested only once, against City. On several occasions, the starters dressed at halftime. But we were upset in the first round of the playoffs to McMinn County and coach Benny Monroe, who was just a legend in the making at that time.
The next year, we finished 5-5 and it was Coach Etter’s only disappointing season during an 8-or-10-year stretch. My senior year, 1977, all of us seniors, who had not lost a game during three junior high seasons, helped lead a Baylor resurgence and we reached the state title game, only to lose on a last-minute gadget play to Christian Brothers High School at Memphis’ Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. I really think Coach Etter did some of his best coaching ever that season, including upsetting Oak Ridge High in the semifinals.
Through both the good and bad, Coach Etter maintained the same temperament, which I believe was due largely to his strong Christian faith. Of course, he was an intense competitor, and I remember vividly seeing a disappointed look on his face after one tough loss during the 1976 season.
Because I had been injured during much of my senior season, I still had plenty of football and football dreams in me, so I decided to walk on at the University of Georgia in 1978 as a receiver. Almost immediately, I noticed that the offense of the successful coach Vince Dooley was much more simplistic than what I had been exposed to at Baylor. They only used two numbers in their play calling, and, at Baylor, we used four.
I also noticed that I seemed to have been coached better than some of the other walk-on players at the fundamentals, whether it was catching a pass or getting down in a proper stance.
After I graduated from college and became a reporter/writer, I had the good fortune of interviewing and writing about Coach Etter on several occasions stretching over two decades. He no longer had football to consume his thought patterns, and each visit, either in person or over the phone, was a genuine delight. I also began to notice his strong sense of humor that I had not noticed as a player competing for playing time.
But perhaps two incidents during these later years best captured Coach Etter for me. On one occasion, he walked into the Piccadilly cafeteria at Northgate by himself with his tray of food, saw me and sat down at my booth. A few minutes later, a man came up to us, said he had a medical condition that prevented him from driving, and asked if one of us could take him up to the other end of Highway 153.
Before I could respond to the unusual request, Coach Etter told him he would take him. I remember thinking that Coach Etter was definitely living the Christian faith and being a Good Samaritan.
And, then, about five years ago, I went up to his house on Signal Mountain to interview him. It was during the fall, and I noticed that he had a sign in his yard that said something like, “Neighbors, help yourselves to the apples off our tree.” In this era when you are more likely to see “no trespassing” and “keep off” signs, I found that one quite refreshing.
His Christian ways and God-given smarts for football definitely helped many people enjoy positively the fruits of his labor.