Remembering Coach “Red” Etter On His 100th Birthday, Part 2

Sunday, November 10, 2013 - by John Shearer

As was mentioned in Part 1 of this series on the life of the late E.B. “Red” Etter in connection with what would have been his 100th birthday this past Monday, he was named head football coach at Central High School on a temporary basis in 1943.

At that time, of course, many coaches and others were being sent off to fight in World War II, and this happened to his Central predecessor, future City Commissioner Dean Petersen.

Coach Etter was only 28 when Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, but his son, Gene, thinks he was physically unable to serve due to burns suffered on his legs after a freak service station fire accident in 1940.

While coach Etter initially thought coach Petersen was to return to Central after his war service, he actually went to Chattanooga City High as head coach, so coach Etter was able to remain at Central for 27 seasons.

During coach Etter’s first season, with the help of assistants James Lester Newton, Charles Millsaps and Ernest Owens, the Purple Pounders finished 8-3-1, which included a 28-0 win over rival City in front of 10,000 at Engel Stadium.

Coach Etter never lost to City High, and beat the Dynamos 81-6 in 1945. Though the teams were big rivals in the early years of coach Etter’s tenure, the teams quit playing throughout much of the 1950s.

Another team coach Etter played his first year – and would be a big local rival for a number of years – was Baylor School, where he would later coach. Coach Etter apparently had a 7-6 record against Baylor while at Central and a 6-5 record against the also-capable Red Raider coach, “Humpy” Heywood, who relied a little more on emotion than the cerebral coach Etter.

That first year, coach Etter’s Central team lost to Baylor 12-0 after losing two fumbles deep in Central territory.

Often the two teams would meet at Chamberlain Field, and the crowds for those and other Central games there would likely surpass those of the University of Chattanooga Mocs on the same weekends. The school’s Frawley Field, where Parkridge Medical Center is now located, was popular initially for home games, but over the years Central played its local games at places like Chamberlain Field.

Coach Etter apparently never played McCallie while at Central, despite the fact the two schools were right by each other.

For Central during much of the “Red” Etter era, the highways of Tennessee and other states were actually almost as familiar as Dodds or McCallie avenues, as the Purple Pounders often traveled far and wide to schedule games. This was in part to schedule good competition, but also because many local schools realized they would likely not have a chance.

“They were afraid they would get stomped, and he had trouble getting a schedule,” remembers younger son Bob Etter.

A glance at coach Etter’s yearly schedules over the years is almost like following a travelogue program on the Southeast. For example, that first year of 1943, the team traveled to such places as Kingsport, Columbia (TN) and Atlanta.

Other towns the team would frequent during the “Red” Etter years were Birmingham, Memphis, Asheville, Louisville, Nashville, Knoxville, Miami and Jacksonville.

Among the players for some of those out-of-town teams were two future Heisman Trophy winners – Paul Hornung of Louisville Flaget and Steve Spurrier of Johnson City Science Hill.

During his 27 seasons, Coach Etter’s teams were crowned state champions in at least one poll in 1946, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1957, 1962 and 1965, with a state runner-up finish in 1958. Ironically, during coach Etter’s lone year at Central when he finished undefeated – 1962 – Oak Ridge was actually voted the state champions in the old Litkenhous poll, which was used by the TSSAA at the time to crown its official state champion.

Older son Gene Etter thinks his father was so successful in football at Central, and at Baylor, because he was willing to try new ideas.

“When he started, all the schools were using the single-wing box” (offensive formation), he said. “He was one of the first to change to the T.

“And he was one of the first to use films,” he added, saying that he remembers that films of the old Central-City games on Thanksgiving Day were filmed in color.

However, with all the tough competition and the constant uncertainty of how many good athletes were coming along, coach Etter did face occasional adversity on the football field. The 1947, 1948 and 1963 teams finished around .500, and, in 1956, he had his only losing season at Central when the team had a 4-5-2 record.

Like most outstanding high school programs, Central had a lot of good football players over the years, and occasional stars. In an interview a number of years ago, the late coach Etter said that his two best players at Central were Bob McCoy in the mid-1940s and Bobby Hoppe in the early 1950s, both of whom are now deceased.

He also had a number of other great players, whose reputations did not last quite as long for whatever reasons. Oldest son Gene Etter said Leon Henry – who was also a state 100-yard dash champion -- was one such player.

Among the other assistants coach Etter would have at Central over the years were Jake Seaton, John Karwoski, Gordon Atchley, Jack Archer, and, beginning in 1947 as line coach, Stanley T. Farmer.

A rah-rah, get-tough coach whose style complemented well coach Etter’s more cerebral emphasis on strategy and game preparation, Coach Farmer is beloved among Purple Pounders from that era. In fact, according to one Central High history website, former Central player and well-known local attorney Jerry Summers is compiling a book on coach Farmer.

While at Central, coach Etter did plenty else besides coach winning football. He taught applied mathematics, which included teaching students how to balance a checkbook.

His son Bob said he does not remember seeing his father ever having to prepare for class, but yet he was able to more than adequately cover the material. The same was true later at Baylor, where he taught math as well as Latin, even though he had not been exposed to the latter subject since his own school days.

Coach Etter also coached other sports, and successfully.

“While he was there, he coached track,” said Gene Etter. “He got some of the top football players to come out. He took four guys to the state meet and either won it or came in second in the early 1950s.

“And he coached baseball and was there when I was there (in the mid-1950s). He coached for six years and won two state championships in baseball.”

As in football, coach Etter used his mind to try to gain an advantage. Gene remembers that his father had a strategy for a runner on second base that Gene did not hear used by anyone else until Gene began playing in the Chicago Cubs organization.

Coach Etter also coached the boxing team, including the great local fighter Archie Slaten, and used innovative oxygen tanks to help his boxers recuperate between rounds. It likely helped the fighters physically and it definitely did psychologically against the out-of-breath opponents no doubt watching from across the ring during breaks.

Wrestling was another sport he coached, and he also found a little time to be an adult athlete himself as a highly touted fastball softball pitcher in the days when it was a popular sport in Chattanooga for men, Gene Etter said.

During most of his years at Central, coach “Red” Etter and his wife, Helen, continued to live at 114 Fair St. in Red Bank before moving up to 1036 Sunset Drive on the side of Signal Mountain beginning in the mid-1960s.

Also living with them and their two sons in Red Bank were coach Etter’s mother, Etna, and Verney Etter, coach Etter’s older half brother, the latter of whom lived in a small, shed-like building behind the main home.

As Gene and Bob were growing up, the two relatives were there all the time, Gene remembered.

“Since he was there all the time when I was growing up, I was more exposed to him than Dad,” said Gene. “For example, he would read me the comics.”

Verney Etter, a World War I veteran who was a short-wave radio enthusiast, died in 1957, while Etna Etter, a retired schoolteacher who taught briefly at Central after being at White Oak, died in 1961.

She was hard of hearing in later years, Gene recalls. As a result, coach Etter once again used his intuitive skills to hook up a makeshift headset for her to be able to hear the TV. This was at a time when the Etters were one of the first local people to have a television, and in the days when the closest station was in Atlanta.

Gene also remembers that his parents during the Central days would often go to the Tennessee or Georgia games when he and his brother were playing, even though “Red” Etter was no doubt tired from his own game ending late the night before.

Gene Etter graduated from Central in 1957 and went on to play at Tennessee as a back, lettering in 1958-60.

After playing professional baseball in the Cubs’ minor league system, he began coaching at Baylor. After dreaming in his early teaching years of following his father as a high school head football coach somewhere, Gene has been the head baseball coach at Baylor since 1975, although he has retired from classroom teaching.

In recent years he has won two coveted state Division II championships, joining his father as a head coach of a state champion team.

Bob  Etter was Mr. Central High in 1963 and went on to be a kicker at Georgia, helping the Bulldogs win several close games during Vince Dooley’s early years as coach. He kicked briefly in the NFL and taught math at Sacramento State in California for several decades until his recent retirement. He also enjoys fishing, a hobby he picked up from being with his father, and is an accomplished bridge player.

As the youngest son, Bob Etter came of age when his father had already reached legendary status as a local football coach.

“I was with him all the time,” recalled Bob over the telephone recently. “I got to hear all his theories, so I grew up totally immersed in all sports.”

He also vividly remembers coach Etter driving his Corvair van to Central daily, and aboard it would be Bob and several of his school friends who also lived out of the district.

Bob Etter also recalls his father driving his own body and mind to help his team be as good as it possibly could.

“He spent hours and hours at home watching film, and I would watch with him,” Bob said. “And every week he would change the game plan for that particular team, to take advantage of what they were doing.

“Each week it was a different set of plays, and you just couldn’t predict what he might come up with. But the other teams would almost always do what he thought they would do.

“He was smarter than the other coaches, but he was also willing to put in the time at home.”

Although coach Etter kept Central at the same high place of success in football through most of his 27 years there, the school itself moved – literally. In 1969, it moved out to Highway 58.

After the move, Coach Etter enjoyed an 8-3 season in 1969. The most memorable game that year was probably a loss at Brainerd, when the contest was moved to a Friday afternoon because of unrest at Brainerd over protests by black students against the Rebels’ nickname and Confederate flag symbols.

When coach Etter’s team botched a late field goal attempt later that season and lost an out-of-town bowl game in the last few days of high school bowl games, few people likely knew he had coached his last game at Central.

As coach Etter recalled in an interview a few years ago, he was not enjoying as much driving a lot farther each day to a new school. And Central’s school district to draw football players had no doubt shrunk considerably.

At the same time, Jim Worthington was leaving as Baylor’s coach and would eventually join the football staff at UTC.

Rumors were swirling that he might be the new coach at Baylor, which was then an all-boys school, but neither he nor the school had contact with each other until he decided to contact them one day.

He was soon hired in the middle of the year, and what soon followed was a second blaze of glory for the 57-year-old football wizard.

After going 5-5 in 1970, the 1971 team went 9-1, and the Red Raider faithful knew happy days were ahead. With such players as running backs Andy Rutledge, Clay Gibson and Mike Shuford, quarterback Bobby Worthington, defensive back Scott Price and some lineman big on talent and others big on heart, the Red Raiders were state runners-up in 1972 and state and mythical national champions in 1973.

Baylor students at the time will likely say they have never seen as much excitement about the school’s football team as during those two years, when the Tennessee playoff system was still in its infancy.

Plenty of other good seasons would follow for coach Etter. The 1975 and 1978 teams were undefeated during the regular season before being upset in the first round of the playoffs, and the 1977 team reached the state championship game before losing on a late trick play to Christian Brothers at Memphis’ Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.

The coach who caused the 1975 upset of Baylor was another future legend, Benny Monroe, who was then at McMinn County before becoming coach at Cleveland.

“We were always good friends and we became even better friends over the years,” said the now-retired coach Monroe, who admittedly holds coach Etter in high respect.

Bill McMahan – who joined the Baylor varsity coaching staff toward the end of coach Etter’s tenure at Baylor and became a multi-year assistant along with people like Fred Hubbs, David Longley, Maj. Luke Worsham, Gene Etter and Sib Evans Jr. – remembers that coach Etter was still a master on top of his game.

“He had an uncanny ability to watch a play,” he said. “For example, on offense he seemed like he knew what everybody was doing.”

Coach McMahan, who is still on staff at Baylor, also said coach Etter was great at developing plays or schemes that would exploit an opponent’s weakness.

As did other people like longtime Baylor trainer Eddie Davis, Coach McMahan also enjoyed observing and being around coach Etter away from the football field. This was in part because coach McMahan thought he was knowledgeable about nearly every topic under the sun.

Unfortunately for coach Etter, his last three or four years at Baylor were not the high point of his coaching career. Other schools like McCallie under former Brainerd coach Pete Potter were catching up, and coach Etter reached the playoffs only one time – 1981 -- during his final four seasons.

However, coach Etter was still treated like royalty, as many thought he deserved to be, when he announced plans to retire after the 1983 season at age 70. School supporters gave him a car and even a trip to the Super Bowl, where he watched former Baylor player Charles Hannah and the Raiders upset the Washington Redskins.

Retirement was spent being involved in his church, Red Bank Baptist Church, and its Gloryland Singers. Always the thinker, he managed to figure out how to record compact discs that had music for all the singers to practice with at home.

The consummate Christian, he was always trying to help others when he could.

He also enjoyed going with wife Helen to see Gene’s Baylor baseball team play, with then-athletic director Austin Clark reserving a place for them to watch the games without having to get out of their car.

Gene said he was surprised one time in his father’s later years when he realized coach Etter still followed sports so closely and was up on the statistics of players for his beloved Atlanta Braves and other major league teams.

In later years, Helen began developing dementia-related issues, so they moved down to Summit View on Runyan Drive at the foot of Signal Mountain. They sold the house, and an estate sale was held, with coach Etter’s scrapbooks his wife had kept and other memorabilia drawing much interest.

Coach Etter continued having a sharp mind, compassionate manner and trademark dry sense of humor into his 90s, but he died suddenly on Feb. 8, 2006, at the age of 92.

Helen Etter, now 94, continues to live at Life Care Center of Red Bank, also on Runyan Drive.

Slightly more than three years after coach Etter’s death, when Baylor installed an artificial playing field at Heywood Stadium before the 2009 season, the school decided it needed a name – E.B. “Red” Etter Field.

Central High’s field is also named for coach Etter, so this unique coach’s name now adorns the stadiums of two schools.

But maybe that is appropriate, as he figuratively made a positive mark at both schools – on and off the field.

Jcshearer2@comcast.net

 


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