Remembering Coach “Red” Etter On His 100th Birthday, Part 1

Sunday, November 3, 2013 - by John Shearer

On Nov. 29, 1940, E.B. “Red” Etter’s name appeared in both the Chattanooga Times and Chattanooga News-Free Press, which would be a common occurrence in the coming decades.

This time, though, his name was not being mentioned in connection with the sport he would later coach successfully at Central High and Baylor School, even though a a number of football games had been held the previous day, which was Thanksgiving.

Instead, the then-27-year-old Park Place Elementary principal and moonlighting business entrepreneur had been hospitalized after a freak accident while trying to extinguish a blaze at the Brainerd Pan-Am gasoline station at 3201 Brainerd Road, just east of the McCallie Avenue/Brainerd tunnel. 

According to a story told later, the blaze had ignited while coach Etter and a younger employee were standing near a puddle of spilt gasoline and a match was carelessly lit.

He would be rushed to Erlanger Hospital, where, according to his son, Gene Etter, he would have to spend four months recovering from second-degree burns to his legs.

However, from the proverbial ashes of that disheartening event, coach Etter would rise to great heights as a football coach. Less than three years later, he would become the head coach at Central High, which was then on Dodds Avenue near McCallie School.

Coach Etter would make Central a dominant team in Tennessee high school football from the 1940s to the 1960s, as the Purple Pounders were crowned state champions in the polls eight times in the pre-playoff days.

He would also enjoy similar success at Baylor School in the 1970s, winning a state and mythical national championship and finishing as state runner-up two other times.

Due to his successful career and the fact that the late coach’s 100th birthday would have been this Nov. 4, here is a two-part look at his life.

Not only was coach Etter in a class by himself by posting a 218-67-13 record at Central and a 115-47 slate at Baylor, but he was also unique in style. While many high school head coaches over the years have focused on emotion, possessing a tough demeanor, or being a Type A personality, coach Etter was somewhat different.

While he was a man whose presence did obviously command respect, he was considered more of the gentleman coach who focused on such aspects of the game as mental preparation, execution, strategy, and picking out an opponent’s weaknesses.

“I mostly remember that coach Etter was a great gentleman,” said Benny Monroe, who won three consecutive state championships at Cleveland in 1993, ’94, and ’95 and faced coach Etter early in his career. “He was an ambassador for high school football and for all of football.

“He was more of a role model for coaches in the Chattanooga area than anybody I know.”

While well liked off the football field, he was generally feared on it. At Central, for example, he often had to schedule games against out-of-town teams because many local schools feared they would get beaten badly.

Not only did he develop good teams by being able to draw good athletes wanting to play for him, but he also knew how to draw plays and develop strategy. He knew football was a thinking man’s sport, despite the sheer physicality of it.

“I just think he was ahead of his time,” said Bill McMahan, who served as an assistant coach under him at Baylor in the 1970s and ‘80s. “He was one of the first coaches to film or watch film. He always tried to pick out a weakness on the other team and try to attack it.”

According to some information gathered from his son, Gene, as well as from perusing old city directories and newspaper articles, coach Etter was born Eugene Bonaparte Etter Jr. in Warren County near McMinnville on Nov. 4, 1913. It was just seven weeks after a man named Paul “Bear” Bryant was born in Arkansas.

Coach Etter would develop a nickname as well – “Red” – which was used primarily just by the newspaper writers until about the time he arrived at Baylor. By then, his hair was starting to turn a little grayer and whiter, but his football reputation was already quite golden.

And, like coach Bryant, he also spent some early years on a farm, although the Etters were better off than coach Bryant used to admit his family was. Coach Etter’s father – who was a member of a pioneer family of the Irving College community of Warren County -- was a school principal and later a county school superintendent. However, he died when coach Etter was only 13.

Coach Etter also had two half brothers and a half sister from his father’s previous marriage.

In the late 1920s, not long after the elder Mr. Etter’s death, coach Etter’s mother, Etna, moved with her 10th-grade son down to Chattanooga and taught for about 15 years at White Oak Elementary under principal J.E. Brown.

She and coach Etter during their early years in Chattanooga lived at such Red Bank area addresses as 2226 Ashmore Ave., 215 E. Euclid Ave., and 114 Fair St., the latter of which would be coach Etter’s longtime residence as well.

A graduate of Central High School in the days before Red Bank had a high school, coach Etter had entered the University of Chattanooga in the fall of 1930. In an interview a few years ago, he said that he was able to receive an academic scholarship to UC after taking a test administered by the Lions Club.

It is no secret that the Etters are known for their smarts, and, just as with coach Etter in his coaching, this gift has manifested itself among his two sons, Gene and Bob, and his grandchildren in a variety of ways academically, entrepreneurially and even recreationally.

Coach Etter had himself shown an early sign of being a boy wonder at about age 14, when he filled in for his preacher at the last minute in delivering the sermon in his Baptist church in Warren County.

In Chattanooga, Coach Etter began attending Red Bank Baptist Church, while his mother was a longtime member of White Oak Baptist.

While at UC, coach Etter was a right halfback who was small but fast and played in the Mocs’ “pony backfield” that would be used on occasion. However, he admitted that he was not a great player. He said he started only one game his career and broke his hand during his senior year, when he might have played more.

But while not necessarily achieving a lot as a player, he was doing plenty of observing that would help him as a coach down the road.

One reason was that the head coach beginning Coach Etter’s first year on the varsity in 1931 was A.C. “Scrappy” Moore, who would lead the Mocs for 37 years. Coach Etter said a few years ago that he learned much from coach Moore, including fundamentals, attention to details, and game preparation.

After finishing at UC, coach Etter found two out-of-town coaching and teaching jobs. The first was at the Fruitland Baptist Bible Institute in Hendersonville, N.C., just east of Asheville, a job he likely learned about through his Baptist connections.

Some information online said the school was a Christian high school until its closing in 1936, and the site became a still-operating college beginning in 1946.

After being at Fruitland, he worked a year at the Morgan School in Petersburg, Tenn., south of Nashville and not far from the Alabama line. It was actually a private boarding school that was in operation until the 1950s, so coach Etter actually had a taste of prep school education before arriving at Baylor.

Coach Etter’s son, Gene, believes his father was head football coach at both places, but records of his results that could be added to his win total are apparently lost or would require some digging to uncover.

Coach Etter returned to Chattanooga and eventually went to work at Brainerd Junior High. The 1937 city directory, however, says that he initially worked as a salesman for Newton Chevrolet.

Coach Etter apparently had an entrepreneurial spirit as well as being interested in coaching, as he would later run the Brainerd gas station and operate a motel TV box rental business.

He also took on another very important job about this time – that of being a husband. While back attending Red Bank Baptist and becoming involved in its young adult group, he met and began dating Helen Gross, who was more than five years his junior. They were married in 1938.

While at Brainerd Junior High, he coached basketball, as it evidently did not have a football team. But he was able to use the same smarts in basketball that would later help him in football.

Gene Etter remembers that the late Dr. Frank Trundle Sr. – who went on to be a basketball standout at Central and UC – once rehashed his memories of playing for coach Etter at Brainerd Junior High.

“He was talking to Dad saying he (coach Etter) had a lot of different plays,” he said. “There was more to it than at Central.”

From about 1938-40, the Etters lived at 4206 Montview Drive in Brainerd, back to the Fair Street home, and at 109 Crestview Circle. This was also the time when first son Gene was born.

Shortly before World War II, coach Etter began serving as principal at Park Place School, a still-standing structure at East M.L. King Jr. Boulevard and Fairview Avenue. He also, according to Gene, took out a loan to operate the service station.

One can only imagine how the service station fire accident shaped coach Etter’s outlook on life and his Christian faith, and how it probably made him even more determined to contribute positively to the world.

Longtime former Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden had a similar form of adversity in being bed-ridden for about a year as a youth after suffering rheumatic fever.

After coach Etter recovered, he returned as principal of Park Place. But it was later closed down, so he returned to Brainerd Junior High.

Coach Etter’s younger son, Bob, remembers that his father enjoyed fishing, and even used to stop regularly at the newly opened Chickamauga Lake and fish on his way to Brainerd Junior High in the morning.

After being back at Brainerd, coach Etter went to Chattanooga “City” High as a teacher and football coach during the middle of a school year. But during the following spring, he took a job at another school – Central.

He started out as an assistant, and, after head coach and future City Commissioner Dean Petersen left to serve during World War II, coach Etter was named interim head coach beginning with the 1943 season.

Unknown to all, coach Etter would end up staying at Central as head coach for 27 seasons, bringing thrills to countless Purple Pounder fans with his winning brand of football.

And then, after already becoming a legend, he would enjoy equally lofty success at Baylor as well, as we shall see in Part 2.

(To read John Shearer ‘s personal reminiscences of “Red” Etter written shortly after the coach’s death in 2006, click here):

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