Longtime friends and former Atlantic Coast Conference rivals Carl Torbush and Mike O’Cain say they savor the opportunity to work together in relaunching a program on a smaller scale at East Tennessee State.
They spent a lot of the 1990s trying to beat the other while both were in North Carolina.
Torbush was the Tar Heels head coach from 1998-2000; O’Cain coached the Wolfpack from 1993-99. When O’Cain was fired at NC State, he joined Torbush’s staff at North Carolina for a year. Now they’re back together, reviving the Football Championship Subdivision program at ETSU.
“I think both of us feel like we have a lot of coaching left in us,” said Torbush, 62. “The great thing about Mike in my opinion is he’s here to stay. This is where he wants to be. He loves this area and the people. He’s really excited about starting a football program from scratch, like a lot of us are.”
East Tennessee State announced in April 2013 it was bringing back football after shutting down the program for financial reasons in 2003. The Buccaneers opened practice Monday with Torbush as head coach and O’Cain the offensive coordinator. The Buccaneers play their first game of this new era against Kennesaw State on Sept. 3, 2015.
School officials brought back football in part because they believed it could assist in their goal of raising the school’s enrollment from 15,000 to 18,000. College Football Hall of Famer and former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer assisted in ETSU’s effort but wasn’t interested in coaching the team. School officials believed a veteran coach such as Torbush would be an ideal fit.
“Starting a program from scratch, you’re going to need to deal with a lot of issues,” athletic director Richard Sander said. “We felt that somebody who had a little more experience and somebody who understood the breadth of the whole football coaching paradigm would be somebody we’d want.”
Torbush and O’Cain, 60, have known each other since meeting at a Florida high school jamboree in the mid-1970s when both were assistants at different colleges. They developed a mutual respect while working for in-state rivals.
“That was one thing that kind of rubbed people a little bit wrong is that I think the folks at NC State and maybe the folks at North Carolina kind of wanted us to be bitter enemies,” O’Cain said.
Both of their jobs were considered to be in jeopardy before North Carolina edged NC State 10-6 late in the 1999 season. When O’Cain was fired at the end of that season, Torbush hired him as North Carolina’s offensive coordinator. Torbush believes that if that game had gone the other way, he could have gotten fired and found a home on O’Cain’s staff in Raleigh.
“I don’t think there’s [any] doubt, if we’d have lost that ballgame and he had made staff changes, there was a great chance I would have ended up at NC State,” Torbush said.
Both had worked as assistants since their ACC head coaching stints. Torbush was a defensive coordinator at Alabama, Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Kansas. O’Cain was an offensive coordinator at Clemson, Virginia Tech and James Madison.
After spending most of the past two decades at major-conference schools, they look forward to helping restart an FCS program.
“I think both of us are still passionate, both of us are still young at heart,” Torbush said. “Both of us are excited about the opportunity and challenges of starting a program that has a tradition but that hasn’t been in existence for 10 years, and to see where we can take this thing in the next five or six years.”