Tennessee State

Opening with Notre Dame, Eddie George wants more this year

After two consecutive losing seasons, the former Heisman Trophy has a plan to change the tide of Tigers football this year.

Nashville, TN–It’s a quarter till 10 a.m., on Aug. 24 and Hale Stadium already feels like the Devil’s playground. It’s less than ten days away from the season opener against Notre Dame for head coach Eddie George. The clouds hover over the sun but not long enough to curb the blistering 91 degrees and the heavy humidity seizing the 70-year-old venue. “The Hole”,  the moniker fondly associated with the now outdoor practice facility, previously hosted Tennessee State football games until 1999. It was the mainstay for the program’s ten legendary undefeated seasons and a hotbed for NFL talent that generated two Pro Football Hall of Famers in Richard Dent and Claude Humphrey.

As the empty stands bask in the heat, there’s no cool breeze in sight and players are drenched in sweat. Eddie George paces back and forth in the east end zone of the field, waiting for the Tigers’ offense to execute a play against the team’s defense. The former ‘95 Heisman Trophy-winning running back will begin his third season at the helm of the Tennessee State football program when the Tigers face No. 13 Notre Dame in a historic battle on Saturday afternoon. It marks the first time the Fighting Irish (1-0) will clash against an FCS team since the NCAA split its football divisions in ‘78 and the first instance of Notre Dame competing against an HBCU.

Eddie George never dreamed of coaching a group of men in the house that Knute Rockne built. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” George says. Multiple whistles sound off after a defensive end blows up a designed run play in the B gap and manhandle an offensive lineman in the process. George is pleased with the physicality of his defense. But, on the other hand, the former 10,000-yard NFL rusher is devoted to improving the production at his position, a key area of focus as the Tigers seek to capture their first winning season since ‘17. 


Bringing culture to life

Eddie George stands underneath the goalpost moments before the snap of the next play. Donning his straw hat draped in TSU blue along with a long-sleeved half-zip pullover and shades, his physique suggests that he could bulldoze his way through a defense for a 20-yard run off of a simple counterplay. George, who turns 50 on Sept. 24, keeps himself in terrific shape. But even before playing eight of his nine NFL seasons with the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans, defenses feared his presence at Ohio State. In ‘95, behind a stout Buckeyes’ offensive line, George bounced off tackles and burst through the heart of Notre Dame’s defense for 207 yards and three touchdowns in a victory against the Irish.

However, when Tennessee State takes the field against one of college football’s premier programs in front of a nationally televised audience on NBC, it’s not about the glory days of the former four-time Pro Bowler who once graced the cover of the Madden NFL 2001 video game or appeared in a Super Bowl. It’s about leading a group of men who have been molded in the TSU standard, a tough-love culture rooted in three “ships” and discipline. “Relationships, ownership and leadership,” he says. “Adversity is going to come, you’re going to get hit with doubt. How do you manage that? …Culture is not a bunch of words. If you’re not living in it, it’s not truthful.”

George’s journey to implanting his philosophy ahead of the ‘23 season premiere presented a great deal of challenges. But, the lessons have prepared him to be a coach, a mentor, and a father figure. “He’s a man of character and the standard for what a man should be,” says linebacker James Green. “He’s done it all… Hollywood… he’s the reason I’ll never quit chasing my dreams.”

Touching a player’s soul

Eddie George strolls into his office on the third floor of Hankal Hall after a gritty practice, the team’s walk-on tryouts, lunch, and a string of weekly staff meetings to prepare for the Tigers’ Week 1 matchup in South Bend. His office displays a juxtaposition of five principles: discipline, love, patience, peace, and structure. Entering the door, on the wall to the right, sits a mural of John Merritt, the winningest coach in program history. Behind his desk, to the left, lies a black-and-white chessboard. The wall adjacent to his workspace lists the names of every player labeled by position. But, before concluding of each day, George visits the Almond-colored folding table next to his air conditioning unit, where more than 100 stacks of neatly organized papers of his players’ long-term aspirations stare him in the face daily, serving as a reminder of building intentional relationships away from the field.

“I spend time reading through each one and I find out so much more about them,” he says. “We talk about mental health and a lot of stress goes into football from day to day. …I’m more interested in molding the person. If I can touch your soul, the football side will be easy.”

Eddie George is also refining his coaching perspective. That process, however, has not been comfortable. In ‘21, he took over a struggling Tennessee State program that had previously won nine games in a three-year span in the Ohio Valley Conference. After consecutive losing seasons—filled with a laundry list of injuries, a youthful roster, and a few player issues away from the field—in his coaching tenure, George needed a change of scenery. He spent time with himself, engaging in extensive soul-searching sessions in San Juan, Puerto Rico. During his excursion of self-examination this offseason, the TSU coach popped open John Gordon’s The Energy Bus: 10 Rules to Fuel Your Life, Work, and Team with Positive Energy.  “It’s peaceful to get in a place where I can hear God and understand what these athletes and what this coaching staff needs from me to turn the corner on this program. …There’s no written rule book of steps. I’m learning to lead more from a place of faith.” 

The smoke is welcome

He also adopted a new admiration for Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra’s ability to establish a robust culture in the franchise well before the team’s improbable postseason run to the NBA Finals last season. “You can look around the league and find teams with better talent,” George says. “In terms of culture, true buy-in, that’s [the standard].” A freshly lit candle sits on the table slightly in front of two Black couches and underneath the TV, where George has broken down game film of the possible schemes Notre Dame could present in Saturday’s game

Despite the past two campaigns, Eddie George remains confident in his strategies, his staff, and his team heading into Year 3 and the first of the newly cemented OVC-Big South conference partnership. While TSU faces a tall task for its season opener, George is not “shying away from the smoke [in competition],” says TSU defensive coordinator Brandon Fisher. 

The pressure that awaits TSU on the opposing sideline at Notre Dame Stadium is an Irish team that dismantled Navy, 42-3, on Saturday in Dublin. Sam Hartman, the former Wake Forest quarterback, berated the Midshipmen defense, throwing for 251 yards and four touchdowns in the battle on European soil. Nine different receivers registered a catch from the journeyman signal caller. Audric Estime steered ND’s rushing attack as the Irish offensive line pummeled Navy’s defensive front. Defensively, the Irish held Navy to a dismal 169 yards of total offense. “There’s a lot of talent over there and it’s going to be a big boy football game,” Fisher says. 

George concurs: “When I pop that tape on, that’s what we need to look like [Notre Dame]… maybe not height, weight, speed but certainly that’s the standard across the board.” 

While TSU will receive a guaranteed $1 million—the largest payout received in program history—from the competition by Nov. 1, the Tigers don’t view the matchup as merely a high-dollar financial contribution. They see it as a 60-minute battle with an opportunity to create a new moment in college football history. “There’s no pressure on us,” says TSU offensive coordinator Theron Aych. “The football field is the same size [at “The Hole”]. Once the ball is kicked off, the game will take care of itself.”

Notre Dame is just a name

After a week of grueling practices, count on James to usher the energy into the room. “I’ve been walking around dapping up the boys and making sure everybody is on the same page,” he says. “We’re ready to play and show the nation who Big Blue is. We’re not afraid of Notre Dame, it’s just a name.” Green, who entered TSU in ‘17, will start his seventh year of college football on Saturday and returns after missing his entire senior season in ‘22 with a shoulder injury. He injured the same shoulder in ‘19 and was granted a medical redshirt.

So, if Green’s confidence and excitement exude a little louder than his teammates, it’s because it has been a long journey for the team’s third-leading tackler (131 tackles) and one dispensed with multiple dark moments. “I had a phase where I wasn’t sleeping, crying and wondering if I should hang it up,” he adds. Instead of succumbing to anxiety and depression, Green regained control of his situation. When he found out that he was eligible to play one more season, he considered it a blessing. “It’s God’s will that I’m here,” he adds.

James anchors a defensive unit with his brother, Josh, who currently leads the team in tackles (225) in his career at safety. The duo are like an “extension” of Fisher in the defense. Apart from the Green brothers, TSU’s defense features a group of talented transfers that include linebacker Monroe Beard (UAPB transfer), defensive lineman Jalen Bell (Mississippi Valley State), defensive back Jeremiah Josephs (Miami Ohio) and Tyler Jones (Missouri), to name a few. The Tigers also return defensive lineman Terrell Allen and Bryce Phillips from a ‘22 defense that finished first or second in scoring defense, total defense, pass defense, pass defense efficiency, red zone defense and limiting their opponents third down conversions in the OVC. “Between the [Greens], the [defensive] group we have and the transfers, they’ve come in and raised the bar,” Fisher says. 

Leadership under center

While the Tigers’ defense seeks to maintain its competitive edge this season, Draylen Ellis will lead a TSU offense that will require the senior quarterback to be more of a vocal leader as well as putting the offense in the best position to succeed. Ellis threw for 1,807 yards and eight touchdowns and six interceptions while rushing for 55 yards and four scores on the ground last season. The former Austin Peay signal caller will be under center behind a mixed bunch in age along the offensive line that includes left tackle Romello Tarver (redshirt senior), left guard Nicholas Green (junior), center Chazan Page (sophomore), right guard Aarion Harvey (graduate student) and right tackle Jamari Freeman (redshirt freshman). 

In ‘22, opposite of the defense, the Tennessee State offense finished near the bottom of each major statistical category that included scoring offense, total offense, rush offense, pass offense, first downs, and red zone offense. But, the unit will feature some new faces in wide receiver Lucien Brunetti (Tennessee), tight end Trenton Gillison (Michigan State), and key returners Jalen Rouse and Karate Brenson which should help increase scoring opportunities.

Tarver says the growth in maturity during the summer should pay off in a huge way starting Saturday. “We have a lot of new guys but we’re all locked in on establishing the ultimate protection for the quarterback,” he adds. “Draylen works on his craft every day and he’s been a monster this offseason.” But, according to Eddie George, Ellis’s maturity off the field—navigating some character-related setbacks—has changed the way he approaches the game. “Helping him become more of a leader,” he adds.

Ellis agrees: “2022 was a year of lessons. …Growing in the leadership role has given me a free mind [on the field]. I’ve taken some of [Coach George] tips and he’s been motivational for me.”

A moment for Black Coaches

Eddie George

When Eddie George leads Tennessee State to battle against his friend and Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman, it will surely be a competition on the field. However, it will also be remembered as a notable moment in time for two Black coaches on one of the grandest stages in college football. “There is a ceiling for Black coaches,” George says. “It’s tough to get a serious look nowadays. I hope this [game] encourages African Americans to get involved and it leads to more opportunities for people of color.”

Even more, the clash against the private Catholic giant will give George a close-up visual on the strength of his team’s ‘23 doctrine in real time in front of more than 80,000 fans as well as those players with NFL aspirations an opportunity like never before.

Opening with Notre Dame, Eddie George wants more this year
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