VOL. 11 | NO. 37 | Saturday, September 15, 2018
Unusual College Career Leads ETSU’s Gatewood to Neyland
By RHIANNON POTKEY
Austin Gatewood was sold on nothing more than a vision. There were no uniforms to wear, no stadium to play in, no veteran teammates to guide him.
East Tennessee State University linebacker Austin Gatewood (10) has witnessed a complete transformation of the school's football program over the past five years. (Dakota Hamilton/ETSU)
East Tennessee State University was restarting its football program after more than a decade of dormancy, and Gatewood was asked to be one of its inaugural recruits.
The East Hamilton High (Ooltewah) graduate realized it was the chance to be a part of something special. He could be on the ground floor and help reignite the passion and pride for football on the Johnson City campus.
“I prayed on it a lot and talked with my family, and everything just felt right about coming here,” Gatewood says. “I really felt like this was the best place to be, and I think it’s the best decision I ever made.”
As he embarks on his final season at ETSU, the redshirt senior linebacker has witnessed a complete transformation in five years. He’s seen East Tennessee join a conference, the Southern, build an on-campus stadium and galvanize a fan base.
Gatewood will be taking part in another historical occurrence on Saturday when the Buccaneers (1-0) travel to Knoxville for the program’s first-ever meeting with Tennessee (0-1).
ETSU will receive $500,000 for playing the Vols in their home opener at Neyland Stadium. It’s the first of four FBS opponents on ETSU’s upcoming schedules –Vanderbilt in 2019 and 2021, Appalachian State in 2019 and 2024 and Georgia in 2020.
The ties between ETSU and UT go much deeper than just proximity.
Before he even imagined becoming the athletic director at UT, Phillip Fulmer helped assist ETSU’s football revival by serving as a special assistant to ETSU athletic director Dr. Richard Sander.
ETSU first-year head coach Randy Sanders played for the Vols and began his coaching career at UT. Sanders, a Morristown native, spent 17 seasons at his alma mater, and was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach when the Vols won the national championship in 1998.
ETSU has 43 players from Tennessee on its roster, including 11 from Knoxville.
“It’s going to be awesome to play in Neyland Stadium, obviously. It will be the biggest crowd we’ve ever played in front of,” Gatewood adds. “I know it’s going to be really special for the kids from Knoxville. Most of them grew up Tennessee fans or going to Tennessee games.”
As the son of a high school coach, Gatewood was drawn to football from an early age. Instead of watching Disney movies or cartoons in his car seat, he always wanted to see highlights from his dad’s games.
“It’s been something I have been around my whole life. I’ve been going to football games for as long as I can remember,” Gatewood recalls.
“My dad never forced anything on me though. It naturally worked out that I grew to love football.”
Gatewood played for his dad, Ted, at East Hamilton High, earning first-team all-state honors as a junior and senior.
He didn’t have many offers coming out of high school, but was intrigued when ETSU made its unique pitch to join in 2014.
ETSU first fielded a football team in 1920 when it was known as East Tennessee State Normal School. The team, called the Normalites, finished 3-3 that season.
But ETSU dropped its football program in 2003 due to budget cuts and revenue shortfalls. After an attempt to bring it back in 2006 failed, the ETSU Student Government Association voted to recommend a $125 student fee in 2013 to pave the way for football’s return.
The inaugural class recruited to restart the program received lessons in patience and delayed gratification. The players all redshirted the first year, and could only practice and work in the weight room.
The team finally took the field for its first official game in the fall of 2015 and spent the first two seasons playing at Science Hill High, the alma mater of former Florida coach Steve Spurrier.
As a team composed mainly of redshirt freshmen and sophomores, it was a trial by fire for the young Bucs.
“Those first two years, we took our beatings, for sure. But going through all that definitely helped us grow quickly,” Gatewood continues. “We didn’t have a choice. It was definitely an experience I will never forget. It taught us a lot of things.”
From the moment he arrived, Gatewood was a player defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Billy Taylor knew he could trust.
Although he’s not the most physically gifted or naturally talented, the 6-foot-1, 225-pound Gatewood possesses a high football IQ and unrelenting work ethic.
“He has an understanding of the defense and he knows exactly where he needs to be when the ball is snapped and makes the play,” says Taylor, an ETSU alum who has also coached at Tennessee Tech and Chattanooga.
“There are a lot of guys who go out on the field and know what to do and grade out well, but don’t make plays, He is one of those guys who is also a playmaker.”
Gatewood has started every game of his career but one. The Bucs played Samford last season, and the staff wanted an extra defensive back on the field to counter the spread offense.
“He didn’t complain one second about it. He was just glad to do his part and was trying to help the other guy playing his position all week long,” Taylor explains. “He didn’t play in the first half. But we put him in the second half, and on his first play in he made a sack. It speaks volumes about the type of young man he is. He is just a total team player.”
Gatewood wants to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a football coach. He graduated last spring with a physical education degree and plans to look for a graduate assistant job with a college program once the season ends.
Gatewood was a student teacher in physical education last year at Science Hill, balancing the job along with football and school.
“That was definitely a cool experience. I got to meet a lot of coaches and teachers, and it became a great way to network and learn more about the profession,” Gatewood says. “It also taught me about time management and how to prioritize to get things done.”
As he reflects on the last five years at ETSU, Gatewood is proud of how far the program has come.
From playing on a high school field to playing in a new on-campus stadium with a new weight room and locker room. From playing against Maryville College, Emory & Henry and College of Faith to having a non-conference heavyweight like Tennessee on the schedule.
It was all part of the vision Gatewood bought into when there was nothing concrete to sell him on. Gatewood and the 10 other remaining players from the inaugural class will leave behind a legacy of helping resurrect college football at ETSU.
“I think 10 or 20 years down the road, it’s going to be more special than it already is to see where they have taken this football program because it’s definitely on the rise,” Gatewood predicts.
“They don’t just want to be a conference power, but a national power, and it’s going to be exciting for everybody who helped start this thing when we look back on these first few seasons.”