Full Circle: Eddie George Brings His Unique Vision to Tennessee State

The former NFL running back never thought he would be a coach. Now, back in a familiar city, he is prepared to lead players on the gridiron and in life after football.
Publish date:

As he stood in the backfield—in his white No. 27 Houston Oilers jersey and rocking the eye black under his helmet—Eddie George waited to receive the handoff from the late Steve McNair from the Ravens’ 1-yard line.

It was the Oilers’ final game of the 1996 NFL season; a late December road game against Baltimore in a nearly packed-to-capacity Memorial Stadium. A couple plays before, George had exploded through the hole and gashed Baltimore’s defense for 40 yards up the right sideline before he was tackled by Donny Brady just two yards shy of the goal line.

Two plays later, “Big Cat”—George’s nickname given to him by running back coach Sherman Smith—scored the Oilers’ first touchdown of the game. While Houston would go on to defeat Baltimore, 24–21, it was George’s final score of his rookie season and his final TD as part of the Oilers’ franchise located in Houston.

“Every time I played, [Smith] told me to set the tone, get through the line of scrimmage, hunt for the safeties, don’t let them off the hook,” George says.

That advice stuck with George as the Oilers dealt with turbulent times in relocating to Nashville in 1997 as the Tennessee Oilers. They played their home games at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in Memphis before moving to Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville in 1998 and later being renamed the Tennessee Titans ahead of the 1999 season.

Even today, Smith’s advice and the Oilers/Titans’ relocation to Nashville serves a bigger purpose for George. The 1995 Heisman Trophy winner never imagined the lessons he learned on the gridiron would come full circle. When the franchise moved to Nashville, the first two training camps were held at Tennessee State University, a historically Black college and university roughly 10 minutes from where the Titans played their home games at what was then Adelphia Coliseum (now Nissan Stadium).

And while George—who spent nine years in the NFL—enjoyed success in Nashville, his love for the game brought him back to that place when he was named Tennessee State’s 22nd football coach in April.

“We came to TSU for our first practices and knowing all of the great guys who have come through here, I am blessed to be given the keys of this institution to turn this program around in the right direction,” George says.

“I took Smith’s advice to heart when I was a player because I now know what it means to set the tone—not just as a player anymore—but for my players and coaching staff and moving this program forward with the right resources.”

Tennessee State introduces Eddie George

George lacks prior coaching experience, but he believes his popularity in Nashville and his work experience away from football is the perfect mix to restore Tennessee State.

After a dynamic NFL career, he finished his architecture degree from Ohio State, earned his MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern and started his own business—the Edward George Wealth Management Group.

“He is a Nashville hero,” TSU athletic director Mikki Allen told The Tennessean.

As former NFL players transition into coaching opportunities at HBCUs and other FCS schools—like Deion Sanders at Jackson State in 2020 or former NFL wide receiver Ed McCaffrey, who became the head coach at Northern Colorado in December 2019—it is easy to notice a trend. But George says this opportunity goes far beyond notoriety and winning championships on the field.

“I am trying to establish something with longevity, and I’ve had that experience in my business life,” he says. “Being a coach and a leader is about service to others, not my ego. Coaching and preparing young men is only part of the job.

“The head coach is like the CEO of a business; he delegates like Chris Paul or Magic Johnson on a basketball team. A lot of my time has been spent on the efficiency of the player, when he gets out of bed, how he gets to class, how he does in practice, how he recovers, how he eats, how he lifts in the weight room, how he gets rest. This is more than calling a lead play on a Saturday but putting players in the proper place to be functional when they arrive at TSU and after they leave.”

George will have his hands full restoring a Tigers program that has not won an Ohio Valley Conference title since 1999, made the FCS playoffs since 2013 or established a winning season since 2017, when TSU finished 6–5 under former head coach Rod Reed. The university parted ways with Reed after he finished 2–5 in an abbreviated spring 2021 season.

Despite the program’s recent struggles for stability—four different coaches and 13 winning seasons—over the last two decades, Tennessee State is not lacking in historic success on the gridiron. Legendary TSU coach John “Big John” Merritt coached the Tigers for 20 years (1963 to ’83), winning seven Black college national championships, recording five undefeated seasons and compiling a record of 172-33-7. Merritt coached 144 players who went on to play pro football, including Eldridge Dickey, Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Joe Gilliam and Pro Football Hall of Famers Claude Humphrey and Richard Dent.

“This is not a university foreign to excellence,” George says. “The bones of a good program are here. It is time to bring it all together and take it to the next level.”

George did not attend an HBCU, but he is no stranger to the culture surrounding the institutions and how important it is to the overall synergy of what he is trying to create at TSU.

“I am well aware of Eddie Robinson, Grambling State, my former teammate Steve McNair and his days at Alcorn State, the legendary homecomings at Howard, the way we used to wear Howard and FAMU across our chest on sweatshirts in the 90s—those were some good times,” George laughs. “It is remarkable, and I am glad that we are resurrecting and changing things at HBCUs.

“What keeps a coach’s job is getting wins on the field, but understanding the challenges the university is facing and changing the environment shifts the culture.”

As George sits at the helm of the program, he initially questioned whether he would take the job when Allen and TSU President Glenda Glover approached him. George and Glover had a prior working relationship in his wealth management business.

“When she called and told me she was going to have the athletic director included in the conversation, I thought it was going to be about something for fundraising,” George said. When she asked me about being the coach, I was like, ‘I am not a coach, and what kind of circus are you trying to do?’ ”

But Glover was serious. George was hesitant until he talked with his wife and others like Sanders, his former NFL head coach Jeff Fisher and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.

“My wife told me, you owe it to yourself to think about it,” George says. “Then, looking at what Coach Prime was doing at JSU, this could be something real.

“But, even after talking with them, I did a lot of soul searching. Sometimes, people will see something in you that you don’t see in yourself. I had to ask myself, was I passionate about young men, mentorship and coaching? Can I be the best in the world if I commit myself to this? My answer was yes.”

“The man that Eddie George is, forget the football player, just the man,” Sanders told the Clarion Ledger when George was hired. “Eddie’s a good person, football aficionado and I’m pretty sure he’s going to assemble a wonderful staff.”

George recently announced that coaching staff, one with extensive football experience ranging from college and NFL.

Former Raiders and Browns coach Hue Jackson will serve as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, and Brandon Fisher—son of Jeff—was tabbed as defensive coordinator. George’s staff was rounded out by Joe Bowden (linebackers), who played with the Oilers/Titans from 1992 to ’99, Keith Burns (special teams and defensive specialist), Cory Harkey (tight ends), Mark Hutson (offensive line), Richard McNutt (defensive backs), Pepe Pearson (running backs), Clyde Simmons (defensive line) and Kenan Smith (passing game coordinator/wide receivers).

Eddie George runs with the ball while with the NFL's Oilers

George during his NFL days with the Oilers

As he concludes his first 90 days as head coach, George’s other priorities have included establishing the mentality of the team and the keys to building a winning program, as well as listening to the thoughts and desires of his players.

With only nine seniors (eight redshirted) on its current roster, Tennessee State does not feature a ton of veteran leadership. Key players returning from the spring season include running back Devon Starling (who led the conference in rushing yards per game with 92.6), quarterback Isaiah Green and wide receivers Cam Wyche and Dayron Johnson. On the other side of the ball, defensive back Josh Green, defensive lineman Davoan Hawkins and defensive back Nick Harper Jr. made solid contributions in the spring and are back this fall.

Last month, George also landed former Texas A&M safety and defensive back Derrick Tucker. Tucker played 11 games as a freshman in the SEC but saw limited action in following years and opted out of the 2020 season.

George also brought on two transfer quarterbacks in Geremy Hickbottom from Grambling State and former Auburn quarterback Chayil Garnett. 

“The No. 1 opponent to our success right now is us,” George says. “Greatness is done in the details, so I want [players] to understand that there is a level of sacrifice, courage and tenacity to be great and they have to be willing to walk through that because it’s not for everybody.”

With a coach as widely known and respected as George, players undoubtedly will look to enhance their skills on the field with hopes of potentially playing in the NFL, despite the fact that no players from HBCUs were selected in this year’s NFL draft.

The last TSU player drafted was Lachavious Simmons in the seventh round in 2020, and the program’s last first-round draft pick was Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in 2008. The latter finished his NFL career as a two-time Pro Bowler.

While helping players earn a NFL opportunity is a priority, George’s view of a winning program is not solely based on championships and professional players.

“It would be phenomenal to have an undefeated season and my players drafted,” George said. “I am not going to tell them that only a percentage of them are going to get drafted. If that’s what they want, we are going to get them [there] or damn close to being there.

“It would mean more to me if a guy goes on to play in the NFL and transitions out of football into the business world, to see them be men of change, CEOs, politicians, entrepreneurs reaching their fullest potential. My ultimate goal is to prepare them for life after football and to have a legacy of generational wealth for their seeds to pass on to others.”

Being a coach at the collegiate level is a difficult task. From fundraising, recruiting and day-to-day operations to wins and losses and players and personnel, it is a challenging job. There are times where the smallest details can make the biggest difference, even when proper preparation meets purpose.

For George, there’s not a day in his life where he does not reflect on former teammate Kevin Dyson coming up one yard shy of a Titans’ victory in Super Bowl XXXIV against the St. Louis Rams. Instead of dwelling on the moment, George uses it as fuel to push him through his obstacles in life and now as a guide to prepare young men to conquer the gridiron and reach their highest potential.

“If we had a second chance to be on that 1-yard line, if we had to go back in time and do that, we would get the yard,” George says. “But, I look at that situation in my opportunity now as TSU’s coach.

“I am at the 1-yard line and I can infuse and impose my spirit on these young men to cross that for me and win their own championships and that to me is a blessing. I am going to win my championships in a different way.”

George plans to establish an offense from the inside-out from the center, creating a running game that will allow for screen passes, play-action passes and deep shots down the field. In the spring season, TSU finished near the bottom of its 10-team conference in scoring offense (ninth), total offense and pass efficiency (eighth), pass offense (ninth) and third-down conversions (eighth).

“We want to establish who we are in the trenches and the cloth I am cut from is that it is violence in the trenches,” George says. “We want to bludgeon the trenches and establish our character, identity and own the line of scrimmage.”

Defensively, George wants his team to be fundamentally sound, disciplined and one that flies around the football.

“Arrive to the ball with bad intentions, strip the ball, get the ball on the ground and get turnovers on our offense,” he says.

Tennessee State's Eddie George receives a jersey

Tennessee State opens its 2021 season with back-to-back road games in HBCU classics against Grambling State on Sept. 5 (Black College Football Hall of Fame Classic) in Canton, Ohio, and Jackson State (Southern Heritage Classic) on Sept. 11 in Memphis. After that, the Tigers return home to play Kentucky State (Sept. 18) in their home opener before kicking off conference play against Southeast Missouri on Sept. 25.

For George—as he prepares for the pressures of coaching, anticipating when the old school R&B hits and hip-hop selections from the Aristocrat of Bands play at Nissan Stadium—there’s nothing like college football.

“My father used to always say under the lights is where the magic happens,” he says. When you hear the thumping of the drums in the distance, it sends chills down your spine.

“The band, the drums, the pageantry, it’s where you capture the culture. I have faith that God will give me the strength, the knowledge and wisdom to lead this program to new heights.”