Has ETSU Football Come Full Circle From 1992?

Marky Billson
5 min readNov 5, 2023

Thirty-one years ago an ETSU victory against VMI was a turning point for the program. Now, the Buccaneers may have passed that torch back to the Keydets.

Marky Billson

Despite winning the Southern Conference football championship in the spring of 2021, there’s a feeling in the SoCon whenever you lose to Virginia Military Institute you’ve hit rock bottom.

It’s a football program that went almost 40 seasons, from 1982–2020, without posting a single winning record.

It wasn’t always that way, though. In the 1980s Virginia Military was considered a more prestigious football program than East Tennessee State.

Perhaps most notably, in 1987 the 3–6 Keydets defeated 5–4 ETSU, 20–13, the week after the Bucs enjoyed a victory against North Carolina State. As such ETSU would finish what should have been one of their best seasons in school history with just a 5–6 record.

Bunch of SOBs; the Same Old Bucs. When VMI’s Mark Stock landed with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1989, he told me he didn’t think he’d be in the NFL if it wasn’t for being able to play ETSU.

Stock caught 74 passes for VMI in 1988. He played professional football from 1989–96, though his career was interrupted by serving in Operation Desert Storm.

Neither team was very good, but VMI took six of the nine games the two teams played from 1982–91.

But that changed in 1992 when ETSU beat VMI, 18–16, in Mike Cavan’s first game as head coach and, not coincidentally, Donnie Abraham’s first college game.

Cavan coached at ETSU from 1992–96. Under his tutelage the Bucs enjoyed their first winning season in eight years in 1994 and their first postseason appearance since 1969.

Following this game there was a caller to Bill Meade’s Sportsline radio program remarking about the environment, as if something had changed.

And something did. From then on ETSU would only lose one more game to VMI until dropping football after the 2003 season. The Bucs became respectable, now capable of posting winning records and, in 1996, even making the Division I-AA (now FCS) playoffs.

But I was reminded of this turning point game after watching ETSU lose to VMI 31–24 on Saturday.