When Tennessee State president Glenda Glover called Eddie George early last year and asked him to become the university’s head football coach, he initially thought the idea was ridiculous.
After all, George had never been a coach before at any level. He had played football at the highest levels, winning the Heisman Trophy at Ohio State and going on to run for more than 10,000 yards in the NFL, but after retiring from the league in 2005, George had moved on from football to pursue other ventures.
George started a landscape architecture firm and a wealth management business. He taught classes at Ohio State’s Fisher College of Business. He was spending much of his free time on the golf course. He was even acting on Broadway and in TV shows and movies, and he had lofty aspirations for what he could accomplish as an actor.
“I was gonna be the first person to win a HEGOT. That’s an Emmy, Tony, Oscar, Grammy, and I wanted to be the first one to win a Heisman, Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony,” George said.
So George was resistant when Tennessee State began recruiting him to take over its football program. He didn’t know if he was actually capable of being a head coach, and questioned why Tennessee State would want a coach with no experience.
“I’m just like, ’This is why y’all lose. This is why you’ve been losing the last 10 years. You've won nine games the last three years because of decisions like this,’” George recalled during his presentation at Ohio State’s coaches’ clinic in April.
But Glover and Tennessee State athletic director Mikki Allen didn’t take no for an answer, as they felt adamantly that George was the right man for the job. And George’s perspective began to change when he talked to his wife about the possibility.
“I said, ‘Tamara, listen to this dumbass idea. Glenda Glover had the audacity to ask me to be the next head coach for Tennessee State knowing damn well I've never coached a day in my life. I’m on Broadway, I'm doing my wealth management business, I’m on the golf course, I’m going to (his son) Eriq’s games, all these things I'm doing in my life, and she asks me to do this. I said, ’Isn’t that a dumbass idea?’ And my wife says, ’Why not?’” George recalled. “She says, ‘Well, maybe she sees something in you you don’t see in yourself.’”
After thinking about the opportunity for the next couple of weeks, during which he had conversations with people like Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin who assured him he was capable of being a head coach, George decided to take the job, realizing that his wide variety of life experiences had prepared him to be a coach even though he hadn’t actually been one.
“I began to think about all the things that I've done up to this point. All the things that I've accomplished in football. All the things that I've been through the last 15 years as an actor and thinking of, ‘Well, how does this all come together for this?’ And I began to get excited,” George said. “I started thinking about all the things I can do for these kids as a coach, given my experience both on the football field and elsewhere.
“As an actor, the best thing that you can do is you’re trained to listen. So I could listen to the kids, listen to what they're going through, listen to what's truly needed. From a business perspective, I've built businesses. I have the EDGE Group, landscape architecture firm that I started. My wealth management business, and I have partners. So I was thinking about assistant coaches that could come in that I could finally work with. And the education side, the teaching, teaching kids financial literacy, things after the game, leveraging your brand for something far greater than you could ever imagine. And I began to get really excited.”
A year later, George feels like he’s exactly where he’s supposed to be.
“Being in this for a year now, it's kind of sunk in that this is my path,” George told reporters after his presentation at the clinic. “Every day I wake up is a new opportunity to get better, to be a great mentor to these young men, and to really develop and influence young lives through the game of football, the game that I know and love.
“It's been a learning curve. I mean, to listen to the plays and all the nomenclature and terms, it’s like picking up Shakespeare for the first time. It takes awhile for you to get used to it again. But ultimately, my goal is to develop these young men, support our coaches, really enhance the footprint of Tennessee State in a major way and enjoy doing it. I’ve loved it.”
Even though George said he “didn't know my elbow from my asshole” when he became Tennessee State’s head coach, a role he started less than five months before its first game of the season, he led the Tigers to a 5-6 record in his first year on the job, an improvement over their prior three seasons under previous head coach Rod Reed.
George’s former Ohio State teammate Pepe Pearson, who has been coaching since 2004 and is now Tennessee State’s running backs coach, said George is more of a natural at coaching than he lets on.
“He has natural leadership skills, he has that charisma that you need, he's gonna be a good public relations guy always and forever,” Pearson said. “So a lot of it has come easy for him, and he's a quick study. So he's learned a lot over a year, and I think the momentum for him going forward is going to be great.”
Now that George has started to settle into his new position, he’s setting his goals high. While Tennessee State hasn’t won more than seven games in a season in the last eight years, he believes his program is capable of big things. George, Glover and Allen have a shared vision of Tennessee State making the jump from the FCS level to the FBS; right now, he’s working to build the foundation to eventually make that a reality.
“We see how things are done here at Ohio State and at Notre Dame, it’s done with great detail, it’s first class personified. And we can definitely do that at Tennessee State, within our budget,” George said. “It’s just being mindful of that, it’s being intentional with that. And it's constantly preaching, ‘Hey, this is our lifestyle.’ This is what we're doing from this point moving forward.”
George says his objective is to recruit the same caliber of players that Ohio State and other major programs do. And he isn’t afraid to compete against those programs. Tennessee State recently scheduled a game against Notre Dame for the 2023 season, and George said he spoke with Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith during the week of the coaches’ clinic about the possibility of Tennessee State playing Ohio State – though he admitted he’d like to wait a few years for that game after seeing all the talent the Buckeyes have right now.
“If you want to be the best, you have to play the best,” George said. “My motto is I’ll play you anytime, anywhere. So that's what I live by and that’s what we're gonna do.”
As George aspires to take Tennessee State to new heights, he’s drawing from his experiences at Ohio State as a blueprint of what an elite college football program looks like.
“Everything that I'm doing here at Tennessee State, my experience from Ohio State is playing into it,” George said. “From the discipline to little things to being efficient with our time to even the sayings and the corny little quotes that the coaches use, the coachspeak, I never thought that I would ever say.”
“ultimately, my goal is to develop these young men, support our coaches, really enhance the footprint of Tennessee State in a major way and enjoy doing it. I’ve loved it.”– Eddie George on coaching at Tennessee State
George and his assistant coaches had the opportunity to watch multiple Ohio State practices during the week they were in Columbus for the coaches’ clinic, and George is grateful to Ryan Day for giving them that opportunity to spend some time around the Buckeyes and learn from Ohio State’s coaches. But while he has taken the opportunity to learn from Day and is trying to emulate much of what Ohio State already does at Tennessee State, he’s also not trying to be exactly like Day or any other coach.
“I'm finding my sea legs. I’m doing things that are authentic to me. I'm not trying to be Ryan Day, I'm not trying to be Jim Tressel, I’m trying to be me,” George said. “I get influence from those guys in terms of how they handle things, but ultimately, I'm trusting my instincts. And I’ll fail. I probably will continue to fail. But those again are lessons for me to learn and get better.”
Pearson is confident George will prove to be the program-changing coach Tennessee State hired him to be.
“Eddie's the right guy to head up the charge,” Pearson said. “He has a great vision that we're all trying to help carry out. And I think we're headed in the right direction, for sure.”