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Black College Football Hall of Fame Classic

Coach Eddie George’s newest challenge is returning Tennessee State to prominence

His first game will be against Grambling in the Black College Football Hall of Fame Classic

The mere thought nearly overwhelms Eddie George with emotion when he considers the meaning of Sunday’s date in his college football career.

“I’ve thought about that quite a bit,” George said to The Undefeated. “It’s funny how God works, right?”

George was named football coach at Tennessee State in April. He replaced Ron Reed, who was at the helm since 2010 and finished 60-69. George, a Philadelphia native and former running back at Ohio State, won the Heisman Trophy in 1995 and had an NFL career with the Tennessee Titans that included four Pro Bowls and more than 10,000 yards and 64 touchdowns in eight seasons.

George, 47, joins a short list of Heisman winners who became collegiate coaches (Steve Spurrier, Pat Sullivan, John David Crow, Frank Sinkwich and Doc Blanchard).

As impressive as his playing career was, this weekend’s game will remind George of when he reached the big-time football stage. He will begin his coaching career in the same state where he began his collegiate playing career, nearly 30 years to the day.

As a freshman on Sept. 5, 1992, against Louisville, George had one carry for 3 yards in an Ohio State victory. On Sunday, George will lead Tennessee State against Grambling at 4 p.m. on the NFL Network in the Black College Football Hall of Fame Classic at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio.

And, to top it off, George’s wife, Tamara Johnson-George, will perform with her singing group SWV that same weekend 59 miles north in Cleveland.

“And she’ll be driving down to Canton after her performance,” said George, laughing. “This is truly awesome. A year ago, I would’ve never dreamed I would be a coach, let alone a head coach of a major university. This is nothing but God. He’s really remarkable.”

It’s even more remarkable because George’s journey was a far cry from wearing a coach’s whistle. As a true Renaissance man, George built an acting career. He performed in the musical Chicago on Broadway, and in several theatrical productions: The Whipping Man, A Raisin in the Sun, Othello and Julius Caesar. He had roles in several feature films, including The Best Man Holiday, 7-10 Split and television roles in Shooter, NCIS: Los Angeles and HBO’s Ballers.

George earned his undergraduate degree in landscape architecture at Ohio State and an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern. He also taught the business of professional sports as an adjunct professor at Ohio State.

As an entrepreneur, George owns the Edward George Wealth Management Group, an investment advisory company.

And his company’s business relationship with Tennessee State president Glenda Baskin Glover is what led to the question in November.

“This is truly awesome. A year ago, I would’ve never dreamed I would be a coach, let alone a head coach of a major university. This is nothing but God. He’s really remarkable.”

– Eddie George

“To make a long story short, she asked me to be the head coach for Tennessee State,” George said, “and I thought she was crazy.”  

George’s reaction was not only because of his various interests but also because of his limited coaching experience.

“The closest I got to coaching was when I filled in once for my son’s basketball team with the YMCA,” George said. “I can’t play basketball, but I preached teamwork, being selfless and passing the ball around. I won my first and only game.”

Once George got over Baskin Glover’s offer, he did his homework, which included a discussion with his family and conversations with other head coaches. That included his former NFL coach Jeff Fisher, current Titans coach and former college teammate Mike Vrabel, former college teammate and University of Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell, former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, and Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, among others.

“I wanted their perspective on what coaching looked like and if I could be successful without any head-coaching experience,” George said. “They all said coaching was like being a CEO, and I figured that I could take my business life and my entrepreneurial spirit and marry that into something I know intimately in terms of football and give it a go.”

Fickell, who has led Cincinnati to a top-10 preseason national ranking, brushed aside George’s initial concerns.

“I always tell the story on how Eddie was one of the best leaders I’ve been around because he led by example and was always about his business,” said Fickell, who played nose guard for the Buckeyes. “Caring about others and setting an example on how to do things are the keys to being a good coach. He has all of that and he’s going to be great at it.”

George was also influenced by the impact Pro Football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders has had as coach at Jackson State. The school played several televised games on ESPN last season and more are scheduled for this fall. Sanders recruited top-tier players and has generated funds to improve on-campus facilities. Sanders’ celebrity brought attention to historically Black universities. George wants to do the same.

“Coaching will give me the chance to impact the lives of hundreds of student-athletes, and hopefully impact the lives of a university brand that needs refurbishing and renovation,” George said. “Those are the kind of things that led me to accept this job. A higher calling, if you will.”

Tennessee State has not been called champion since joining the Ohio Valley Conference in 2010. Its best finish was second place in 2013, when the team finished 10-4 overall and 6-2 in the conference. George said he plans to build a championship culture by focusing on things that don’t necessarily require talent.

“That’s believe, passion, teamwork and initiative,” George said. “All of those things require you to live a life of excellence, and that’s my No. 1 goal. And by doing that, we can get a product on the football field that we can be proud of.”

George may lack coaching know-how, but his staff is loaded with NFL experience: Hue Jackson (offensive coordinator), former head coach of the Cleveland Browns; Brandon Fisher (defensive coordinator), a former assistant with the Titans, Detroit Lions and St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams; Keith Burns (special teams coordinator), formerly with the Washington Football Team; Clyde Simmons (defensive line), a former assistant with the Browns; and Kenan Smith (wide receivers), a former assistant with the Rams.

“And Jeff Fisher is my senior adviser,” George said. “They all bring a wealth of knowledge that can really help guide me to make the right decisions when those times come up.”

George’s first big test will come in the season opener against Grambling. The two teams once had a historic rivalry that included greats such as Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Claude Humphrey, James “Shack” Harris and Doug Williams.

Williams, co-founder of the Black College Football Hall of Fame, wants to see the rivalry return.

“It’s one of the most historic rivalry games of all time,” said Williams, who, as quarterback, led the Washington Redskins to a Super Bowl victory in 1988. “This is big because Grambling and Tennessee State hadn’t played each other for a long time. Getting this game together is big for us.”

And it couldn’t be any bigger for George, who returns to a state where he played his first college football game.

“The game’s in Canton. It’s my first game and it’s against a team with a rich history there with the likes of coach Eddie Robinson,” George said. “I can’t focus in on the bells and whistles and glitter. I’ve got to lock in to the task at hand and try to guide my team to victory.”

Branson Wright is a filmmaker and freelance multimedia sports reporter.