Dooley: Forbes has ETSU team on the rise


Coach Steve Forbes has turned the program at East Tennessee State around quickly. [Kathy Kmonicek/AP Photo]

Published: Wednesday, March 15, 2017 at 5:16 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, March 15, 2017 at 5:16 p.m.

ORLANDO — Imagine this. You are a college basketball coach at a high-profile Power Five conference program. It’s your birthday. And you are cleaning out your office because you’ve just been fired.

And you know there is a worse day coming.

That was Steve Forbes on March 22, 2011.

“I knew something was coming,” he said. “I just didn’t know what.”

It turned out to be a one-year show cause, the NCAA’s way of punishing a coach who does a bad thing. Forbes’ boss at Tennessee — Bruce Pearl — got three years.

Pearl went into broadcasting during his sentence.

Forbes traded in his big-league job for a cheaper model. Because he knew he was in trouble — and he acknowledges he should have said something at the infamous barbecue that got the Vols in a pickle — Forbes turned down offers to be an assistant at schools such as LSU.

“I couldn’t do that to them,” he said.

Instead, he went the junior college route, becoming the head coach at Northwest Florida State College in Niceville.

Because, well, he needed the work.

“As a father, it’s a tough moment,” Forbes said Wednesday in Orlando. “You’re not quite sure what you’re going to do and how you’re going to pay the bills and sell the house. I just wasn’t prepared financially for something like that.”

In other words, he wasn’t Steve Forbes. You know, the rich guy who ran for president. Instead, he was Steve Forbes, unemployed basketball coach.

“The money (at Northwest) was obviously a lot less,” Forbes said. “We had to downsize. You know, that was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. I didn’t need all that stuff. I didn’t need a big house.”

Fast forward to today when his East Tennessee State basketball team faces Florida in college basketball’s biggest house — the NCAA Tournament.

ETSU, in Steve Spurrier’s old hometown of Johnson City, Tenn., is a long way from Niceville. It’s even a longer way from Lone Tree, Iowa, where he’s from, and Southern Arkansas, where he played basketball and baseball and spent a year as the school’s sports information director. And from Muscatine, Iowa, where he played in junior college.

“My college basketball coach was Tom Mitchell,” Forbes said. Mitchell is currently UF’s vice president for development. “He went from sweatsuits to three-piece suits and I stayed in a sweatsuit.”

Mitchell was the head coach at Muscatine Community College where he actually lived in a booster-purchased home with his players that they called the “Hoop House”.

“He was an incredible athlete,” Mitchell said. “It makes me a little nervous because he wasn’t just one of our best students, he had a focus, a passion and he was all about his teammates. If his team is any reflection of his dedication and commitment to the game, we’re going to have our hands full.”

Forbes has been just about everywhere. He has coached at Texas A&M for Billy Gillispie and Wichita State for Gregg Marshall. He coached at Louisiana Tech, Mike White’s old stomping grounds. He coached at Idaho and Illinois State.

And he coached at Tennessee when the Vols were really something. They had Billy Donovan’s number in those days.

“My path is my path,” he said.

And that path led him to ETSU in March of 2015 where he has turned around a program, winning 51 games in two seasons. So far.

“He had a plan from the first day,” said guard T.J. Cromer. “He wanted to turn the program around right away. It wasn’t a rebuilding process. He wanted to come in and win right away.”

That he has done. He got the band back together, hiring assistants Jason Shay and Brooks Savage and director of operations Matt Cline, all who had been with him at Tennessee (and Northwest Florida). Although Pearl has been back in coaching at Auburn for three years, there is still some bad blood between him and his former assistants.

“Let’s just say we don't exchange Christmas cards,” Forbes said.

There are some people who will tell you that one reason Pearl hasn’t had the same success at Auburn as he had at Tennessee is that those assistants who played a big part in the Vols’ success are here in Orlando instead of the plains.

They are at the NCAA Tournament. He is analyzing the NCAA Tournament for ESPN.

They win.

“He’s got an SEC staff,” said Florida coach Mike White. “And they’ve got SEC players. This is going to be like a league game for us.”

Those worked out pretty well for the Gators all season. But this is also a team trying to regain its mojo after two straight losses. The Buccaneers, on the other hand, have won nine of their last 10 games.

If they make it 10 of 11, expect to hear the name Steve Forbes connected to some of the openings at major conference schools.

The coach.

Not the rich guy.

“There are just some people you know who are going to be successful,” Mitchell said of his former player. “This is a guy who is on the way up.”

His former coach — as well as the rest of the Gator Nation — hopes it’s not at Florida’s expense today.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at pat.dooley@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

▲ Return to Top