Middle Tennessee’s football program has evolved into a legitimate Division I program, in large part because of the coaches who spent the better part of two decades building the program up to what it is today.
The Blue Raiders played their first football game in 1911, but the program wasn’t Division 1 until 1952 when they joined the Ohio Valley Conference (OVC). The Ohio Valley Conference was classified, and still is, as Division I-AA, equivalent to current-day Division I FCS.
In 1979, Middle Tennessee hired James “Boots” Donnelly to take over the coaching reins from Ben Hurt after he resigned in November 1978.
“The reason I came to Middle Tennessee was I felt like we could move the program forward and I felt we could go 1A,” Donnelly said in an interview with Sidelines. “In the process of dreaming that, we were fortunate that we got a president in Dr. James Walker.”
Donnelly credits much of his success in advancing the football program to former MTSU president James Walker, who believed Coach Donnelly could take the team to a Division I-A program.
“Without Dr. Walker, I don’t know where we’d be,” he said.
Donnelly struggled to amass wins in his first two seasons in 1979 and 1980, finishing a combined 3-17. The 1981 Blue Raider team, however, was able to scratch their way to a 6-5 season, setting a foundation for the next 11 seasons.
In just his fourth season at Middle Tennessee, Donnelly was able to lead his team to an 8-3 season and a third place finish in the Ohio Valley Conference. Over the next three seasons, Middle Tennessee would have its first two 11 win seasons under Donnelly, and in 1985 would win its first OVC Championship since 1965.
“When you got group of strong willed players that like to play together and have a great camaraderie together, you can play,“ Donnelly said. “[The coaches] weren’t coaching at Middle [Tennessee] to move to a higher program, they were coaching in order to win games for Middle Tennessee. I was extremely fortunate to have quality coaches.”
After 1985, Donnelly was able to lead the Blue Raiders to three more conference championships and 10 more winning seasons, which landed him a spot in the Blue Raider Hall of Fame in 1993 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 2013. On Oct.3, a statue in his honor was unveiled on the MTSU campus before the Blue Raiders’ homecoming game against Vanderbilt.
“The first thing you got to always remember when dealing with any accolade, there is no such thing, particularly in a football program, that comes to an individual, it is always a team award,” Donnelly said. “It was individuals who made your program what it was or is.”
“The wall [of coaches and players names] is the most important thing, my statue is secondary to any of that. When you walk out to that wall and see all those names, that’s what our program was all about. It wasn’t about an individual, it wasn’t about me, it was about the team and the players. That’s what made it so special to me.”
Coach Donnelly said he believes MTSU has the potential to further their football program, but doing so requires maintaining a good coaching staff and recruiting high level talent. But there’s something else the program needs.
“The number one thing that Middle Tennessee has to do, and has not been able to do up until this point,” Donnelly said. They weren’t able to do it when I was there, and they haven’t done it yet … You have got to fill that stadium up with your supporters.”
“Not supporters who say, ‘Well, we will cheer for Middle if Tennessee isn’t on TV at the same time, or if Tennessee isn’t at home this week,” he explained. “As people continue to move into Rutherford County, they have to become Blue Raider supporters. [We] have to stack the stadium with people.”
The support the team receives is vital, and that’s what brings a program to life. Donnelly said the relationship between the fans in Floyd Stadium and the athletes on the field must be strong in order to be a successful program.
“What’s important is to put a product out there on the field that everybody is excited about, recruit like crazy, keep your coaching staff intact and just win football games,” he said. “All of that is hard to do if you’re not filling up the stadium because players feed off of the crowd.”
Donnelly talked about what the school and the program can do to bring more people to games at Floyd, and what it’ll take to get to that “Tennessee level.”
“I don’t think you advertise, I don’t think you have gimmicks, I don’t think you have artificial means to get them to support,” he said. “They (the fans) have to be true supporters.”
“People are going to eventually come, it may not be in my lifetime, but people will come to support Middle Tennessee,” Coach Donnelly said confidently. “Now that we are able to play Alabama, Indiana and all these Division 1 schools, things have changed.”
Donnelly spoke highly of the ideals of the team and what it can do as a program. He said Middle Tennessee will never financially compete with University of Tennessee and similar universities, but it’s not just the money that makes a team.
“What makes your team is your players, what makes your team is your character, what makes your team is your coaching staff,” Donnelly said. “If everybody pulls together, you always got a chance, but if you have individuals who expect something more than is really out there, then you’re not gonna have a team.”
This story appeared in the Nov. 30, 2015 print edition of Sidelines. Copies are currently available for free on stands throughout MTSU’s campus.
To contact Sports Editor Connor Ulrey, email email@example.com.