JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — A key coaching cog in the East Tennessee State University Buccaneers’ winningest five-year is returning to Johnson City as the squad’s head coach.
Brooks Savage, who up until Monday was an assistant under Wake Forest head coach Steve Forbes, spent the 2016 through 2020 seasons at ETSU, also under Forbes, as the team went a combined 130-43 and qualified for two NCAA tournaments. Savage was ETSU’s recruiting coordinator under Forbes and also supervised the team’s academic program as the Bucs compiled a perfect graduation rate.
ETSU fired Desmond Oliver on March 10 after he compiled a 27-37 record over two seasons and the Bucs failed to win any conference tournament games.
“We need to build a culture that’s ETSU tough,” Athletic Director Richard Sander said in introducing Savage Monday. “The best person to do that is Brooks Savage.”
Savage called it “a thrill to be back,” when he came to the podium.
“Thank you for believing in me … and affording me the opportunity of a lifetime,” he said. “It will come at a place that’s always been a dream job destination for me.”
He told the fan base, “it’s time to get this program back to where we belong and competing for championships and being at the top of the SOCON (Southern Conference).”
ETSU President Brian Noland said the position drew a lot of interest in a mid-major program that’s qualified for the NCAA tournament 11 times since the 1989 season.
Sander “focused on finding an individual with grit, determination, toughness and a commitment to hard work, the values that this region holds, as well as someone who understood the history of excellence that defines our men’s basketball program,” Noland said.
Savage said he’ll run a “relationship-based” program.
“We will build genuine lasting relationships with everyone in the program and create a fun, family-like atmosphere,” Savage said. “These relationships will aim to help our players leave ETSU with rings on fingers, diploma in hand and tools for life.”
After meeting with the current ETSU players Monday morning for the first time, a handful of them could already feel that energy and experience.
“What they did here and what the coaching staff did at Wake [Forest] – just turning that program around – it’s just a good thing to see,” forward Jaden Seymour said. “An encouraging thing to see.”
“It kind of gives us hope that – he knows what it takes to win a championship – so that’s what we’re looking forward to,” guard Allen Strothers added.
On the court, he said he’ll emphasize toughness and hard work.
“Hard-nosed on the defensive end of the floor, tough, athletic and physical on defense,” Savage said. “We’ll be relentless on the glass and like (Sander) said, on 50/50 balls. We’ll be unselfish, we’re going to share it on our offense, going to get up and down and play an exciting brand of basketball.”
Savage said he’d take cues from all six head coaches he’s worked for, but specifically referenced his relationship with Forbes.
“He raised me in this profession, taught me the art of coaching, how to recruit and how to love the players.”
T.J. Cromer played guard at ETSU during Forbes and Savage’s first two years, averaging 17 points per game and leading the team as a senior during the 2016-17 campaign that saw the Bucs make their last NCAA tournament appearance. Cromer said he believes Savage will be “a great coach” for ETSU and that he understands players from their point of view and not just from his own as a coach.
“It makes players want to buy into the program,” Cromer told News Channel 11.
Savage spoke directly to the current players and said he wanted them at ETSU and the pieces were there to move back into contention in the conference and get ETSU en route to being one of the country’s premier mid-major programs.
“I’m not saying, ‘oh wait til year two and when I get my own guys,’ none of that,” he said. “You are our guys and we’re going to have a chance to compete for a championship right away.”
Cromer also pointed to Savage’s connection with “the Forbes lineage, where winning is second nature.”
Once recruiting does begin, Cromer said he expected Savage to be able to bring in high-level talent.
“He’s a great recruiter,” Cromer said. “That’s the final piece that’s necessary to be a great coach, so I think he’ll get the program back to winning.”
Savage said Joe Hugley, a former co-assistant who stayed at ETSU and was named interim coach March 10, will stay on his staff.
He told News Channel 11’s Kenny Hawkins he had a conversation with the current players Monday morning and told them he knew they hadn’t signed up to play for him but that he wanted them at ETSU.
“You guys are plenty good enough and just give me a chance to earn that trust and develop that relationship, so they were great this morning,” Savage said. “I talked to them a little bit about the identity and how we’re going to play, our core values, what’s important to us and they were really receptive.”
A 2008 graduate of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, Savage has also coached at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga and Presbyterian. In Savage’s final year at ETSU, Silver Waves Media named both him and Jason Shay — who succeeded Forbes at ETSU for the 2020-21 season — among its most impactful mid-major conference assistant coaches.
Savage also has continued connections to ETSU Athletic Director Richard Sander through his participation in TopConnect, a program designed to bring together current and future leaders in the basketball coaching and athletic director fields. Sander helped start and still leads the program, which Savage has been involved with as a coaching leader since 2018.