Carl Torbush, a former head football coach at North Carolina, Louisiana Tech, and East Tennessee State, passed away on November 6, 2023, at the age of 72. He had been diagnosed with ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease, just a week before his death. Torbush was also a former NAIA All-American in both football and baseball at Carson-Newman College. He retired from coaching in 2017 after leading the revival of the East Tennessee State football program.
Early Life and Education
Carl William Torbush Jr. was born on October 11, 1951, in East Spencer, North Carolina. He moved with his family to Knoxville, Tennessee, when he was 11 years old. He attended Austin-East High School, where he excelled in multiple sports. He received athletic scholarship offers from various Division I schools, but decided to walk-on at the University of Tennessee. After having no playing time as a freshman, he transferred to Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City. As a senior at Carson-Newman, he received first-team NAIA All-American honors in both baseball and football. Torbush graduated from Carson-Newman in 1974.
After college, Torbush coached briefly at Carter High School in Knoxville. In February 1975, he signed with the Kansas City Royals. Following his one-season professional baseball career, he went to Baylor University to begin his collegiate coaching career. He received his master’s degree in physical education and health from Baylor in 1976.
Torbush began his career as an assistant coach for the Baylor Bears, and later coached for the Southeastern Louisiana Lions, the Ole Miss Rebels, the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs, the Alabama Crimson Tide, the Texas A&M Aggies, the Carson-Newman Eagles, the Mississippi State Bulldogs, the Kansas Jayhawks, and the Liberty Flames. Torbush was part of some mild success at Ole Miss, where he was defensive coordinator from 1983 to 1986. The 1986 season saw Ole Miss compile an 8–3–1 record including a season-ending 20–17 win at the Independence Bowl over Texas Tech. The 1986 Rebel defense allowed opponents an average of less than 13 points per game and statistically ranked as the best defense in the Southeastern Conference.
Torbush also served as the defensive coordinator under Dennis Franchione at Alabama from 2001 to 2002, and at Texas A&M from 2003 to 2005. He helped the Crimson Tide win the 2001 Independence Bowl and the 2002 SEC West Division title. He also helped the Aggies win the 2004 Cotton Bowl.
Torbush’s first head coaching job was at Louisiana Tech in 1987, where he led the Bulldogs to a 5–4–1 record. He then returned to North Carolina as the defensive coordinator and linebackers coach under Mack Brown from 1988 to 1997. He helped the Tar Heels win three bowl games and achieve a top-10 ranking in 1997.
When Brown left North Carolina for Texas after the 1997 regular season, Torbush was promoted to head coach. He led the Tar Heels to a 42–3 win over Virginia Tech in the 1998 Gator Bowl, finishing the season with an 11–1 record and a No. 6 ranking. However, he could not sustain the success in the following seasons, going 7–5 in 1999 and 6–5 in 2000. He was fired after the 2000 season, with a 17–18 overall record as the head coach.
Torbush’s last head coaching job was at East Tennessee State, where he was hired in 2013 to restart the football program that had been discontinued in 2003. He led the Buccaneers to their first season in 2015, playing as an independent team. In 2016, they joined the Southern Conference and finished with a 5–6 record. In 2017, they improved to 6–5, their first winning season since 2001. Torbush announced his retirement from coaching on December 8, 2017, citing health reasons. He had a 14–22 record at East Tennessee State.
Battle with ALS and Death
Torbush was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, on October 31, 2023, after experiencing weakness and difficulty in speaking. ALS is a fatal condition that affects the nerve cells that control voluntary muscle movement. There is no cure for ALS, and the average life expectancy after diagnosis is two to five years.
Torbush faced his diagnosis with courage and faith, saying that he was “at peace” and that he trusted God’s plan for him. He also expressed his gratitude for his family, friends, and former players and coaches. He said that he hoped to raise awareness and funds for ALS research and support.
Torbush died in his sleep on November 6, 2023, at his home in Knoxville. He was 72 years old. He is survived by his wife, Janet, his son, Brent, his daughter, Ashley, and his grandchildren.
Legacy and Impact
Torbush was remembered by many as a great coach, mentor, and friend. His former colleagues and players praised his character, integrity, and passion for the game. Mack Brown, who hired Torbush twice at North Carolina, said that Torbush was “one of the best defensive coaches in the country” and “a wonderful person”.
Torbush’s obituary described him as “a man of faith, a loving husband, father, grandfather, and friend to many”. It also stated that he “impacted countless lives through his coaching career and his involvement in various ministries”.
Torbush’s impact on college football was evident in his achievements and honors. He was inducted into the Carson-Newman Athletic Hall of Fame in 1997, the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame in 2018, and the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 2020. He was also named the Southern Conference Coach of the Year in 2016.
Carl Torbush was a remarkable man who dedicated his life to coaching and serving others. He overcame many challenges and obstacles in his career, and inspired many people with his faith and positivity. He left behind a legacy of excellence and compassion that will not be forgotten. He will be greatly missed by his family, friends, and the college football community.