Vast rows of corn line both sides of the roads, locals graze through produce at the farmers market and the distinct smell of old-fashioned hamburgers from the Greenback Diner fill the small, downtown air.
These are common sights for people who pass through the town with a population of less than 1,100. For Greenback School head football coach Greg Ryan, this is home.
In 2017, Ryan led the Cherokees to a 13-1 record and cruised to a 42-21 victory against Cornersville High School in the Class 1A state championship — their first in 30 years.
After two consecutive years of falling short in the Class 1A state title game, his main goal was to finally bring the gold ball back to his hometown.
“I got asked that similar question right after we won the state championship, and it was real emotional for me at the time,” he said. “If I think a lot about it, I’d probably be again. It’s one thing to coach at other places, and sure you get to know the kids, you can get to know the family members somewhat ... if you’re competitive, it doesn’t matter where you win. To do it for people that you know, people that you care about, it makes it 100 times better. I’ve actually had opportunities to go other places and possibly take different jobs. That always weighs on my mind, the fact that this is where I’m from ... it’s really rewarding to win, not for just me, but for these kids and the people in the community.”
The early years
Ryan grew up in the heart of Greenback, but was faced with the choice of attending another school in Blount County. That was never an option.
“My dad went to Greenback and my mom went to a school called Lanier High School just across the Blount County line,” Ryan said. “I don’t know if they have an elementary still, but anyway, my sister actually started kindergarten and first grade at Lanier. When it was time for me to go kindergarten, I said, ‘I’m going to Greenback’.”
By age 9, Ryan sought to play football at the youth level, where his life would change in a way he never saw coming.
“Believe it or not, at 9 years old, I was one of the fastest kids on the team, and they put me at receiver,” he said. “One day, I went out for a pass and the quarterback threw it behind me. That always aggravated me when dad was throwing it to me in the yard, and I would say, ‘Throw it to me on the outside so I can run and get it.’ The next pass, he throws it out and I make a good catch. I stop right there and threw it back to the quarterback and coach said, ‘Oh my gosh, you throw it better than the quarterback.’ The next day, I started as quarterback as a 9-year-old.”
From there, Ryan led his team to a 31-1 record and four championships in four years as the starting quarterback.
His love for the game and Greenback continued to grow, which led him to become a ball boy for the Cherokees in the mid-1980s under coach Bill Satterfield.
“I really started remembering Greenback football as early as, maybe the ‘85, ‘86 season, watching those guys,” Ryan said. “Obviously, I was the ball boy for the team when we won the state championship in ‘87. I was here at every practice and around the guys all the time. In 1988, Greenback wasn’t very good, but I was actually moved from ball boy and they asked me to be the stat keeper, so I basically charted plays and done the stats for the team as an eighth-grader.”
In 1989, Ryan led the freshman team to wins against Loudon, McMinn Central and Lenoir City.
He saw his first varsity action soon after in the Cherokees’ season opener against Ezell-Harding Christian School.
“They were a really good ball team and they ended up beating us,” Ryan said. “We’re getting beat like 31-0, so Coach Satterfield at one point in the fourth quarter said, ‘Get everybody out and just put the freshman team in.’ Our freshman team goes in and score two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, so the freshman team was able to move the ball pretty well.”
The following week the Cherokees dropped their second game of the season to a talented Midway team, which became a turning point in Ryan’s career.
“Midway was really strong and we were getting beat like 28-0 or something,” Ryan said. “At some point in the second quarter, coach put me in with the starters and from that point on, I started every game my career at Greenback. I threw almost 300 yards in two and a half quarters at Midway. We actually made a really good comeback, but we just didn’t have enough — we were in such a deficit. We ended up going 6-4 that season. Obviously, I was young.”
Following his freshman season, Ryan helped guide the Cherokees back to statewide prominence. He led the team to a state semifinal appearance in 1991, was selected to numerous All-State, All-Region and All-District teams and broke eight state passing records by the end of his senior season in 1992.
Making his mark
Standing at 5-foot-10-inches and 200 pounds, questions about his size and ability kept larger Division 1 schools at a distance.
However, East Tennessee State University decided to take a chance and offered a scholarship.
“I had several offers, nothing really major, until the last few minutes when I started getting some bigger schools offering me when some bigger quarterbacks started backing out on them,” Ryan said. “I had no desire to redshirt. I was really competitive as a kid and I just couldn’t see sitting out an entire year not doing anything. A lot of universities that I visited said, ‘Yeah, you’re going to redshirt.’ Coach (Mike) Cavan said, ‘You’ll get an opportunity to compete. If you’re the best one one, then you’ll play as a freshman.’ That intrigued me, so I decided to go there.”
Former Austin-East High School head coach Kwayu Graham was a senior running back when Ryan joined the team in 1993.
One of the aspects he noticed about Ryan immediately was the confidence he exuded every time he stepped on the field.
“I had been there a while and started as a true freshman, so I kind of knew everybody and the people who were there,” Graham said. “We were going to our first offensive meeting that we had ... as you go through, you don’t really pay attention to what all kids are coming in. You may notice a guy that plays your position, but I remember them telling me, ‘We got a quarterback from Greenback, Tenn. Do you know where that’s at?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t know where that’s at.’ That was the first deal with Greg, and Greg came in ... immediately, you knew that kid could spin the football.
“I mean, he didn’t look the part of a football player, he didn’t have that look, but he came in with a confidence,” he added. “I would say it’s confidence, some people would say it’s arrogance, but he knew that he was good. We built a relationship very quickly. It took a while before I even knew his name because I coined him ‘Greenback.’ I can just remember it didn’t take him long before he was our starting quarterback his freshman year.”
The Buccaneers got off to a 1-3 start that season before head coach Mike Cavan gave Ryan the starting nod.
“Coach came to me on a Sunday and said, ‘If it’s OK with you, we’re going to start you this week. The reason why I asked you if it’s OK with you is because we’re going to pull your redshirt’,” Ryan said. “I said, ‘Yes, I’m ready. Let’s go.’ He said, ‘You call your dad and make sure it’s OK with him too.’ I said, ‘I know he don’t care.’ I started from that point on.”
In his freshman season at ETSU, Ryan led the Southern Conference in passing with 1,137 yards. His best outing of the season came against Georgia Southern, where he set school single-game records for pass attempts at 89, completions at 30 and yards of 339.
Although Ryan spent a lot of time on the practice field and the film room his freshman year, he never did it alone. Former Hardin Valley head football coach Wes Jones played on the offensive line and became one of Ryan’s best friends.
“Man, it was awesome — we had fun every day,” Jones said. “I think we probably laugh more than we work, but it was just a good time. Greg’s a great guy, he’s a great teammate, he was an unbelievable quarterback and we hit it off. We were both on the scout team at the very beginning, and he was the quarterback, I was the center. ... My senior year, our center was unable to play, so they moved me back to center. Our senior year, we roomed together and it all worked out. The rest is history.”
Similar to Graham, Jones quickly picked up on Ryan’s confidence.
“I’ll never forget when Greg said, ‘This is how it’s going to be going into our senior year’,” Jones said. “He was like, ‘We’re going to play for the conference championship.’ We believed in what Greg said, and he was a great leader for our football team. There was always one thing I will always say about Greg when it come to football — when Greg steps in the huddle, we believed what Greg said.”
The Buccaneers took major strides the next three seasons with Ryan at the helm. In 1995, the team compiled a 10-3 record, which was the program’s best since 1969.
Upon finishing his senior season in 1996, Ryan was the school’s all-time leading quarterback in every category — a record that stands to this day. He finished his career with 743 completions, 1,236 attempts, 8,376 yards, 61 touchdowns and was voted to the 1995 All-Southern Conference second team.
He was also inducted into the ETSU Athletics Hall of Fame in 2016.
Finding his way
Ryan wanted to remain in the game in some capacity and earned an assistant job at Rhea County High School in April 1997.
“I hadn’t graduated ETSU, so I started driving down two or three days a week to Rhea County trying to teach his (David Napier) coaches our system,” Ryan said. “At some point after doing for about a month, he said, ‘Why don’t you just stay and transfer your classes to Bryan College?’ I was like, ‘I don’t care where my degree’s from.’ I actually transferred all my classes to Bryan College so I could live in Dayton, Tenn., and coach at Rhea County High School. I was basically the offensive coordinator my second year straight out of college.”
Following a short stint at RCHS, Ryan moved up and decided to pursue coaching at the collegiate level.
He served as a graduate assistant for a season at Western Carolina University before accepting the receivers coach position at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga the following year.
“They called me on my way home and said, ‘Yeah, got the job. You start tomorrow’,” Ryan said. “I done that for a few years. I got in on the tail end of the head coach’s tenure at Chattanooga and it was at the point to where you’ve got to win now or we’ll make a change. Obviously, we didn’t win enough, so it was time to make a change.”
Ryan continued to pursue his dream of coaching college football, but it didn’t take long before he recognized his true calling.
“I went to the National Coaches Convention in New Orleans and five of us stayed in one room right in downtown,” Ryan said. “We were sitting there one day and one of the coaches got up and said, ‘It’s all about connections and who you know.’ The college football world back then, and I’m sure it is to this day, was so political. One of the coaches says, ‘I’m going to go walk the lobby and see who I can run into.’ ... I thought to myself, ‘If that’s what you’ve got to do to get a job, college football’s not for me’.”
Ryan moved back to Greenback and worked at Alcoa with his father for several years before receiving another opportunity to coach the sport he loved.
Midway through the 2006 season, Greenback head coach Brent Kilpatrick offered Ryan the offensive coordinator position, and he stayed for three seasons.
He then coached at several other Knoxville area high schools before reuniting with Kilpatrick as a co-head coach in 2015.
“We done the job totally together,” Ryan said. “He did most of the administrative stuff within the school and pulled POs and done a great job of communicating with the administration. I handled most of the football operations over here, and I guess the rest is history.”
Forging a legacy
Since taking over in 2015, Ryan has led the Cherokees to a 51-6 record with three state title appearances in the last four years.
During that span, Greenback has produced two Tennessee Titans Mr. Football Award winners, multiple All-State selections and four consecutive Region 2-1A titles.
“Coach Ryan is basically like another father to me,” Bryce Hanley, former Greenback quarterback, said. “I remember the first time I ever met Coach Ryan. I moved up my eighth-grade year a week after our middle school season ended, and Coach Ryan just got on staff to help call offensive plays. We were playing Coalfield in the third round, and I was stretching on the 30-yard line. Coach Ryan walks up to me and goes, ‘Son, you probably don’t know me, but I’m Coach Ryan. I heard you’re a pretty good quarterback’.”
Ryan was correct, and Hanley went on to lead the Cherokees to their first state title since 1987. In two seasons, he combined to throw for 4,892 yards, 55 touchdowns and was named the 2018 Class 1A Tennessee Titans Mr. Football Award winner.
He credits his success to Ryan.
“Looking back at that now, it’s kind of funny just to think how everything ended up going down like that,” Hanley said. “Coach Ryan, he’s done more things for Greenback than about anybody ever has. I think he’s the fastest coach to reach 50 wins, and that just shows how he lives his life and how he coaches. Every day, he goes in with the mindset to be the best that he can be and how he can help us be the best we can be.”
Although Ryan has been largely responsible for the Cherokees’ recent rise to glory, he believes no one should ever overshadow the program.
“Let me say, Greenback football hadn’t just started being successful with Greg Ryan being the head coach,” he said. “Coach Satterfield built a foundation and there were good players. I played on a lot of great teams and there were a lot of great teams past me. We all put on the pants one leg at a time. It doesn’t matter to us if we’re playing the Loudons, the William Blounts, the Maryvilles — we can compete with anybody. The kids have bought into that and because of that, it’s made us successful. ... We hope to continue that.”