Nearly ten years after dropping their football program following the 2003 season, East Tennessee State University may be on the verge of returning football to the Johnson City Campus. Beginning the process of starting a football program was among the recommendations of the Committee for 125, which was formed to lay out a plan for the future of the century old institution.
The previous program was eliminated after an annual operating loss of nearly one million dollars each of its final five seasons. The last game was played on November 22, 2003 resulting in a 16-13 victory over The Citadel. The game played in the ETSU/MSHA Athletic Center was the 341st and the final win of the program whose history spanned eighty years.
University President Brian Noland recently said, "The committee's recommendation around football was to move forward. We will have conversations with our students, our faculty, our staff, and the community over the next three months." He also said "We can't do anything without their support." He said a football team could begin competition as early as 2016. "It's an aggressive time frame, but if conversations in January and February indicate that's the direction we're going, we'll proceed. If we're going to do this, we're going to do it well." This comes as welcome news to community members who have lobbied for the football programs return.
East Tennessee State had been at this point before in 2007. The plan went as far as to have stadium renderings published before the necessary increase in student fees was defeated in a student body vote.
When asked whether the ETSU "Mini-Dome," the former home of the football team and current basketball facility, was being considered as a venue, Dr. Noland said "My personal opinion: football is meant to be played outside, and if we have a football team - and I anticipate that we will - we will begin the process of building an outdoor stadium."
Beginning the program could end the university's affiliation with the Atlantic Sun Conference, and a potential return to the Southern Conference, their former home league for over thirty years. In a press conference in early December Noland said, "We are going to put together a feasibility study around football. We need to talk to our students about the revenue sources. But being mindful that the presence of intercollegiate football directly impacts conference affiliation, and as I've said on a number of occasions, we will do anything and everything we can to expand and enhance the capacities of ETSU. And if that means we have to expedite something, we're prepared to expedite something." He said the university would owe an estimated $200,000 exit fee should they change conferences.
If the university moves forward and re-institutes a football program, it would be the second Tennessee Board of Regents institution to do so. Austin Peay State, which was a member of the Ohio Valley Conference, dropped their football program following the 1997 season. Austin Peay rejoined the OVC and restarted their football program in 2007.
**Photo attributed to markwpeacock