Southern Conference examining ETSU as possible new member
The college athletics' landscape is rapidly shifting with the money being made off football driving the changes. Even schools that currently do not field a football team are feeling the effects of realignment.
On April 2, East Tennessee State announced that during the summer they would begin the process of restarting the university's football program that was disbanded in 2003 for financial reasons.
With the launching of a football program comes an endless list of questions for any university, especially one that is currently a member of the Atlantic Sun conference - a conference that does not currently sponsor football.
While remaining a member of the A-Sun is a possibility, there are also other options ETSU could explore.
Before beginning to look at possible new conference homes, ETSU and its administration must decide if they want to part ways with the Atlantic Sun, their home conference for the last eight years. The factors that will help the school's administration make this decision range from conference recognition among students, travel distance from ETSU, and the ability to generate regional rivalries.
In all three of these criteria, the Atlantic Sun is not exactly ideal. In terms of travel distance to other member schools, it ranks second farthest when you average the distance from ETSU to the other nine member schools.
At 419 miles, the average trip to other A-Sun member schools is more than double the distance of the most likely destination, the Southern Conference members.
The travel distance would be hard for any fan base, but especially for college students. With four member schools in the state of Florida, jumping in a car with your friends for a weekend road trip to cheer on your school is a lot to ask of financially strapped students. Lipscomb University, the only other A-Sun member in Tennessee, is located in Nashville, a four-hour drive from Johnson City.
Another problem with the A-Sun is that many ETSU students view it as a lesser conference.
"I think the main reason students aren't concerned about the Atlantic Sun teams is because they haven't heard of most of them," Todd Brison, ETSU alum and former sports and executive editor for the school's student newspaper said. "Even though ETSU really has had a fairly successful last few years, the students don't know that because they don't know the teams we're playing against."
With the lengthy travel distance between schools, and the lack of interest in the Atlantic Sun shown by many ETSU fans and students, it has become increasingly difficult for the Buccaneers to foster any real rivalries within the conference, something they used to have when competing in the Southern Conference.
Regional rivalries are key to a college athletic program's success since they provide students the opportunity to attend away games and also easily follow the other teams in the conference due to proximity to ETSU.
In terms of geographic location, regional rivalries and conference notoriety the Southern Conference, ETSU's former home, appears to be best suited for the Buccaneers.
Additionally, the SoCon is currently looking for three new schools to replace members who are departing, and it appears the feelings are mutual between ETSU and it's former partner.
During a May 3 conference call, conference commissioner John Iamarino announced that the conference would be targeting three new schools for campus visits that will precede the decision to extend formal invitations to those universities. Among the announced schools was ETSU. The Buccaneers competed in the SoCon from 1978-2005. The other two schools being targeted are the Virginia Military Institute and Mercer.
"We think that this will be a good addition to the conference in a number of ways," Iamarino said. "I've been very impressed with the people in the administration from Brian Noland to Dick Sander who I worked with many years ago when he was at VCU."
The geographic makeup of the SoCon, as it would be after the loss of current members and addition of ETSU and the other two new members, could be the biggest attraction for the administration of ETSU. With an average distance of just over 200 miles - 207 to be exact - the travel time and expenses would be considerably less.
In addition to the closer geographic proximity, the schools that the "new-look" SoCon would consist of are for the most part known names around the East Tennessee region.
The chances of an ETSU student having connections of some kind to universities within the conference footprint are much higher, which could lead to more involvement and personal investment in Buccaneer athletics.
"One reason it would benefit ETSU to move to the SoCon is because even though the teams still aren't as widely known as the power conference teams, at least they are closer," Brison said. "For now, there's no way many students will travel down to lower Georgia or Florida to watch games. It's just not practical, really. But if most teams were a day's trip away, students could attend them much easier."
Schools such as Wofford and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga are known names among the ETSU fans, students and alumni.
Probably the most famous member of the SoCon, Appalachian State, is leaving for the Sun Belt Conference, but not before helping build the conference brand to a nationally recognizable figure. From 2005-07 App. State won three consecutive national championships in football at the Football Championship Series (formerly D-II) level. Most notably though was their upset of the No. 5 ranked Michigan Wolverines in their home stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich.
If the key selling points for ETSU's new conference home are truly geographic proximity, fan recognition and the potential for regional rivalries, it appears that the Southern Conference and ETSU could be rekindling a storied history.
"It's a combination of things that make ETSU a desirable institution to add to the SoCon," Iamarino said.
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