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ETSU could be playing football by 2016

Kelly Hodge • Dec 6, 2012 at 8:14 PM

If plans move forward as expected, East Tennessee State could have a football team back on the field — some field — for the 2016 season.

That’s the best-case scenario laid out Thursday by university president Brian Noland. A day after unveiling an athletics task force report that recommended “the planning and implementation of a championship level football program,” Noland said dreaming big will soon give way to practical application.

“The process will begin in January as we move into a new semester,” he said. “We’ve already begun the data collection, financial reviews and looked at feasibility studies other institutions have conducted. If it’s the will of the community to move forward on football — and I anticipate that’s where we’re heading — we could start filling staff positions in 2013.”

That would be a decade after the Bucs played their last football game, ending 80 years of competition that produced some memorable moments but only short stretches of success. Noland said it would take perhaps three years to get a new program up and running.

“Other institutions have gone through a year of work on identifying staff and fundraising,” he said. “Year two has been getting the program out of the ground, after making the decision of scholarship football versus non-scholarship. Year three will be competing on the field — what field, right now we don’t know.

“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.”

That is welcome news to many in the community who had close ties to the ETSU football program and have lobbied staunchly for its return.

Former quarterback Matt Wilhjelm served on the athletics task force and thinks football can play a key role in the overall development of the university.

“I couldn’t be more excited or proud to have been part of the Committee for 125,” Wilhjelm said Thursday. “We took a giant step forward with football, but there’s still a long way to go. It has to work in concert with the rest of the strategic plan for ETSU.

“The good news is I think we’re all on the same page in terms of the opportunity to bring football back. It’s been a long time coming.”

The Bucs, of course, will need someplace to call home. It won’t be the Dome.

The task force report recommends that the university “construct an outdoor football facility with the integration of track and field.” How a stadium project would fit into the overall timeline isn’t clear.

“We would need to identify individuals with experience in this area to help us as we think through this process,” said Noland. “This is all a more daunting task than it would have been if we were looking at something one or two years after the closure of the program. We can’t simply roll out the old carpet and start playing again. We’re not in a position of utilizing old equipment; in most cases we don’t have any.”

The president says he’s trying to be careful to accentuate the “new” in a football plan without alienating the “old.”

“I’ve used the terminology ‘initiate’ rather than bringing something back,” he said, “but I want to be mindful of the rich history we had in football. I’m aware of what that has meant to a great many people.”

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