Former players cheer ETSU football's return

Joe Avento • Mar 30, 2013 at 2:46 AM

Football is coming back to East Tennessee State University, and the school’s former players couldn’t be happier.

The Tennessee Board of Regents voted Friday to approve ETSU’s student fee increase of $125 per student to fund a new football program, clearing the final hurdle for the way to the sport’s much anticipated return. The school eliminated football in 2003, alienating the vast majority of men who played along the way.

“It’s a long time coming and it’s exciting,” former ETSU quarterback Matt Wilhjelm said Friday. “From the day it was first cut, I truly believed that we would have football back at ETSU. I don’t know that I thought it would be 10 years later.

“We’re gonna have back what we had, and we’re very proud, very excited.”

ETSU President Brian Noland has been on the job since January 15, 2012, and his willingness to discuss football’s return had given optimism to supporters of the sport. Once he got the student government to agree to the fee increase, the ball really began to roll.

“I am ecstatic about the return of football to ETSU,” said former kicker and punter Jorge Cimadevilla, who went on to become a star in the Arena Football League and now works for the Atlanta Falcons in the marketing department. “I met Dr. Noland a few months ago and the one take away I had after meeting him was that anything he does, he will do first class and the right way. I am excited and look forward to making many visits to Johnson City in the fall season.”

Having football back on campus will give the former players a reason to return to the school. They’re already thinking of how much fun the first homecoming weekend will be after the team is reinstated.

“It’ll be great to have a rallying point, as a former football player and captain of the team, to enjoy a homecoming centered around football,” said Scott Carter, a fullback who graduated in 2002 and earned a Masters’ degree in 2004. “We certainly had a great tradition there and played ball in a great conference with wonderful rivalries. I always thought maybe one day there would be a resurgence.”

Carter works at the University of Tennessee, where he is the assistant athletic director for development. He said he had kept up with the rumors and possibility of ETSU’s return to football as closely as he could.

“This news today is so refreshing,” Carter said. “It’s not just a chalkboard where you draw up what you want. This is reality.”

Rick Harris, a cornerback during the late 1980s, lives in Charlotte these days and says he’s noticed the excitement UNC-Charlotte has created by beginning a football program. He’s hoping the same happens at ETSU.

“I keep in touch with quite a few former players from ’85-96 and I would say that the majority of them would be excited about football returning to ETSU,” Harris said. “We recognize and appreciate that football provided a lot of us with athletic, educational, and subsequently professional opportunities. A lot of us have sons and want them to have those opportunities also, maybe even at our alma matter.

“There are a few on the other side that are less than receptive about the return and feel as though the time loss has caused a disconnect that can’t be recaptured, especially if ETSU doesn’t return to the Southern Conference. I will be anxious and interested to see how it all plays out.”

Carter said the time for any hard feelings is over.

“At the end of the day, you put hard feelings aside to support an 18-year-old kid putting on your colors,” he said.

Before the first ball is ever kicked off, plenty of things are going to happen. Next on the agenda for ETSU is hiring a coaching staff, joining a football-playing conference and building a stadium. In other words, the hard work is about to begin. But for those once involved with the sport at the school, Friday was a day to celebrate.

The Southern Conference recently lost three members -- its two top football programs, Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, and one of its top basketball schools, the College of Charleston. Appalachian and Georgia Southern will play one more football season in the SoCon before leaving for the Sun Belt Conference, although neither will be eligible for the league championship or the FCS playoffs.

ETSU, according to Noland, wants to start playing in 2015. The Ohio Valley Conference is still being mentioned as a possible home for ETSU as well.

SoCon Commissioner John Iamarino said his league will look at adding new members at an in-person meeting of the conference’s athletic directors, presidents and chancellors next month.

“To be fair to us, to be fair to any incoming institution, you’d want to give them at least one year’s lead time,” Iamarino said. “There’s no hard deadline, but if we’re going to make a move for 2014-15, we would want to have them in place by this coming June.”

Until then, football supporters at ETSU will anticipate watching their alma matter compete on the field, something that was impossible for the past 10 years.

“I hope to be part as much as possible,” Wilhjelm said. “I know a lot of guys are willing to step up and help. We’re looking forward to football in Johnson City on Saturdays again.”

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