SoCon officially welcomes ETSU aboard

Joe Avento • Jul 1, 2014 at 9:46 AM

John Denver once sang "Hey, it's good to be back home again." That's how the folks at East Tennessee State University are feeling these days.

ETSU officially rejoined the Southern Conference on Tuesday, bringing the school back to a league where many of its fans thought it belonged all along.

"I think this day marks the time as sometimes athletics tend to do for our university," ESTU baseball coach Tony Skole said. "It's sort of a new beginning for everybody. Obviously, with football starting back up, there's just a lot of excitement in our department and on our campus for what lies around the corner."

ETSU spent the past 10 years in the Atlantic Sun Conference, where it won the all-sports trophy nine times. The A-Sun has seen its national profile increase in recent years, thanks in part to Florida Gulf Coast's Sweet 16 run in the NCAA tournament two years ago and Mercer beating Duke in last season's tournament.

Mercer and VMI were also officially welcomed to the SoCon on Tuesday. The conference was forced to replace schools leaving for other leagues. In the past two years, it lost Appalachian State, Davidson, Georgia Southern, Elon and the College of Charleston.

VMI left the SoCon in 2003 and has been in the Big South Conference.

ETSU has won the SoCon basketball tournament six times. In men's golf, the Bucs dominated the league, capturing 17 titles under Fred Warren and his predecessor Hal Morrison.

Overall, ETSU has won 35 men's championships -- almost half by the men's golf team -- and 22 women's championships while in the SoCon from 1978-2005.

"I think it's very positive," Warren said. "I'm glad to be back in there. Obviously, we had a lot of successful years in the Southern Conference. We're looking forward to rejoining."

Warren's teams have won 12 SoCon titles, more than any coach in the league's history.

"I think for us, golf wise, we're going in at a good time," he said. "The program is moving in the right direction. It's a very good golf conference and I'm very encouraged about the move."

As of Tuesday morning, the Southern Conference's Website included ETSU on its lists of standings for every sport other than football. The Bucs start playing that sport in 2015.

"Our membership has worked hard together to reach this momentous day,” Southern Conference Commissioner John Iamarino said. “We begin a new era with our three new members and are focused on improving the Conference."

In the SoCon, the Bucs will be reunited with UT-Chattanooga, it's biggest rival from its previous stay in the league. If the reality of being back in the SoCon doesn't hit fans when they see ETSU taking on the likes of Chattanooga, Furman and VMI, it will when the basketball postseason begins.

The men's and women's tournaments will be held in Asheville, North Carolina, a site where the Bucs won four consecutive titles in the late 1980s and early '90s. What was then known as the Asheville Civic Center -- it's now U.S. Cellular Arena -- holds about 6,500 fans, and the building was routinely packed with ETSU fans during the school's amazing run of success.

“Today marks an exciting new chapter and a homecoming of sorts for ETSU athletics,” said Richard Sander, ETSU's director of intercollegiate athletics. “Returning to the Southern Conference reunites our program with several of our traditional rivals and positions us for significant progress into the future.

For Skole, rejoining the SoCon is a homecoming of sorts. He played baseball and football at The Citadel and was a member of that school's College World Series team in 1990.

"It will be nice," he said. "You develop a lot of relationships in the profession and I still have a lot of those great relationships. It will be nice to see some of those familiar faces."

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