The focus on the long-term future of East Tennessee State athletics resumed Friday as a 15-member task force met for a second time to “brainstorm” on campus.
Chairman Ken Bailey said the 2½-hour meeting included updates on the work of subcommittees that have been looking at specific areas related to athletics since forming on Oct. 2. He is pleased with the progress.
“The four subcommittees we created have been doing tremendous work gathering information and brainstorming,” said Bailey. “They reported back today on their progress, and there were discussions of additional thoughts and resources they’re looking at — where they’re going. We’ve already heard a lot of outstanding points.”
ETSU president Brian Noland, who has commissioned the task force as part of the Committee for 125, which is shaping a vision for the university for the next 25 years, sat in on the meeting and reportedly offered guidance and encouragement.
“He reiterated that he wants us to dream big,” said Bailey, adding that the process is designed to be both broad and narrow in scope.
“The committee spent time brainstorming on what-ifs, not limited or constrained, just dreaming where we could be,” he said. “It’s extremely exciting, and I can’t wait for us to get to the point where our work is complete and we pass our report along to the Committee for 125.”
That will happen in early December, after three or four more meetings, said Bailey.
“What we’ll produce is a visioning report, and I would anticipate it being a multiple-page report,” he said. “We’re not doing strategic planning, or actioning plans. Our task force has the luxury of looking at the big what-ifs, and it will be up to Dr. Noland and the Committee for 125 to take that and implement it as they see fit.”
The subcommittees will continue to meet as needed to flesh out their ideas. Their four areas of interest are: competition and branding; facilities; finances and economic impact; and support and engagement of students, faculty and the community.
“At this point, there is no priority list,” said Bailey. “The slate is clean and we’re putting it all out there. As we go through the process, we may pare down our thoughts as we come to a vision. The report we deliver will probably have five to 10 major points on vision. Right now there are still lots of ideas.”
The possible return of football will be the major point of interest for many ETSU fans. The sport was eliminated after the 2003 season, and a subsequent effort to bring it back was killed by a student vote.
Noland, who has been on the job for nine months, has not yet committed to restarting football, saying he’ll wait for the Committee for 125 to run its course before weighing in.
Bailey is keenly aware of the interest in football.
“We’re looking at everything, and obviously football is a major part of the discussion,” he said. “We’re looking at the impact on students, the enhancement of the campus, city and region, how a successful athletic program impacts the entire region. We’re still in gathering mode; there has not been a lot of debate so far.”
Another hot topic is conference affiliation, which has become a fluid situation all across the country as schools hop from one league to another. Many ETSU fans would like to see the Bucs get out of the Atlantic Sun Conference, their home since 2005.
Their old league, the Southern Conference, is currently experiencing some upheaval — the latest being College of Charleston voting Friday to begin negotiations with the Colonial Athletic Association for full membership. The Cougars’ departure would perhaps leave an opening for a non-football-playing school.
Bailey said the task force isn’t structured to respond to such developments in real time.
“That’s not been driving discussion, but it has been mentioned,” he said. “Remember, we’re looking down the road, not at a short sprint. Any university looking at its athletic program, conference affiliation is absolutely something you have to consider for five, 10, 25 years down the road. The landscape — who’s in, who’s out, where they’re moving next — is changing constantly.”
The task force meets again next Friday, and Bailey expects the focus to start narrowing.
“We’ll probably start paring down our list of what-ifs,” he said.