After a year on the job, East Tennessee State president Brian Noland is beginning to put his stamp on the university’s athletic department.
The first big move came Monday with the announcement that Dave Mullins is retiring as athletic director. He’ll stay on in a consulting role for fundraising and facilities planning while an interim AD takes over his former duties, beginning Wednesday.
Looming in the near future are decisions on whether ETSU will commit to starting a new football program, and whether it will leave the Atlantic Sun Conference. Noland is likely to pursue both, putting the Bucs on a much different course for the future.
It remains to be seen who will be the new face of the athletic department moving forward. Dick Sander, a former AD at Virginia Commonwealth who participated in the recent Committee for 125 meetings at ETSU, has agreed to serve in the interim — perhaps through June — while a long-term replacement is found.
Mullins, 66, has been the AD for over a decade now. The longtime men’s tennis coach was named by former president Paul Stanton, who was looking for a sense of stability in the department after seeing the job come open every couple of years.
Mullins leaves as the longest-tenured athletic director in the university’s Division I history. He said he began thinking about retirement more than a year ago, and the timetable moved up as he got to better know Noland, the energetic new leader who came to ETSU last January.
“He and I started talking back in the summer,” said Mullins. “He started sharing what he thought the university could become and how athletics could help us get there. Time went on, and when I suggested we bring in Dick for his expertise, it became evident that this would be a good time for me to change roles. I’m excited about the opportunity.”
Officially, Mullins will become special assistant to the president for athletics. He’ll coordinate efforts between the Buccaneer Athletic Scholarship Association (BASA), corporate donors and the ETSU alumni and advancement offices.
He’ll retire as a full-time employee at the university on June 30. “From that point on, I’ll work with Dr. Noland and staff as appropriate,” he said.
Mullins will leave several lasting marks on campus with the building of new facilities for golf, softball, soccer, baseball and tennis. There have been recent improvements to the Dome and Brooks Gym.
While saying “we’ve built some of the finest facilities around, and I’m proud of that,” Mullins considers his most important contribution to ETSU athletics to be something much less tangible.
“I think the thing I’m most proud of is changing the culture in the department,” he said. “We were struggling, with sort of a poverty mentality, when I was coaching. Since then we’ve fully funded scholarships and retained staff. … It’s a better place to work than it was.”
Unfortunately, Mullins has always been tied to football’s demise by a certain segment of the fan base.
Stanton had decided to eliminate the program for financial reasons, and the Bucs ended eight decades of competition after the 2003 season. Mullins was promoted to AD shortly after the decision was made and, as a former coach of one of the country club sports, was portrayed by some as an anti-football guy.
That’s a label he emphatically rejects.
“What I’m for is well-funded, well-managed programs where the student-athletes have a chance to win championships and enjoy a great college experience,” he said. “I think we have that with most of our programs here now.
“As far as football, that was an institutional decision, and I happened to become AD at that time. Dropping football was already in the works; there had been much discussion. I came in and implemented the new plan. If the plan had changed, I would have implemented whatever plan was decided upon.”
The return of football would appear to be part of Noland’s plans.
The Committee for 125, which was commissioned by the president last fall to envision how the university might be shaped over the next quarter-century, recommended starting a new program in its final report in early December. More detailed research has been going on this month, and an announcement is expected soon.
When asked if he would play an active role in the planning for football, if Noland chooses to move forward, Mullins said, “Absolutely.”
For now, the old tennis coach has a more pressing concern: undergoing Achilles tendon surgery on Thursday morning. It’s something he’s been putting off for three years.
“I just never found time to get it done,” he said, “and I’ve been getting no exercise. I haven’t hit a tennis ball in 3 ½ years.”
Mullins expects a smooth transition with Sander, who was athletic director at VCU for 20 years before retiring in 2006. The two are long-time friends, and Sander has a reputation as a man who knows how to get things done.
“He’s been through the process we’re going through,” said Mullins. “He’s a thoughtful person, very well-connected, a low-ego guy. He knows what’s out there, and he knows what we aspire to be and what it takes to get there.”
Mullins described himself as a “relationship person” who has always tried to bridge the gap between various constituencies at the university and in the community.
“I’m proud of the relationships I’ve formed, personally and for the university,” he said. “I love being around the student-athletes. Our coaches are some of the best in the business, and the administrative staff is hard-working. I treasure those relationships.”
Men’s basketball coach Murry Bartow was among those in attendance at Monday’s press conference in the Dome. He was hired at ETSU soon after Mullins moved into the athletic director’s office, and the two have developed a close personal bond over the years.
Bartow says there’s no doubt the next AD will inherit a much better situation than Mullins did.
“I’ve been here 10 years and have seen a great change in the culture of the department,” he said. “Dave obviously loves basketball, but he’s been a great supporter of all the programs. He wants them all to succeed.
“For us, he’s always tried to give us what he could within the limits, and then just let us do our thing. That has allowed us to coach to the best of our abilities.”
Asked whether he’s leaving with a sense of unfinished business, Mullins shrugged and said that’s the nature of being an athletic director.
“We’ve had a great 10 years of building, and we still have more to do,” he said. “I’m not sure you ever finish all your projects before you have new ones. You just have to find an appropriate time to step away.
“I’m 66 and have been doing this for 44 years. As an AD, this is the appropriate time for me.”