Richard Sander is coming to town with designs on making serious progress as East Tennessee State’s interim athletic director.
Sander was introduced by university president Brian Noland during a teleconference Tuesday on campus. He spoke from Richmond, Va., where he spent 20 years as Virginia Commonwealth’s athletic director before retiring in 2006.
He has a six-month contract at ETSU and will begin his duties today, taking the reins from Dave Mullins, who announced his retirement Monday after a decade in charge of the athletic department.
“Today begins a new page in the evolution of athletics at ETSU,” said Noland, wearing a blue and gold bowtie. “We’re not wasting any time here. Dr. Sander will arrive in Johnson City tomorrow, he will be on the job tomorrow and we will begin that process of a transition immediately.”
Sander, 67, praised Mullins for building a “great foundation” and said he plans to take the ball and run with it.
“My goal is to help ETSU reach the level of excellence the university deserves in athletics,” he said.
Sander and Noland each spoke extensively about the future course of events, with special focus on the potential for football to return. Below are selected excerpts from the 30-minute teleconference:
On his path to ETSU’s doorstep: I first met Dave Mullins back in 2002. I created a program called Docdi Consortium which really brought together mid-major athletic directors of comparable aspirations to kind of work together to discuss problems. The other part of that consortium was it was an opportunity for the mid-major athletic directors to engage the top BCS assistant basketball coaches. Ultimately what we did is we helped prepare them to take that next step. I met Dave then and really started following the ETSU program, and was just so impressed with the successes they had. And then time goes by, this summer Dave actually called me and told me about the Committee for 125 and the strategic planning program that was being implemented, and he asked me if I would consider coming up and maybe working with him to look at the future for ETSU athletics. I guess when I got to Johnson City — and I hadn’t been there for awhile; I actually played basketball in old Brooks Gym for Chattanooga way back when — and I was just so impressed with the campus and the facilities, the whole community and how important ETSU is to the whole community. It’s such a center of attention and focus. I thought, this is just one of the best-kept secrets in college athletics. As things kind of moved down the road and Dave really decided on helping the university in fundraising and facility development, Dr. Noland asked if you’d be interested in coming up here and being part of our future, I jumped on it. I see that we can really chart a course that will be so significant for the whole community, the university and really the state of Tennessee. I think there are some great things we can do in the short term, and in the long term also. So I’m excited to get there.
On his role with the Committee for 125: My major role was to share some of my experiences, maybe some of my expertise in how to build a program and some of the things I had witnessed when I was at VCU. Also, things that worked, things that didn’t work, and provide a background for those people so they would have a really good sense of the environment of college athletics and what it really took to create a national brand. That was really our major goal at VCU, to create a national brand for the university through the success of the athletic department. I think that’s pretty much one of ETSU’s major goals, and that’s kind of what I tried to do, give background and real numbers.
On his priorities upon arrival here: We have had discussions with Dave, and discussions with Dr. Noland, and I kind of see this as a team. But I think like anytime you come in, you want to gather as much information as you can and talk to as many constituent groups as possible and really create what needs assessment are and focus. We all understand one of the big issues — the big issue — is football. We want to really do all the due diligence possible to first of all determine if that’s where we want to go, and then really create that plan that allows ETSU to maximize the value of starting a football program. I think the critical piece of that is having everybody engaged and wanting to be a part of it, realizing the decisions that are made are in the best interests of the students, the faculty, the staff, the alums, the donors and the community. That’s probably going to be No. 1 priority.
On a timetable for a football announcement: In my conversations with Dr. Noland and Dave, I think we plan to have a decision in four to six weeks. We’re not just sitting here waiting; we’re doing a lot of background work, looking at a lot of different things. I’ve talked to Old Dominion … Old Dominion may be the most successful recent-start FCS program in the country. I’m very connected with their folks. Did some research with George Mason; they’ve done some significant studies on football. With Charlotte, know the people at Georgia State. We’re just not sitting here idly waiting by. We’ve got a lot of thoughts, a lot of ideas on what needs to happen if and when the football decision is made. We’re putting together a blueprint so we can move very quickly.
On building a “brand” for ETSU: One of the important things is everybody has to buy into the vision. I think the first thing is creating the vision and then having everybody buy in, and then putting together the steps for the strategic initiative where you can build that brand. Everybody needs to be on the same page. We all need to have the same message. We all need to be focused on the same idea of how to maximize every exposure capability that’s out there. And I think as you do that, it gets to be part of building a culture where we’re all ambassadors for ETSU, and everything we do is focused on building that brand and exposing that brand. One of the first things I will try to do is kind of develop the team that is really going to be the drivers of the initiatives to build that brand.
On his VCU experience: People say how were you successful, and I said because we really had good coaches who recruited good student-athletes who really bought into our plan. I think that’s the way you do it. And then you engage the faculty and the staff and the alumni and the students, and they all become a part of that. You really develop this team where, well, we’re in this together. If you happen to see VCU play basketball, all you’ve got to do is go to the game and see the huge energy and the way the community has really adopted VCU athletics. To be perfectly honest, I think Johnson City and ETSU is pretty far down that path. We just need to kind of focus our resources and really identify those areas where we can create that excitement and that energy that’s going to help us build that brand.
On conference affiliation: Our major objective right now is to be the best member of the Atlantic Sun that we can be. We want to compete and compete for championships in the Atlantic Sun. We’re also going to really keep our ear to the ground to know what’s going on. Whatever opportunities come our way, we’ll certainly look at those. Right now our focus is to put the best student-athletes we can on the field or on the court and compete for championships.
On prospects of building a new basketball arena: People ask how you win games. You win games with really good coaches, and they recruit really good players. Realistically in the world that we live in right now, there clearly is an arm’s race in facilities, both in higher education and in college athletics. So I think that a new basketball facility is something that 18-year-old young men and young women would really feel good about playing in, having a great environment, exciting noise and all the things that go with it, like we were able to build at VCU, or like Gonzaga has. I think that’s the reality. That’s going to be high on the priority list. Clearly ETSU men’s and women’s basketball is the flagship of the athletic program, and we feel like it is very important that those programs really reach their maximum potential. Having the knowledge of the success ETSU has had in the past, in the 90s and 2000s, I think if everything comes together it is very possible for ETSU to have a run like VCU or George Mason or Gonzaga. There’s a hugely respected coach in Murry Bartow, who knows how to win and is well-respected nationally. So I think (an arena) is certainly one of the pieces of the puzzle. To be perfectly honest, the new building we built at VCU was critically important to the success VCU has had in men’s basketball and women’s basketball.
On the selection of Sander: None of us have a crystal ball, but there’s one person in the country who probably has a better bead on what’s happening than anybody, and that person is our new athletic director, Dick Sander. He has an impeccable reputation in the field of intercollegiate athletics, he brings to us a pedigree steeped in strategic planning, having worked with institutions at the highest level and developed their strategic plans that poised them for excellence – institutions such as Gonzaga, institutions such as George Mason, institutions such as VCU. He’s someone who knows Tennessee. He cut his teeth in Tennessee as a basketball coach. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. He worked for while at the University of Memphis before going to VCU and transforming every aspect of the athletic program and athletic department. He holds a PhD in higher education administration from the University of Cincinnati. It’s been a long time since we’ve had an AD at this institution who we refer to as doctor.
On football’s possible return, coming on the heels of the Committee for 125 report recommending it be explored: One of the primary points of conversation at that time and, let’s be honest, it’s been a point of conversation for 10 years, is football. I said in December that we would begin a conversation on campus around football, a conversation that include faculty, staff and students. That conversation begins tomorrow as our students return to campus. So over the course of the next 4-6 weeks, we will have an in-depth conversation around football. Dr. Sander will lead a lot of that conversation. Some may say, where are we on football. We’re at the same place we were prior to the holidays; we cannot move forward without a conversation as a university. We have to start a program from scratch, and if that is the direction that the students choose for us to take, then we will through the leadership of Dr. Sander are full steam ahead to position us to initiate a football program at ETSU.
I anticipate there will be a vigorous debate among the student body over the course of the next three to four weeks regarding football. I anticipate that the outcome of that discussion will then move us in a direction as an institution to take the next steps toward starting a program. We do not have time as a luxury point. This is not a conversation, because of the conference dynamics, where we can say we’re going to spend three years studying this and see where we are in three years. The conference landscape is what’s determining a lot of things that are happening across the country, and we need to be positioned as an institution to do the things that are needed to maximize opportunities for ETSU. That may mean we don’t change a single thing, but given what’s happening around the country and given the steps we’re taking here today, I think these steps position us to make big moves forward as an institution.
The driving force in this is the students. The students will be the individual who will have the portionate share of the partnership. This is a true partnership; it’s going to take a community partnership, a campus partnership and a partnership with our students. But we have to let the students have that conversation; they arrive here tomorrow.
On the financial burden for football: There was due diligence that was conducted in 2007. We’re looking at that due diligence now to refresh the data. Part of this gets to what type of football program: is it non-scholarship, is it scholarship, how fast do you make that transition? What I’d like to do is afford Dr. Sander the opportunity to get his feet on the ground and have that conversation with our students and crunch the numbers. We’re not there yet because we’re waiting to get everyone together and to go through that process. The response is contingent on what is the aspiration. If the aspiration is the Big 12 – and I assure you it’s not the Big 12 – you’re looking at one set of numbers. If the aspiration is Pioneer League, which is non-scholarship, that’s another set of numbers. That’s a conversation we have to have with the students. On the back of the napkin, it’s about 2½ million dollars, all dollars in. That’s the number, if I remember it correctly, from the Committee for 125 background work. There’s also issues related to where to play. I’ve stated on a number of occasions that we will not play in the Dome. I know there are some in the community who would like to see us fast track and play in the Dome. But the turf contains a number of safety challenges and we’re not in a position to play in the Dome. So if we move in the direction that many would like to see us move, that I anticipate we’ll take, we need to look at locations that can be partnerships with the city. That can be construction of a new facility. The last time we ran the due diligence on a new facility, it was $18 million.
On conference affiliation: There have been a lot of questions on conference affiliation. We are examining the state of intercollegiate athletics on a daily basis; we’d be foolish not to. It would irresponsible for us to not have a close ear to the ground with everything that is happening across the country with conference affiliation. We have talked to presidents, we have talked to media executives … throughout the 125 process to ensure that as the landscape changes we, ETSU, are positioned to maximize future opportunities for the institutions.
On basketball, present and future: It’s part of the reason why we’ve made the improvements within the Dome that we have, to position that facility to be the best it can be within its current configuration. The practice facility was developed to assist opportunities, not only for practice but for recruiting for our men’s and women’s programs. If you haven’t had a chance to get in the Dome and see the improvements, it really is night and day from this time last year. It’s still the Dome, but it’s a very different game-day experience. It’s our goal as we move through this strategic planning process to examine a new convocation center. How that new convocation center fits into the overall strategic planning needs of the university is something that is still going through the process of the Committee for 125. I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves here, because the Committee for 125 is the process through which we as a community of scholars, a community of students and a community of Johnson City, Kingsport and Bristol, all of East Tennessee, are really dreaming where we want to be in 25 years. To continue with the sports analogy, we’re about on second base in that process. There’s still a lot of work to be done, a lot of conversations to be had. So I don’t want to get ahead of processes that are already in place. But is a new convocation center something that is in the mix, a point of conversations? Yes. It’s something that has been every day for the past year.
On Dave Mullins’ retirement as AD: He’s someone who has worked for the Board of Regents for 44 years, someone who dedicated his life to students, someone who dedicated his life to all the things I think are right about sports at big-time universities like ETSU. He took a program that at the time had financial challenges and built a base, built a base from an academic perspective and from a facilities perspective. As you walk across this campus you see the impact of Dave Mullins. You see the impact of a new baseball stadium, you see the impact of a soccer facility, you see softball and new tennis facilities. Each of those investments provided the foundation that’s now going to allow us to make some major moves forward. We would not be able to make those major moves forward if we had not made those investments.