East Tennessee State football is suddenly in the open field, a blank slate ready to start being filled in.
Where do the Bucs go from here? And how quickly?
A vote Friday by the Tennessee Board of Regents approving a hike in ETSU athletics fees that will help fund a new football program has cleared the way to consider all the possibilities. But countless details will have to be addressed before the players run onto the field in their brand-new stadium, a packed crowd cheering while the band plays.
It begins with new conference affiliation and the hiring of a head coach and staff. ETSU officials hope a team will be ready to play by the fall of 2015.
If ETSU really wants to aim high, it can try to emulate what Old Dominion has done up in Norfolk, Va.
Called the most successful FCS start-up ever, the Monarchs began playing football again in 2009 after a 69-year absence. Their record in four seasons is 38-10, with top 10 rankings and playoff appearances the last two seasons.
ODU is now moving up to the FBS level, in Conference USA.
Bobby Wilder, the head coach and architect of the program, laughs when asked what was the greatest challenge he faced in starting from scratch.
“Doing everything. Those two words right there are really what it comes down to,” Wilder said Thursday from Norfolk. “The head coach of a start-up program needs to be involved in every aspect of the program. I was fortunate here in that they did an outstanding job of putting the pieces in place – financial support and facilities – to start making it all happen.”
Wilder met recently with ETSU’s interim athletic director, Richard Sander, and both men apparently came away impressed. Sander, a former Virginia Commonwealth AD who has been on several fact-finding missions, has mentioned Old Dominion as a model of how to build a program on more than one occasion.
“Dick and I visited in my office for awhile,” said Wilder. “I could tell right away that his plan is for them to do this the right way. He’s putting a structure and discipline in place that will pay off for East Tennessee State.”
How far down the road? Who knows?
A football program at any level is a beast to maintain, with so many moving parts, and doesn’t take long to get out of control.
Six years after he was hired from Maine, where he had been on staff for 17 years, Wilder never lets himself think he has a full grasp on the program he has built at ODU.
“I still don’t, because we haven’t stopped raising the bar,” he said. “Today, for example, was another huge moment for our program. North Carolina State agreed to do a home-and-home with us; it’s the first BCS school. If I can quantify that for you, our first game was in 2009 and we opened at home against Chowan. Six years later, we'll have an ACC school coming to our stadium.
“If East Tennessee State, whoever they open with in 2015, if in ’21 they’re playing an SEC team at home, what would that be like?”
Old Dominion, of course, has some built-in advantages that Wilder has taken full advantage of. Those have helped speed up the building process.
“The timeline I had set when I was hired was five years (to be a playoff team),” said Wilder. “I felt because of our school – it’s such a good school – and the fact we have a quarter-million people here, and seven cities in the region with more than seven million people, we could present this to the public. We’re a top-50 TV market with no professional sports.”
Things have still moved faster than Wilder could have imagined. Jumping up to the next level, from the Colonial Athletic Association and into CUSA, hadn’t even occurred to him until recently.
“That wasn’t our thought,” he said. “We were very happy in CAA, very happy in FCS. When I was hired, I wanted to be a top 10 program nationally at the FCS level, and we achieved that in our third season.
“As things have happened, this opportunity arose. Conference USA talked to us and liked us. So we’re moving up.”
Wilder offers some advice for the new ETSU head coach, who perhaps will be hired by May.
“Whoever ends up being head coach, the words of wisdom are to be available 24/7/365,” he said. “Do every speaking engagement possible. I did 250 in my first year here. People really like ODU, but it’s all about trying to represent the university. You've got to have boundless energy.
“Doing everything it takes to build a start-up program is harder than taking over an existing program, but the rewards are beyond what I could possibly describe. Whatever happens to me in the future, I’ll never forget building this program, it being called the most successful start-up ever. It makes all the hard work and planning worthwhile.”