Brian Noland says he wants East Tennessee State University to do football the right way.
On Tuesday, the school’s president took a huge step in that direction.
As he announced the sport’s long-awaited return to ETSU and that Phillip Fulmer will have a hand in the process, Noland’s vow of “We’re going to do this the right way” was met with enthusiastic cheers from supporters and former players.
“It’s a great day,” said Tennessee High head coach Mike Mays, who played safety at ETSU from 1987-91. “It’s exciting to hear the news, finally, to hear them say the words. It almost brought a tear to my eye today to think about it.”
In front of a packed house at the D.P. Culp University Center ballroom, Noland made official what had been speculated about for months. The school that dropped football in 2003 will be playing again in 2015.
“Today’s about celebrating the university,” Noland said. “Today’s about dreaming big dreams. Today’s about elevating ETSU, because that’s what football has the opportunity to do, to elevate every aspect of this university. ...
“Today is a day that I will remember for the rest of my life.”
The first step in doing things right was bringing Fulmer aboard. The former Tennessee coach will serve as a special assistant for football to Richard Sander, ETSU’s athletic director.
“Here’s a guy that won a national championship, is a Hall-of-Fame coach, is revered by the whole football community, is thought of as a mentor by many of the current coaches in college football,” Sander said. “What a delightful guy. We said ‘Coach, we need you.’ And he accepted the challenge.”
Fulmer, who coached Tennessee to the national championship in 1998 and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame last year, brings instant credibility to the whole process. ETSU officials hope having his name attached to the program will help with fund-raising, and he’ll surely help attract some prime coaching candidates.
“I think I can help, I really do,” Fulmer said. “Right now, we have to take baby steps. We’re trying to get a foundation built. If it’s three or four months, that’s great. If it’s a year ... I don’t know what it’s gonna be. I think, to be fair, it’s better to just take those baby steps.”
The new team will play in an outdoor stadium yet to be built.
“Facilities have to be addressed because it’s gonna affect the coach,” Fulmer said. “They want a place they can recruit to. Whether you get ground broken or not, there should it at least be some commitments made.”
Sander said the search for a coach will begin in earnest soon. After talking to 8-10 candidates, he said he plans to bring three or four in for interviews. A coach is expected to be in place by the middle of May.
“I just think it’s wide open, and that’s a great way to be right now,” Fulmer said of the coaching vacancy. “There’s a real good opportunity out there for someone, whether it’s older or younger, coordinator or not, alumnus or not. It needs to be somebody who’s high energy, has passion and is family oriented.”
Fulmer was perhaps the most notable candidate for the coaching job. It was no secret that Sander would have hired him in a heartbeat had he wanted the position, and he said he gave it at least some consideration.
“It was very tempting, just not where I am in life,” Fulmer said. “I said when I left UT that I’m looking for the right fit, in the right place. The energy Dr. Noland and the experience Dr. Sander bring, it was tempting. It really was. They are high-energy guys.
“I have an obligation to my business partners. I’m committed to that. I have made a decision that my children and grandchildren, what I missed for 40 years, I’m gonna enjoy a lot more.”
ETSU will likely have to leave the Atlantic Sun Conference and join a league that sponsors football. The Bucs will play at the Football Championship Subdivision, the same level as the former NCAA Division I-AA in which they used to play.
Sander said the school would “move quickly” to find a new conference, adding that he’s talked to four or five leagues.
“We’re gonna try to be the best we can be in FCS and see where that all leads,” Sander said. “I can tell you the only thing I know for certain is in six years, the landscape of college athletics is going to be significantly different than it is right now, so you just have to do the best you can where you are.”
Fund-rasing has already begun, and local car dealer Steve Grindstaff, whom Sander said was a former walk-on football player at ETSU, donated $50,000 to the school’s new program.
“We’re at a point where all the talking’s over,” Sander said. “Everybody needs to come together and make this happen, do something special. Now’s not about talk. It’s about doing.”