Hosting a festive, overflow crowd at Thomas Stadium for a Tuesday night baseball game against Tennessee was a shining moment for the East Tennessee State athletic department.
The event also gave university officials a few ideas about coming attractions.
“People had such a good time on a nice, pleasant evening,” interim athletic director Richard Sander said Wednesday. “It’s what we had hoped to create with baseball, and I think it sets the stage for football. We’re looking for that same kind of atmosphere – really fun, with lots of people engaged.”
The game was officially a sellout, filling the 1,000 seats at the year-old stadium and spilling out in all directions. The crowd was announced as 1,752, reportedly the largest in ETSU baseball history.
The fact the Vols pulled out a 4-3 victory, snapping the Bucs’ four-game win streak, didn’t seem to spoil the evening for most of the fans.
“It’s such a great venue for baseball, and we had a good game,” said Sander. “I wish we’d won, but both teams played at a high level.
“For me, it was quite rewarding to see that many students there, and that many fans. With all the peripheral events – kids throwing baseballs, people tailgating and cooking out – it was a great way to spend an evening. Hopefully we can do it some more.”
A week after getting Phillip Fulmer involved with the building of a new football program at ETSU, Sander says the move is paying dividends behind the scenes.
The university hopes to hire a head coach sometime in May, with designs on fielding a team in the 2015 season. Fulmer, a Hall of Fame coach who won a national championship at Tennessee, is helping the process along as special assistant to the AD for football for four months.
“Because of his involvement, it gives credibility to the whole program,” said Sander. “Some of his friends who are head coaches have called and recommended guys who we probably wouldn’t have been able to get in touch with otherwise.
“If coach Fulmer says this is a program that coaches might want to check out, that means something.”
Sander said perhaps as many as 10 candidates could be identified in the coming week.
“We’ll probably have airport interviews and then narrow that number down,” he said. “I think we’ll bring two to three to campus and see what we’ve got. We want to hear more about their vision for what this program can be.”
The search for a women’s basketball coach also continues. Things should pick up speed now that the Final Four weekend is over.
The position has been open since Karen Kemp resigned on March 12 after 19 seasons as head coach.
“We’ve talked to some people, but it’s kind of a puzzle, a little bit hard to figure,” said Sander. “We didn’t want to push too hard with this thing while the Final Four was going on. I have talked to a lot of different ADs and conference commissioners, people in the inner circle.
“We’re kind of identifying a few coaches and trying to whittle the field down.”
Sander declined to identify any candidates or put a timeframe on when the decision will be made. It is apparently his to make.
“I’m kind of one of those ADs, once I get with the right person, I make a decision and move forward,” he said.
Throw conference affiliation into the mix and Sander is clearly juggling all sorts of far-reaching decisions at ETSU.
The former Virginia Commonwealth athletic director was hired in January by university president Brian Noland on a six-month contract, with the knowledge that he’ll be a central character in plotting the future of the athletic department.
Asked if he had concerns about an interim AD making so many important decisions, then leaving, Sander chuckled.
“It’s kind of amazing,” he said. “In the last two or three months, so many things the university has dealt with over the last 10 years have kind of come to a head. There’s a lot of things going on.
“I think Dr. Noland has confidence in my experiences and my thoughts. We’ve talked a lot about these things, and I think we’ll come to some good conclusions.”
Sander, who had been doing consulting work since retiring from VCU in 2006, may very well stay in Johnson City through the end of the year, but that’s not official yet.
“Dr. Noland and I haven’t talked much about that,” he said. “The last thing I want to do is something that’s not in the best interests of ETSU. If some things are only 50 percent done, that’s not fair to the university or Dr. Noland. But we’ve had no formalized talks about me staying longer.”
Sander may or may not be around to see the Bucs in a new conference.
Most speculation has them leaving the Atlantic Sun and moving to the Southern or Ohio Valley, their two former homes, in light of the recent commitment to play football again. They could also stay put.
A-Sun commissioner Ted Gumbart recently talked about somehow accommodating members who want to play football.
“That’s one timeframe we can’t much control,” said Sander. “We’re not oblivious to what’s going on, and have had some serious discussions among three or four of the conferences we’ve expressed an interest in, and that have expressed an interest in us. I think in the next two to three weeks things will come into focus.”