East Tennessee State athletics will soon be back in more familiar company.
The university on Thursday accepted an invitation to return to the Southern Conference beginning July 1, 2014. The Bucs were members of the league for 26 years before leaving for the Atlantic Sun Conference in 2005.
ETSU president Brian Noland hailed the move in a brief statement.
“We are honored to receive this vote of support from the Southern Conference, and we look forward to continuing this partnership which dates back to 1978 when ETSU first joined the SoCon,” said Noland, who is reportedly traveling outside the country. “In the upcoming weeks, we will hold an event on campus to formally commemorate our return to the Southern Conference.”
ETSU received unanimous support from the Council of Presidents in a vote Thursday at the Southern Conference's annual spring meetings in Hilton Head Island, S.C. Invitations were also extended to Mercer and Virginia Military Institute, which would give the league 10 members for the 2014-15 academic year.
Mercer, a charter member of the Atlantic Sun, has already accepted, while VMI is expected to do so today. The Keydets left the Southern in 2003 and have been competing in the Big South.
“The addition of these three institutions will solidify the Southern Conference and ensure our position as a vibrant league with a bright future,” said commissioner John Iamarino, who headed a conference committee that visited ETSU a week ago. “We are delighted to invite three quality institutions, two of which are returning to a home they previously enjoyed for many years.
“Our membership is excited about rekindling old rivalries and establishing new ones. Most importantly, we have been able to grow while not extending our geographic footprint to an extreme extent.”
The new Southern Conference nevertheless will have a much different look than the one ETSU left eight years ago. Five schools that were then part of the mix will have moved on by next summer.
College of Charleston is already gone to the Colonial Athletic Association. Appalachian State and Georgia Southern are departing for the Sun Belt. Davidson is headed to the Atlantic 10, and Elon to the CAA.
The seven remaining members are Chattanooga, Furman, The Citadel, UNCG, Samford, Western Carolina and Wofford. Samford, located in Birmingham, Ala., is the only school that has joined since the Bucs left.
ETSU basketball coach Murry Bartow coached in the SoCon for two years – and won a championship in his first season here, 2004. He thinks a return to the 92-year-old league that began as home to most of the Southeastern Conference schools is a positive development.
“It’s obviously a good league with a rich history and great tradition,” said Bartow. “The schools are close by, and certainly the people here have a lot of familiarity with them. If they keep the (basketball) tournament in Asheville, there are great memories there.
“Team-wise, budget-wise and fan travel-wise, there are just a lot of attractions.”
Many ETSU fans have had trouble connecting with the Atlantic Sun, in large part because of the distance between schools. And the league has been in constant flux, with membership changing almost year to year and a string of former Division II schools moving up.
The fact it doesn’t sponsor football has been a deep and ongoing problem. That’s primarily why ETSU ended up there after dropping football in 2003, and why it will soon leave. (The university is in the process of starting a new program that will field a team in 2015.)
The loss of ETSU and Mercer, officially on the same day, is surely a painful one-two punch for the A-Sun. Mercer is the last remaining charter member, going back to its founding as the Trans America Athletic Conference in 1978, and the league offices are located there in Macon, Ga.
“The conference does not look forward to having any member institution withdraw,” said Atlantic Sun commissioner Ted Gumbart, “but we recognize the dynamic forces of change that have caused such movement, including the role football has played in today’s announcement. …
“The conference has fielded numerous inquiries regarding the potential for new partnerships, including full and affiliate membership opportunities, and it will evaluate all potential actions in this area. …”