East Tennessee State rolled out the welcome mat again for Southern Conference commissioner John Iamarino on Tuesday. This time the deal was already done.
Iamarino joined ETSU president Brian Noland, athletic director Richard Sander and a room full of coaches and support staff for an afternoon news conference in the Culp Center celebrating the impending return to the SoCon.
“This is truly an opportunity to come home,” said Noland, after accepting a Southern Conference hat and t-shirt presented to him by Iamarino. “We’re excited about what this means for the region as a whole.”
The Bucs will be leaving the Atlantic Sun to rejoin the Southern on June 1, 2014. They competed in the league for 26 years before dropping out in 2005.
None of the principle players on Tuesday were in their current positions at that time, but there was plenty of reminiscing and looking ahead to renewing old rivalries.
“This is a huge day for the Southern Conference,” said Iamarino, who headed a committee that visited campus on May 23, a week before the league’s Council of Presidents voted unanimously to extend a membership offer. “We know ETSU is going to be a great fit.”
The Bucs will come in with Virginia Military Institute, another former member, and Mercer, which is the last charter member of the A-Sun still in that league. That will leave membership at 10 schools for the 2014-15 academic year.
The SoCon has had to reload after five members decided to depart. College of Charleston just left, while Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, Davidson and Elon will all be gone this time next year.
That leaves Chattanooga, Furman, Western Carolina, Wofford, UNC Greensboro, The Citadel and Samford as holdovers.
“We still have a solid core of institutions that we have a rich history with,” said Noland. “We’re all going to come together around this change, and I think you’re going to see stability in the Southern Conference.”
Iamarino said three main criteria were used in judging prospective new members: strong academic profile, geography, and competitiveness. ETSU filled the bill on all counts.
“I know ETSU will be competitive right away in the vast majority of sports,” he said, adding that he can’t wait to come up from Spartanburg to watch a football game in a few years.
“In the fall, coming up I-26 and the mountains, it’ll be spectacular,” he said.
Many of ETSU’s fans, including Noland, look forward to seeing the blue and gold back on the basketball court in Asheville, where the Bucs won four straight tournament championships from 1989-92. The SoCon recently signed a four-year extension to keep the event at the former Asheville Civic Center.
Noland and Sander each took a moment Tuesday to thank former AD Dave Mullins for his work in helping to put the university on the path back to the SoCon.
Said Sander, “He got us in this position.”
Mullins, who resigned in January after 10 years as AD, was in the crowd Tuesday and appeared pleased to see ETSU making a popular move with its athletic department. He will officially retire from the university at the end of this month.
“We talked over the years about the ultimate plan and tried to keep the dialogue open with the Southern Conference,” he said. “Things have changed on both sides, and the league has to redefine itself to some extent. But it’s still a good mix of schools going forward, and I think most people here will be happy to be part of it.”
Noland said that all reasonable options for new conference affiliation were explored once it became apparent that ETSU was leaving the Atlantic Sun. There were at least informal conversations with officials in the Colonial, Big South, Ohio Valley and Atlantic 10.
“We wanted to make sure we were best positioned for the long term,” said Noland, “and we believe that’s what is happening. An inordinate amount of work has gone into this. It’s the realization of a decade-long dream, to come back to the Southern Conference.”
It may not be a dream season ahead for the Bucs. Playing as a lame duck in the A-Sun will present some challenges, though Sander says hard feelings shouldn’t linger too long.
“It’s a little awkward,” he said, “but I think some of the ADs have been through it and understand it. It’s not personal.
“In reality, East Tennessee State brought more history and tradition to the A-Sun than anybody else that has entered the conference in awhile. I think they should cherish the value of that.”