The chances of East Tennessee State playing its home basketball schedule at Freedom Hall this season are getting slimmer as time and logistical concerns come to bear.
Athletic director Richard Sander said Monday that the decision will have to be made “soon, within weeks” to give university and city officials time to address a wide range of issues.
“We met with the city last week and discussed some challenges out there,” Sander said from Austin, Texas, where’s he attending a facilities seminar. “We still have a few more things we need to get our arms around and see whether it’s the right move, or even doable. I think it’s probably less than 50/50 right now, but irrespective of whether we play the whole season there, we may play a few games just to see how it works.”
Sander has been exploring ways to improve the basketball experience at ETSU. The university has dressed up the Dome with new lighting, video tables and other amenities in recent years, but it still comes across as an airy football facility that has been adapted to basketball.
Freedom Hall is a 6,000-seat, city-owned facility that was for years home to Science Hill basketball. The Hilltoppers eventually went back to the cozy confines of their little gym, where the home-court edge was more pronounced.
Now well into its fourth decade, Freedom Hall still has appeal as a basketball venue to Sander. But there are a lot of “ifs.”
“Personally, I’m walking into that building as a former coach and player, and I’m thinking it could be a very good building to play basketball in if we do things right,” he said. “There’s not a bad seat in the house, and it could be a great environment if we can do all the peripheral things. Just the bones of the building, the structure, is very good. It’s clear that basketball was meant to be played there.”
ETSU coach Murry Bartow has mixed emotions about a possible move. He’s never been a big proponent of the Dome, lobbying instead for a new arena, but going off campus with his team is another matter entirely.
“There are tremendous positives with either building, and real challenges with either,” said Bartow. “With Freedom Hall, once you’re in the building, if you stand in the middle of the court and look around … if we were going to build an arena, that is basically what the shell would look like. There’s no debating that it feels like a basketball arena.”
Ideally, ETSU would be able to adapt its scoreboard, lighting grid and video tables to enhance the atmosphere. Sander said he’ll be meeting later this week with people who know things like whether the roof would support the suspended scoreboard, or whether the electrical system could handle the new lights and fiber-optic tables.
Making Freedom Hall suddenly seem like the home of the Bucs presents other challenges.
“One is the branding of ETSU,” said Sander. “You go in that building and it’s clearly not an ETSU building. There are some logistical problems because of the multi-use of the facility. The school district uses it some, and some of the events get to be issues. There are contractual things, and then just the whole operational aspect of what we want to do with our video tables, our scoreboard, our lights. It’s a lot to consider.”
The athletic director doesn’t expect all ETSU fans to be on board but has been encouraged by the general reaction of alumni and faculty focus groups. He also says he’s gotten positive feedback from city manager Pete Peterson and mayor Ralph Van Brocklin.
How much support he’ll get from ETSU students remains to be seen. Some who live on campus will certainly be reluctant to make that five-minute drive on game nights.
“We really haven’t had a chance to see what the thoughts of student leadership are yet,” said Sander. “They’re an important part of this, and we want to see what makes it good for the students, what works for them. I’m not naive; I know some people are not going to agree with the decision. There are a lot of benefits, but it’s not a perfect situation. We’re just trying to make the most of what we have.”
With plans for a new performing arts center and football stadium steaming ahead, a basketball arena has slipped down the university’s priority list.
“In a perfect world, we would build a new basketball arena,” said Sander, “but we’re trying to be fiscally prudent and practical. That’s the reality. If we have a facility like Freedom Hall, which could be a good venue as a relatively short-term solution for basketball, we could go that route until a new arena gets on top of the priority list.”