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E-mail may have sealed ETSU-SoCon split
ETSU’s decision to drop football appeared to have more serious, far-reaching consequences than ETSU president Paul Stanton thought.
A university-created task force, combined with years of detailed planning, numbers crunching and soul searching, all played major roles in East Tennessee State University’s 2003 decision to cut football from its athletic program.
Yet a single e-mail may have helped force ETSU to leave the Southern Conference and eventually move to the lower-tier Atlantic Sun Conference.
An e-mail announcing ETSU’s intention to drop football was sent out by a high-ranking university official just days before ETSU President Paul Stanton planned to make a formal announcement, several sources confirm. The e-mail then was leaked to the public before Stanton could announce the decision to drop football.
The damage already had been done by the time Stanton made a presentation at the Southern Conference’s spring meeting on May 28, 2003, in Myrtle Beach, S.C., in a talk titled “East Tennessee State University and the Southern Conference: The Case for Continued Membership and Partnership.”
“When we arrived and had our dinner the night before, and I was talking to the people, I realized that … maybe this thing is not going to work,” Stanton said in a recent interview. “I thought we had a good chance of staying. But it was clear during the conference meeting that we were out. It was just a matter of time.”
Stanton began his presentation stating, “Despite the elimination of our football program after the fall 2003 season, it is the desire of East Tennessee State University to continue as a member of the Southern Conference, as we celebrate 25 years of strong affiliation this year. It is our intention to work with the Commissioner and member institutions to develop solutions to the challenges created by our decision.”
Yet Stanton’s plea went unanswered, even though it was backed by reminders that “ETSU is located within the geographical heart of the Southern Conference,” and noting that, “Because of its proximity to Boone, North Carolina, and intrastate identification with Chattanooga, ETSU has developed long-standing natural rivalries.”
“One of the CEOs [conference officials] said that when he heard we were dropping it, he said that he felt like he was slapped in the face,” Stanton said. “But I’d been talking about the possibility for two years.”
Danny Morrison, Southern Conference commissioner at the time, said a vote was never taken regarding ETSU’s status in the Southern Conference; ETSU, he said, left the conference of its own accord.
“I went up to one of the CEOs and said, ‘Y’all are kicking us out,’ ” Stanton said. “And he said, ‘No. You’re leaving.’ It was a different take, depending on your perspective.
“It was a very low moment. That’s all I can say. Not totally surprised, but surprised enough that I was probably a little bit shocked.”
The Herald Courier recently filed a Freedom of Information Act request with ETSU for all electronic and written correspondence sent or received by Stanton and ETSU Athletic Director Dave Mullins from Jan. 1, 2002 to Nov. 29, 2007, on ETSU athletics and/or football. It still is being processed.
BY Brian T. Smith, Bristol Herald Courier