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ETSU, Southern Conference closer to reversing 2005 split

Kelly Hodge, NET News Service • May 23, 2013 at 9:58 PM

East Tennessee State and the Southern Conference appear to be a step closer to getting back together.

A seven-member conference committee spent Thursday on campus, touring facilities and meeting with university officials. Commissioner John Iamarino said the visit was encouraging, and a vote on whether to extend membership could come within a week.

“Our league meetings are next week at Hilton Head, and the recommendation will be voted on by the Council of Presidents,” said Iamarino, adding that approval takes a two-thirds majority. “I anticipate we’ll have that vote on Thursday.”

The commissioner didn’t see any reason why ETSU wouldn’t be brought back into the fold, beginning in the fall of 2014.

“There seems to be a strong mutual interest by both parties,” he said. “We had a very good visit today. I’m very impressed with all the new facilities and the campus as a whole.”

ETSU was a member of the Southern Conference for 26 years, from 1979 through 2005. The relationship soured once it became known the university planned to drop football after the 2003 season.

The Bucs joined the Atlantic Sun Conference in 2005.

ETSU has committed to restarting a football program that will be on the field by the 2015 season, and thus needed a new home. A head coach is expected to be hired by mid-June.

Interim athletic director Richard Sander said Thursday the search has been narrowed to four candidates. None has been identified.

“It’s such an important decision for the university, we’re taking great care in this,” said Sander.

ETSU’s football plans do figure prominently in consideration for membership in the SoCon.

“I think it’s safe to say that without them bringing back football, East Tennessee would be further down the list of schools we’ve targeted,” said Iamarino. “It makes them more attractive.”

The venerable Southern Conference is certainly feeling the effects of the college athletics upheavel rippling across the country. The 92-year-old league has seen five schools — almost half of its membership — decide in recent months, days and even hours, to compete elsewhere.

College of Charleston is headed for the Colonial Athletic Association this fall, while Appalachian State and Georgia Southern will join the Sun Belt in 2014, and Davidson is going to the Atlantic 10 next year.

Earlier Thursday, Elon announced it is jumping to the CAA in ‘14.

“It’s one of the more distasteful things us as commissioners have to deal with,” said Iamarino, who has led the Southern since 2006. “But we understand the landscape has changed dramatically. Institutions are trying to rebrand themselves and reposition themselves.

“The Southern Conference has been doing this a long time. Change and rebirth are in our DNA.”

Iamarino and his committee previously made visits this month to Virginia Military Institute, another former member, and Mercer, a charter member of the Atlantic Sun. So the SoCon could be back to 10 strong very quickly.

The commissioner isn’t sure what the ideal number will be for his new-look league.

“We still have a strong core of seven institutions, and I know the number will be part of our discussions next week,” he said. “Is 10 the right number? Twelve or 14?

“I’m sure there will be a lot of other names on the board.”

A significant portion of the ETSU fan base seems to believe that getting back in the SoCon is the logical move at this point. Sander would agree.

“The Southern Conference is where we want to be,” he said. “It makes the most sense for us. We have a lot of history together, and it’s just a natural fit.”

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