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Regents won't block effort to revive ETSU football program

SAM WATSON • Jan 22, 2007 at 9:48 AM

JOHNSON CITY - Members of East Tennessee State University's governing body raised no objections Monday to the university's proposal to revive its football team using student fees and private donations.

"It looks like people are feeling good about this," Tennessee Board of Regents Vice Chair Fran Marcum said near the conclusion of a conference call about the proposal. "I think I'm hearing that from the board."

The Regents conducted the special telephone session Monday to allow ETSU President Paul Stanton to explain the university's hopes of restoring intercollegiate football, a program he ended in 2003 for financial reasons.

After boosters lobbied him to rethink the sport's viability, Stanton appointed a task force last summer to study the sport's feasibility. In December, he launched a conditional effort to restore play in 2010.

The Regents took no action during Monday's call, as Chancellor Charles Manning said a vote would only be required if the Regents did not want ETSU to proceed with its proposal. Marcum asked whether any Regents had strong feelings against the plans, and no one spoke up.

Those plans include asking students to vote on a fee increase to fund the team's operating expenses. Phased in over five years, the fee would start at $50 per semester and reach as much as $125 per semester.

Should students approve the fee structure in an April referendum, the Regents would consider the increase in June.

"If they (students) don't want a sport, we probably don't need to have one," Stanton said in Monday's conference call, adding that he believed students would support the fee.

The university already charges students $75 per semester for athletic fees and devotes roughly $3.94 million from students' maintenance fees to athletics.

Regents Vice Chancellor for Business and Finance Robert Adams said the maintenance fee contribution equates to roughly $379 per full-time-equivalent student.

The Tennessee Higher Education Commission, a panel that coordinates funding and programs for the state's higher education institutions, has called for an end to all state subsidies for intercollegiate athletics by this year.

The Regents, however, have continued to allow institutions to use general fund money to support athletics, specifying that the money come from maintenance fees rather than state appropriations. The Regents have capped those levels with adjustments for inflation. Adams said ETSU's contribution was about $553,000 below its cap this year.

Stanton estimated that restoring football would cost about $4.3 million to cover both the team's expenses and federal Title 9 gender equity requirements by adding sports for female athletics. Along with revenue from student fees and other sources, the football budget would require nearly $1 million per year in donor support.

"That's a figure that I don't know is out there," Stanton said, noting that football was generating just $27,000 per year in donor support when he ended play in 2003.

Stanton later said, however, he believed recent public interest in an ETSU football team was greater than it was when he eliminated the sport.

"What I sense out there is that people lost something," Stanton said.

The ETSU president said the sport's absence got supporters' attention, although that was not his intention in cutting play.

"But I'm convinced that people will support it much better than they did three years ago," he said.

Because ETSU's Memorial Stadium no longer is considered a viable venue because of capacity limitations, ETSU's football effort calls for the university to raise $15 million for a new stadium by July 2008, a plan that prompted more queries among the Regents than the fee.

One asked Stanton whether he considered the goal to raise $15 million for a stadium in 18 months optimistic.

"It certainly would border on optimism," Stanton replied.

Contrasting football with ETSU's drive that quickly raised $11 million for its new pharmacy school, Stanton said the campaign for football had not yet been tested.

Stanton also said ETSU's stadium costs could be mitigated if the university were to enter a partnership with Johnson City to develop a shared facility.

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