JOHNSON CITY - Football is dead at East Tennessee State University - again.
In a referendum that concluded Wednesday, students overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to increase fees to help revive ETSU's football team, leading President Paul Stanton to declare the quest over.
"It is as far as I'm concerned," Stanton said, adding that the fee would have been the most important financial component toward restoring play in 2010.
In a news release, administrators reported that the question failed by a margin of 18 percentage points. Of 3,229 votes cast, 1,907 students or about 59 percent were opposed to the fee, and 1,322 or nearly 41 percent were in favor.
The Student Government Association's Election Commission certified results shortly after the poll closed at 6 p.m. Wednesday. About 27 percent of ETSU's student body participated in the online referendum over the two-day voting period.
Stanton said he was disappointed with the students' decision because he had thought the vote would produce similar results to last fall's campus poll that indicated strong support among students for restoring play and increasing fees.
"But it didn't," he said.
The ETSU president said he was pleased, however, with the democratic process, and he thought the SGA handled the vote in an admirable way.
"While I'm surprised at the outcome, I'm supportive of the student vote," he said.
Likening the fee proposal to a self-levied tax, Stanton said he thought students were indicating that they had been taxed enough with large tuition increases in recent years. With all fees included, full-time undergraduate students paid $2,318.50 per semester to attend ETSU in 2006-07.
The referendum asked students whether ETSU should increase its athletic fee by $50 per semester next school year and again in 2009 to support football and equivalent programs necessary for gender equity.
The existing athletic fee is $75 per semester, so had the referendum passed, students would have paid $350 per year in athletic fees beginning in fall 2009.
Once in full effect, the fee would have generated about $2.4 million in annual support for football and equivalent programs necessary for gender equity. Without it, ETSU would have to raise a minimum of $3 million each year in private support to field a competitive team, Stanton said.
"I just don't see that happening," he said.
Even with revenue from the fee, ETSU officials had said restoring the football team would have required significant support from donors, both for a $15 million stadium project and annual athletics operations.
Asked how the vote would affect morale in ETSU's intercollegiate athletics department, Athletic Director Dave Mullins said coaches and staff members had thought a renewed football program would bring a lot of positives to ETSU's intercollegiate athletics program.
"Now, I think we go back to the drawing board and try to continue building the programs we've set in place," he said.
Mullins said the president had put in place an opportunity for students to voice their positions on the fee increase, and a large part of developing a successful program would have been student participation and support, along with alumni and donor support.
Had the referendum passed, ETSU still would have been required to pitch the fee increase to the Tennessee Board of Regents in June. In keeping with his promise to students, Stanton said he would not take a fee request to the Regents given the referendum's failure. He said he already had informed Regents Chancellor Charles Manning of the results and his intentions.
Stanton ended the football program in 2003 for financial reasons, including a lack of donor support. After boosters lobbied him to revisit the decision last summer, Stanton appointed a task force to study feasibility.
Based on that group's report and campus polls, he launched the bid in December to restore play if the fee increase and donations materialized.
Prior to the referendum, ETSU already had received more than $300,000 in donations and pledges toward football. Stanton said he planned to meet with a steering committee today to consider how to deal with the donations, but the university probably would offer the donors their money back or the chance to redirect it toward other ETSU programs.