JOHNSON CITY - The Southern Conference has found a replacement for East Tennessee State University, but the university's president says that should not affect ETSU's plans for reviving football.
"I don't think it will have any bearing on our football conversations," ETSU President Paul Stanton said of the Southern Conference's announcement that Samford University would join its ranks as its 12th member in 2008.
Lacking football, ETSU was forced to leave the Southern Conference for the Atlantic Sun after the 2004-05 season. The Buccaneer football team played its last down in 2003 after Stanton ended the program for financial reasons.
Since ETSU's departure, the Southern Conference has had 11 members, an odd number that has impacted schedules and other concerns.
Pending a possible influx of cash from student fees and donors, the ETSU administration hopes to reinstate football by 2010. Should football return, ETSU would look to join a different conference once its contract with the Atlantic Sun ends in June 2011.
But Stanton said he was cautious about discussing a conference change given ETSU's position in the Atlantic Sun and the tenuous status of the football plans.
"We are pleased with the Atlantic Sun. If we do bring football back, we would look at other conferences," Stanton said, adding that the Southern Conference, the Ohio Valley Conference and the Big South Conference would make sense geographically.
Stanton said administrators had discussed ETSU's possible return with Southern Conference officials, and while those discussions were positive, they were inconclusive.
"We don't know what their ultimate plans will be," Stanton said, adding that he hoped conference leaders would remain interested in ETSU even with that 12th member.
Mike Ballweg, the Southern Conference's assistant commissioner for public relations, said at least for the short term, conference leaders considered the membership set with the inclusion of Samford. He said officials may revisit the roster at a later date.
"Things can certainly change," Ballweg said. "You don't know what the future might bring or how things may shake out."
Once Samford joins in 2008, the conference will have 12 teams, nine of them with scholarship football programs. Southern Conference members University of North Carolina at Greensboro and College of Charleston do not have football programs, and Davidson College has a non-scholarship football program.
Asked whether the conference was married to having a specific number of teams, Ballweg said having an even number would be important, but an odd number worked well in football. Playing with 11 teams in basketball the last two seasons proved difficult, he said, because of complications in such as issues as tie-breaker systems.
Stanton said it would be at least a year before ETSU knows the fate of its football plans based on the success of funding efforts, so any conference discussions would be merely preliminary.
ETSU students are scheduled to vote April 10-11 on a referendum about a fee increase phased in over time to support football. If students approve the measure, ETSU would forward the fee increase to its governing body, the Tennessee Board of Regents, for consideration in June.
Football's fate also would depend on the university's ability to raise $15 million in private donations for a new stadium and $1 million in annual donor support for football operations and gender equity scholarship requirements.
Stanton launched a campaign to solicit donations in February. He estimated that the effort had generated about $295,000 as of Thursday.