Imagine your local mid-major NCAA Division I men’s basketball team was on the cusp of advancing to the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year.
This potential NCAA berth would be the program’s sixth postseason appearance in nine seasons, a notable accomplishment from a proverbial “one-bid” conference.
The expected reaction among the locals would likely be one of great excitement. With recent tournament experience it would seem an improved seeding and a victory or two in the Big Dance would be in order and the hometown would be buzzing.
Attendance figures to be at an all-time high, higher profile players would be making recruiting trips to campus, and the athletic department would be looking for a more prestigious conference to play in.
Unless this team is East Tennessee State University. In that case, hardly anyone is noticing.
As alluded to above, the Buccaneers start play in the Atlantic Sun Conference men’s basketball tournament today, Wed. March 2, in quest of their third straight NCAA Tournament appearance. As the second seed in the tournament it would seem ETSU has a legitimate chance to capture this prize.
After all, the Bucs feature the A-Sun’s “Player of the Year” in Mike Smith, sport out-of-conference victories against 15-13 Mississippi State and 19-10 Dayton and rank in the upper half of the conference in all team statistical categories.
But while ETSU hasn’t had this amount of sustained success in 20 years, when the Mister Jennings and Greg Dennis-led ETSU teams were nationally ranked and earned four straight NCAA berths from 1989-92 out of the Southern Conference, enthusiasm for Bucs basketball around Johnson City, Tenn. is practically non-existent.
This year the Bucs drew 3,379 fans per home game, their lowest total since 2002, before the Bucs started advancing to the postseason with regularity in this era.
A drive down State of Franklin Parkway alongside the ETSU campus doesn’t reveal any “MAKE IT THREE!” signage from neighboring businesses, and not even ETSU athletics’ own message board by their home arena reveals a message of encouragement to the basketball team.
A recent sampling of local talk shows reveals nobody is calling up and talking about the Bucs. True, the shows on WXSM, the local sports radio station, have always been more “Volcentric,” but not even interviews today with ETSU head coach Murry Bartow or women’s coach Karen Kemp on the morning show hosted by Bobby Rader and Kenny Hawkins elicited calls from Bucs fans.
Clearly this should not be the case. This is an era when the Bucs should be gaining support, not losing it.
Historically fans in the Tri-Cities, Tenn. area have supported NCAA Tournament caliber teams; witness the numerous crowds of more than 10,000 at Memorial Center in the early 1990s.
Why not now?
The thought here is there are many factors in the Bucs’ declining popularity.
First, fans are turned off by the direction ETSU athletics have taken since university President Paul Stanton decided to drop football in 2003. Not only are ETSU sports largely absent from sports pages in the late summer and early fall months now, but the decision effectively got the Bucs kicked out of the Southern Conference and into the less-prestigious Atlantic Sun.
For as much talk from the ETSU media relations department that both the SoCon and A-Sun are merely one-bid leagues and effectively equal, RPI rankings, conference stability and success in the NCAA Tournament tell a different story.
Simply put, when a team finishes 7-19 against Division I competition in its last year in the Southern Conference (2004-2005), then posts a 15-13 record in their first year in the A-Sun (2005-06) and wins the new conference outright in their second (2006-07) with the same coach and key players during these three seasons, there is room for healthy skepticism about the strength of the new league.
Even with the A-Sun’s improvement to the point where, this season for the first time in more than a decade, it has a slightly higher RPI ranking than the Southern Conference, it doesn't really heal old wounds. If ETSU hadn’t broken Southern Conference by-laws by dropping football in 2003 and were still a member, the SoCon would have a higher RPI and could conceivably been a two-bid league in past seasons.
Despite the multiple tournament appearances of late, the Bucs' mens basketball program seems to be stagnant. During the glory days of 20 years ago, the Bucs progressively improved. By Dennis' junior year they were nationally ranked and when he was a senior they beat Arizona, 87-80, in the NCAA Tournament.
Today, what does an ETSU fan have to get excited about? Another first-round loss in the NCAA Tournament, now by progressively worse margins? A non-conference home schedule that gets poorer with every season? Whereas once upon a time ETSU drew opponents such as North Carolina State, Michigan State, Wake Forest, and Virginia Tech to campus, this year’s slate featured Tennessee Tech as the Bucs’ only out-of-conference foe at home.
Furthermore, everything that comes from the athletic department seems to be spin. Forget their shunning of reporters who dare question their moves. When the Bucs advanced to the NIT in 2007, athletic director David Mullins referred to the athletic department as having “the greatest season in ETSU history,” the lack of interest from the community and weaker scheduling be damned.
This year the Bucs announced they’d move their baseball team into a new park. Only it would be equipped with temporary stands and the overall project would be, at best, half completed, much like their soccer and softball fields were upon moving into them in 2007 and 2009, respectively.
But once again complications have arrived. The Bucs are still playing baseball at off-campus Cardinal Park, and the new field is nothing but a grated field of mud.
ETSU told us the delays in building their soccer field, which didn't even have lights until its third year of use, was because they hadn’t built new athletic facilities since 1977, save for a new golf training facility built in 2002. Therefore, they should be given a pass on the mistakes they made in constructing Summers-Taylor Stadium as it was all new to them.
Now the athletic department’s excuse in building the baseball park is they came across rock underneath the diamond that would prevent proper draining.
Shouldn’t they have known that before they started the project? And what is the excuse now for continually playing in half-constructed venues rather than completed ones? Hasn’t ETSU learned from their mistakes?
The list of gaffes, both in public relations and otherwise, that the East Tennessee State athletic department has made under Mullins during his eight-year tenure are too vast to mention in this piece.
But suffice to say, his direction for the athletic department is not the one ETSU fans wish to take.
In order to regain the fan base, ETSU must be willing to show they want their athletic program to grow. That isn’t shown with a new golf facility or softball field or an all-sports championship trophy in a substandard conference, but rather is shown with the revival of football, and/or a bigger conference, and/or a men’s basketball team that isn’t merely happy to make the NCAA Tournament, but rather could realistically win games in it.
Until that’s displayed by Stanton, Mullins & Co., the downward spiral of interest in ETSU athletics figures to continue.