Football supporters protest at ETSU commencement

By Thomas Wilson

STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   JOHNSON CITY -- Saturday was graduation day for hundreds of students at East Tennessee State University.
   Bright smiles and talk of plans for the future highlighted the day for graduates. However, the day was bittersweet for some still reeling from the news that the Buccaneers will likely have but one more season of football. For upcoming seniors like Chad Hyder, the announcement was a bitter pill to swallow -- particularly one week before final exams.
   "I've worked my butt off for four years and given my blood, sweat and tears," said Hyder, a burly defensive lineman who played football at T.A. Dugger Junior High School before his family moved to Kingsport. "It's painful."
   A Dobyns-Bennett High School product, Hyder is but one of several regional players who accepted scholarships to play football at ETSU. He was one of a handful of protesters who greeted Gov. Phil Bredesen due to being angered over the announcement that the 2003 season of Buccaneer football would be the last due to state budget orders.
   Bredesen's budget for the coming fiscal year requested a nine percent cut from state departments and institutions with the exceptions of K-12 education funding and corrections.
   The budget translated to an approximate reduction of $7.5 million in state funding to the university for the 2003-2004 fiscal year that begins July 1.
   Protesters held up signs reading "Save Buc Football" and "Drop Stanton, Not Football", a reference to ETSU President Dr. Paul Stanton's decision to drop football after the 2003 season.
   The university loses roughly $1 million a year on football. The Tennessee Higher Education Commission has instructed state institutions to phase out all state support for intercollegiate athletics by 2007. Stanton has said publicly ETSU would need about $2 million in annual private donations to keep playing football, meet federal gender equity requirements and make the team competitive with other Southern Conference members.
   "We as football players have worked the races to raise money for football, we've done anything we could to support it," said Hyder, who has also competed on the ETSU Track and Field team for three years, earning all-conference honors in the shot put. "To have this announcement come out one week before finals, I think it could have been handled with more class."
   He and other protesters noted the end of football program would also force the university to rethink several football-related events and programs.
   "What are you going to build Homecoming around?" asked protester Mike Collins, who played for the Bucs from 1993-1997 and worked as the Bucs, special teams and linebackers coach through the 2002 season. "What are you going to build the ETSU Pride campaign around?"
   Private giving to the university was considerable during the five-year "Campaign for ETSU Tomorrow" which ended last year. The campaign raised over $105 million for the university as of May 2002. The campaign's dollars benefited academic endowments across the university as well as new facilities.
   According to the ETSU Foundation report last year, the university led the Tennessee Board of Regents four-year universities in private giving for the eighth consecutive year. Support generated by ETSU made up 49 percent of the total $67 million raised by the state's six TBR universities, according to the university.
   "ETSU football operates on an $8,000 recruiting budget -- everybody else in the Southern Conference is making a $40,000 to $50,000 budget," said Collins, now an assistant coach with the University of Michigan. "Coaches go out and spend their own money because they believe in this program and believe in making it work. And there's no way to fund this program?"
   A tearful Kim Reeves, who works as an academic advisor with the university's athletics department said she and her entire family had supported all Buccaneer athletics for years.
   "There was something special about this place that made them choose us," said Reeves. "I hate that kids are being used as political pawns, and that's what this is."
   Reeves said she had spent six years working with student-athletes -- many of whom were first generation college students.
   Collins felt the abolition of the football program would have far-reaching consequences to enrollment, noting the large number of local high school talent that have made the program their school of choice.
   "If you're touting ETSU as a regional university," Collins rhetorically asked, "what are you telling students in the region when you say we won't support something that highlights the region?"
   Football isn't the only program where the ax of funding is falling. The University decided to terminate the agreement regarding the Centre at Millennium Park on April 30 in response to a nine percent budget cut mandated by the state of Tennessee for 2003-2004. The university had contracted with Sodexho to provide administrative personnel to assist in developing, offering, managing and marketing of continuing education programs and education-based programs at the Centre.
   For underclassmen and 2002 football signees, their future as football players remains uncertain after the upcoming season.
   "This isn't just about dollars," said Hyder. "It's about people."