Buccaneers bound for new league

By Wes Holtsclaw
STAR STAFF
wholtsclaw@starhq.com
For the last six months, many questions have lingered about the future of the East Tennessee State athletics program and its relationship with the Southern Conference.
All of those questions were answered Tuesday afternoon as East Tennessee State would receive an extended withdrawal from its 25-year relationship Southern Conference, lasting until June 2005.
"We had an extended conference call with the CEO's of institutions around the Southern Conference, and we've been granted an extended withdrawal period," said university president Dr. Paul Stanton. "We will compete for another year in all of our sports, except football, in the Southern Conference."
Where would the Bucs go from there?
"During the last several months, with a sense that we would not receive a waiver to stay in the Southern Conference long term, we have had numerous informal conversations with other conference around our region," Stanton continued.
"And at this time, we are convinced after much study and research, the conference we will be now having formal sessions with will be the Atlantic Sun Conference."
After conversing with five other conferences, according to Stanton, the Bucs arrived at the decision to join the Atlantic Sun Conference.
"On behalf of the Atlantic Sun Conference, I have had discussions with East Tennessee State University, specifically with President Dr. Paul Stanton and Athletics Director Dave Mullins, regarding ETSU's interest in joining the Atlantic Sun," said conference commissioner Bill Bibb.
"I had the opportunity to visit the campus recently and I am very impressed with Dr. Stanton's commitment to maintaining what is an outstanding and competitive athletic program," he continued. "The facilities are very attractive and the Johnson City community support makes East Tennessee State a desirable program."
The conference has participated in Division One athletics since 1978, with this being its 25th anniversary. The A-Sun has placed an emphasis on academics, making the decision easy.
"As we reach our 25th anniversary this year, the Atlantic Sun Conference is only interested in expansion if the additional member school can help us continue our overall growth and commitment to the student-athlete," Bibb added.
"With the academic and athletic program in place at ETSU, we see an institution that fits very well with our conference makeup and we are eager to proceed with the necessary steps towards official membership."
The Atlantic Sun Conference will give East Tennessee State the exposure of a larger regional and national media market with its current programs, and the university will become the conference's most northern school.
However, it means more travel expenses for the athletic squads.
ETSU will compete against University of Central Florida (Orlando, Fla.) and Stetson (near Daytona, Fla.), Florida Atlantic (near Miami/Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.), Gardner-Webb (near Charlotte, N.C.), Georgia State (Atlanta, Ga.), Troy State (Montgomery, Ala.), Jacksonville (Jacksonville, Fla.), Mercer (Macon, Ga.), Campbell (near Raleigh/Durham, N.C.), Belmont and David Lipscomb (Nashville) in the conference.
"We will begin the formal process of joining the Atlantic Sun Conference immediately," said ETSU Director of Intercollegiate Athletics Dave Mullins. "We hope to complete the process by the middle of October. The extended withdrawal will help us make transitions smoothly."
"The last six months have been very important for ETSU and the future direction of our athletic department," he said. "Several very significant decisions have been made and now's the time for us to move forward and plan a very positive future."
The move will also give it a much broader horizon for recruiting.
Said Mullins: "From a recruiting standpoint, it will allow us to greatly extend our recruiting base and focus on a part of the country that develops outstanding players."
The A-Sun will be a great academic fit as well as athletic fit for the university. It set a new conference record in 2002-03 as 1,274 student-athletes earned all-academic honors.
It also had four representatives in the Top 25 in the U.S. News and World Report College Report regional analysis.
Athletically, the conference's major strength is in baseball as it is the only I-AAA conference in the country to have sent three teams to the NCAA Baseball Championship in each of the past four years.
However, it is the only Mid-Major Conference to achieve NCAA postseason wins in each of the sports it sponsors throughout the past six seasons.
"I think we're all excited about it after a little bit of uncertainty over the last six months," said ETSU head baseball coach Tony Skole. "I know, speaking for most of the coaches, that we're all excited to join the Atlantic Sun. It's a great conference, especially in baseball, where it's one of the best in the country. We just have to step up our caliber of play."
"The process we've gone through over the last four to five months has allowed us to reassess our focus and priorities and plan for the future," Mullins added. "Sometimes difficult situations force you to do that."