Chattanooga’s Reported Flirtation With Other Conferences Could Force ETSU To Sink or Swim

Marky Billson

“If a man doesn’t grow, he dies.”

I’d love to tell you this sage bit of wisdom came from Donald Trump or Andrew Carnegie but instead it comes from Gy Waldron, the creator of The Dukes of Hazzard, and it’s something Boss Hogg said on two episodes.

But since Boss Hogg may go over better in east Tennessee than Trump or Carnegie, let’s just exchange the word “man” to “team,” because Chattanooga Times Free Press sportswriter Gene Henley has recently written a column suggesting Chattanooga may be looking at moving to the Sun Belt Conference.

And if they do, then the ramifications to ETSU won’t be pretty.

The theory goes that Chattanooga hasn’t drawn what it can in the SoCon, and with the departures of Appalachian State and Georgia Southern to the Sun Belt the old SoCon just isn’t as appealing.

Unlike ETSU, Chattanooga has a football stadium that is suited for Division I with more than 15,000 seats and is in a slightly bigger market than the Tri-Cities. Also, consider that because it is now FBS, Appalachian State took in $1.1 million last year to show they could play with Tennessee. Because they are only FCS, ETSU will take in only $500 thousand next year to collect a drubbing from the Vols that could easily set the program back in the eyes of the local fan base.

There are approximately seven FCS programs I think could make the leap to FBS, and ETSU and Chattanooga are two of them. The one thing an ETSU would have over a Chattanooga is a real geographical rivalry school in Appalachian. Other than that, advantage Mocs.

There’s also some talk of Chattanooga leaving for a lateral move to the Ohio Valley Conference. I would warn against this. More travel to less-than-desirable markets. The idea is more intrastate rivalries would generate more interest for Chattanooga athletics. I would ask them to consider the difference in time zones.

But that’s also a slap to ETSU. Not that they didn’t bring it on themselves by leaving the SoCon for a decade by dropping football and therefore diminishing a once-great rivalry. What does it say that Chattanooga officials are actually saying Belmont would actually be a bigger rivalry going forward than ETSU?

It’s says the Bucs are still trying to crawl out of the hole Dave Mullins and Paul Stanton dug for them.

If the Mocs leave, then the SoCon is significantly weakened. It won’t be in the upper tier of basketball conferences any longer and it won’t be nearly as strong of a football conference. The latter might actually mean an extra victory a season over the course of time for ETSU on the gridiron, or it could mean an extra drubbing from an out-of-conference opponent. One thing it will mean is the days of a 7–4 SoCon team making the FCS football playoff, as Samford did last year, would likely be numbered.

I imagine Chattanooga wants what I want for ETSU; membership in a two-bid basketball league. I thought the SoCon made strides in becoming one last year but it hasn’t happened yet. Furthermore, the SoCon ranked 16th in RPI last year according to Warren Nolan, and the NCAA only gave multiple bids to nine conferences last year. Still a ways to go.

The Sun Belt was 13th, and the addition of Chattanooga could help them make it over the top.

This isn’t automatic doom and gloom for ETSU; what if Chattanooga did join the Sun Belt and a travel partner was needed? ETSU wouldn’t be the sole potential suitor to make that leap but do have some advantages.

The school messed up under Mullins and Stanton by putting non-revenue sports ahead of ones that actually make an impact. That’s why we have new softball, soccer and baseball fields drawing literally tens of people to events but meanwhile there is only one event (a July 4th celebration) scheduled until November and the start of basketball season at obsolete Freedom Hall.

So the bottom line is this; in 1981, not recent history but still within the Mike Krzyzewski coaching tenure at Duke, Virginia Tech was getting beaten by VMI and the Appalachian State-ETSU football rivalry stood dead even. It could be argued these three local athletic programs were essentially equal in terms of prestige.

But it’s obvious since that time they’ve both passed ETSU by. The Bucs athletic program can’t allow Chattanooga to pass them by, either.

If local fans continue to keep focused on the mindset of “Isn’t Freedom Hall better than the Old Dome?” then the argument of the future will be if it would be a good idea to rejoin the Atlantic Sun to create a geographic rivalry with Lincoln Memorial.

If they start thinking of new arenas and 15,000 seats at John Robert Bell Stadium then we can start thinking of ETSU as a program with national rankings in basketball and bowl games in football.

Which is what Chattanooga may be doing.

Marky Billson is the host of Tri-Cities Sports NOW weekdays from 12–2 p.m. on 1420 NBC Sports Radio Tri-Cities, which can be heard on IHeartRadio.

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