The nine-day period that unfolded between Dec. 5 and Dec. 13 was quite a rollercoaster ride for anyone with an allegiance to ETSU’s football program.
It started with a miraculous comeback victory over Kennesaw State in the FCS playoffs that culminated with a gutsy decision by head coach Randy Sanders to go for a two-point conversion late in the game instead of settling for overtime. That decision sent the ETSU fans into a frenzy as the Bucs walked off their home field with a 32-31 victory.
One week later, the dream season came to an end in Fargo, North Dakota as the Bucs ran into a buzzsaw by the name of North Dakota State. Still, the agony of a season-ending loss wasn’t nearly enough to overshadow a season that will be remembered for decades to come.
But when Sanders announced his retirement from coaching less than 48 hours after returning from Fargo, it was a gut punch. Suddenly the momentum that seemed to be propelling ETSU’s program toward a bright future was momentarily halted.
And now, the program finds itself at a crossroads.
It is imperative at this crucial moment that leaders at ETSU and across the region recognize the unique opportunity this football program presents not only for the university, but also for the region as a whole. During ETSU’s game against North Dakota State, a well-crafted commercial for ETSU was beamed into living rooms across the country via ESPN.
According to the Nielson ratings, it was seen by approximately 1.7 million people.
Occasionally I’ll run across a story or a social media post complaining about the amount of money that is poured into athletic programs. According to one study from 2019, the highest paid public employee in 28 states is a college football coach. In 12 other states, the highest paid public employee is a college basketball coach.
When you take that information at face value, it seems insane. Why are we paying coaches so much instead of earmarking that money for academic programs?
First of all, business owners and other boosters are responsible for kicking in much of the money that is paid to successful college coaches. Secondly, it is hard to think of a more effective marketing tool for a university than football or men’s basketball. Those of you in marketing understand how rare it is to find an opportunity to get 1.7 million sets of eyeballs on your advertising material.
This fall our region got a taste of what fielding a perennial FCS title-contending program could do for our region going forward. The capacity crowds at William B. Greene Jr. Stadium helped small businesses and hoteliers around campus, and ETSU enjoyed a lot of national exposure along the way, which could help boost enrollment numbers in the near future.
Back when I was a college student, I remember sitting in a classroom on the first day of class, and our professor asked everyone what made them choose ETSU. You’d be surprised how many people sitting in that classroom made the decision to come to Johnson City because they were passing through and enjoyed the mountain views or heard how nice our region is through word of mouth.
In terms of the potential economic impact our football program could provide, you need to look no further than North Dakota State. Not only are the Bison a measuring stick for ETSU on the football field, the program also offers something to aspire to off the field as well.
The Bison have won eight FCS national championships since 2011, and they routinely fill the FargoDome to its capacity of 19,000. Those fans have an enormous positive impact on the local economy and the university.
Back in 2013, ESPN’s College GameDay televised live from downtown Fargo leading up to North Dakota State’s home opener. Thousands of fans flooded into town, and the economic impact from that single-day event was measured between $4 and $8 million dollars. It also created a positive ripple effect that continues to benefit Fargo, NDSU and the surrounding area to this day.
As we stand at this crossroads, I hope business leaders from around the region will see football at ETSU as an economic development endeavor worth investing in. The fan support is there, but a concerted financial investment into the program is needed by new and existing boosters alike to ensure the new coaching staff has the funding necessary to keep ETSU among the top FCS programs in the country.
Is regionalism merely a buzzword, or will we put the word into action and create a buzzsaw of our own?