The recent history of the basketball program at East Tennessee State University is definitely tied to its building. Originally named the Memorial Center (but not in memory of anyone in particular), it was recently renamed ETSU/Mountain States Health Alliance Athletic Center. We don't really call it that. Everyone still uses the old unofficial nickname, the Mini-Dome.
Modeled after a similar facility at the Idaho State University, the Mini-Dome was built in the mid-1970s. Construction went too long and too far over budget. Local journalists said that ETSU tried to cut corners by building one facility for both football and basketball, and ended up with one that was fit for neither. In many ways, they were right.
For football, the stands are too high and too close to the field; only those in the front row can see the near sideline. The Mini-Dome also features a first class full-size indoor track, but the finish line is located on the far side from the grandstands, and people can't even see the backstretch from there.
The original basketball court was a rubberized surface, located in the center of the football field. There was room for a few low bleachers around the court in the football grandstands, with most of the fans far away from the action. This was eventually fixed when ETSU bought a wooden court that could be taken apart in sections and moved around. The court was pulled over to the west side grandstand, with seats extending the grandstand down to the floor level. Then, that arrangement was spun around 180 degrees after a visit from a state fire marshal several years ago. The east side, with floor level exits and large exterior ramps up to the concourse level, has more fire exits than the west. The overall capacity of the Mini-Dome was also reduced.
When the facility was built, the administration decided it was time to move into a higher athletic conference. The Buccaneers transitioned from the Ohio Valley Conference (then Division II) to the D-I Southern Conference. The change in division became moot as Division I-AA was created, including both conferences, the same year ETSU completed the move.
Back when I was a student at East Tennessee State in the late Eighties and early Nineties, we had the best basketball program in the state. The Buccaneers had unprecedented success for a Southern Conference school.
Prior to the start of the 1990-91 season, ETSU had just lost head coach Les Robisnon, who left for his alma mater North Carolina State. Assistant coach Alan LeForce was promoted to the top position just a few days later. The senior class included point guard Keith "Mister" Jennings and center Greg Dennis, supported by shooting guards Alvin West and Major Geer. Juniors included athletic forwards Calvin Talford and Marty Street. Great things were expected from this team, which had won the SoCon tournament but lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament the past two years. This, we felt, would be the year.
The campaign started in the NIT Preseason Tournament, with the Bucs winning at Brigham Young -- followed by a close loss at Arizona. Soon thereafter, Dennis broke his foot in practice, and was out for the season. The tall, slender center with great ball skills ended up taking a medical red shirt. With Dennis gone, hopes for the season were lost.
Something amazing happened, though - the Buccaneers kept on winning. The team, under new coach LeForce, had added an improved defense to their strong offense. There were wins against George Mason, at Cincinnati, versus N.C. State at home, at James Madison. Then into the first five games of the Southern Conference schedule, ETSU went on a 13 game win streak. ETSU went from the "others receiving votes" section of the AP Poll to the poll proper in December. The streak ended with a loss at UT-Chattanooga, and ETSU took a slight drop.
But another run of seven wins, including a non-conference overtime win at Memphis State, led to the No. 10 ranking in February. The Bucs finished out the season with two more road losses in the conference and a No. 17 AP ranking, and then three-peated at the SoCon tournament.
Junior forward Calvin Talford injured his knee during the conference tourney, and was hobbled for the NCAA tournament appearance: a loss to Iowa. (He did win the slam dunk competition at the NCAA Final Four a few weeks later, though.) Mister Jennings led the NCAA that season the three point percentage. He also won the Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award for the outstanding collegiate senior under six feet tall, and went on to play in the NBA.
The following season, the miracles didn't repeat. Greg Dennis was back, but the team didn't win the early non-conference road games the way they had during the previous season. They did repeat as regular season and tournament champions in the Southern Conference, and earned a No. 14 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They were drawn against Arizona, whom they had played the year before. In their fourth consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament, they won the opening round game in an upset. Two days later, they lost to the famous Michigan "Fab Five" team that went on to the 1992 championship game.
And then the run of success ended. The team embarked on a series of "rebuilding" years, but as often happens with mid-major programs, there was no return to the NCAA Tournament for many years. Alan LeForce stepped down and was replaced by Ed DeChellis in 1996. Seven seasons later in 2003, ETSU once again won the SoCon tournament, lost in the first round to Wake Forest, and then DeChellis was hired away by Penn State, where he had been an assistant. Murray Bartow was hired as the replacement, ETSU repeated as SoCon Tournament champions in 2004, and lost another opening round game (this time to Cincinnati). With the graduation of Tim Smith and Zakee Wadood, another run of NCAA appearances was over.
As the basketball program was experiencing some success, with good attendance and support from the community, the struggling football program received a mercy killing. Home game attendance was terrible, with the bad sight lines in the Mini-Dome and a sterile atmosphere from too few fans in too large of a building. The bigger problem, however, was that East Tennessee was Big Orange Country. There was far more support for a SEC football team 100 miles east in Knoxville than for the home town Buccaneers. Tennessee's relatively weak men's basketball program allowed ETSU's basketball team some room for support. But it was death for Buccaneer football.
With the state of Tennessee changing rules on the state schools spending taxpayer funds on athletics (and the Astroturf up for replacement with a million dollar price tag), the program was cut. The news leaked out in March 2003, and that fall's football season was the end of things. The basketball Bucs were stuck in the middle, because ETSU had joined the Southern Conference agreeing to field a football team -- now the school would fail to meet that condition.
At a conference meeting in 2004, a vote of the member schools was held, to see if ETSU could continue their membership, joining the three other non-football schools in the SoCon. At that vote, the Southern Conference moved to kick out ETSU, the league's defending basketball champions. ETSU's president tried to placate the local fans, saying that the school would use the money saved from ending the money-losing football team would go towards improving the other intercollegiate sports. The Bucs were allowed one final season in the SoCon, to give them time to find a new conference home.
The Atlantic Sun has not been entirely popular with local fans. Some, like the crowd at the NCAABBS message board, remain sore at everyone and anything involved with the removal of football and the conference change, and shoot down anyone that dare oppose that point of view. But a April 2007 student body referendum on a new fee to fund football was voted down -- that just added more fuel to the fire. Others continue to support basketball and other sports, but simply wish ETSU would bring football back. But the fact is that there is still a lot more orange in the area than blue and gold.
Local fans were concerned that the Atlantic Sun was a weaker conference. It took four tries, but the basketball team finally won the conference tournament last year, taking some pressure off Coach Bartow, who'd led the team to three disappointing finishes. The women's basketball team has won two in a row, which is far better than they ever did in the SoCon. Three years ago the A-Sun instituted a combined women and men's all sport trophy; ETSU has won all three years. Adding annual Nashville and Jacksonville trips in many sports -- areas with strong alumni populations -- has been a positive change.
I think ETSU has helped the Atlantic Sun, also known as "the suitcase conference" of the southeast. Membership has been in constant flux this decade, and adding an established program (as opposed to yet another Division II transitional school) has been good for the circuit. The availability of the Mini-Dome led to the conference adding indoor track and field as a sport, with ETSU hosting the meets.
When they joined, the Buccaneers committed to five years of A-Sun membership, and those five years are up at the end of this season. Now ETSU faces the decision whether to stay in the A-Sun or try to find a new home. Representatives of the Ohio Valley have visited the campus, where ETSU could join four other Tennessee state schools. But there hasn't been recent news about a conference switch.
The team lost a rising sophomore post player, Seth Coy, to an automobile accident last summer. Senior leader Mike Smith, a preseason All-A-Sun pick, has been injured for most of the season and is headed for a redshirt. In spite of the missing players, the team has exceeded expectations and remains in a five-team race for the regular season A-Sun championship.
But still, the only path back to the NCAA Tournament -- and another shot at an upset victory -- is to win the conference tournament. The future of the basketball program after this summer, though, remains unclear.
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