JOHNSON CITY, Tenn (WJHL) – As East Tennessee State University welcomes its first Black head men’s basketball coach, talks of opening dialogue on social injustice are set to surface.
At a press conference introducing Desmond Oliver as the new ETSU men’s basketball team head coach, the university’s president, Brian Noland, told News Channel 11 that he hopes to facilitate open dialogue of healing and listening for students and community members.
“As we reflect upon all of the issues that are swirling around not only this institution, but our nation, we are at a point in time in our nation’s history in which there’s a lot of hurt, there’s a lot of pain and there’s a lot of loss and there’s a lot of confusion, and when our student-athletes made their voices heard in early February, they expressed their pain, their hurt, their confusion and their anger, and I’m proud of our student-athletes for the manner in which they began a dialogue and a conversation. A dialogue and a conversation that needs to occur. As I look forward, I know that coach and the players, but students all across this campus, and this region as a whole, it’s important that we come together and listen, not judge, not be quick to position or anger, but listen. Because the reason that there’s such emotion across this community, is because we’ve not remembered the skill of listening. COVID has taken away our ability to see one another. Hopefully, in the months to come, we can come together as groups and listen, and have those difficult conversations around difference that allow us to come together and realize all-in-all, we’re not that different,” ETSU President Noland said.
He said that because of COVID-19, discussions on difficult topics like racism and social injustice, was nearly impossible to talk about, and that Coach Oliver is not responsible for single-handedly picking up the pieces after the controversy in February.
“Our primary goal is that coach has the opportunity to build the foundation for his program, he just met his young men for the first time today. He’s not had a chance to talk to him in a setting that is relaxed, he’s not had a chance to see them here in this room, but I am going to put myself in a position where I have a chance to listen, where I have a chance to hear from our students, and where members of our staff together have a chance to do likewise. Because our student athletes have already voiced their perspective. I think now it’s time for us to hear from our students as a whole, to hear from our community. You know one of the things that people have asked is, you know, ‘Dr. Noland, after the students, you know, did what they did to make their voices heard in February, why didn’t you get in with community members so we could begin that dialogue’, want to remind you we were still in COVID protocols. Our team was getting tested three times per week. It’s only been two weeks since our team came out of that three times per week COVID protocols. So I’m not making an excuse at all. But I can tell you is that once coach begins his foundation. Once coach begins to build his relationship with his players. Coach is going to get out and coach will listen as well,” Noland said.
Though many said this is a time of healing, after the team knelt during the national anthem in February before a game in Chattanooga, Noland said the community is just not there yet.
“I think we have a lot of work to do. I don’t think we’re yet at the position of healing, because I think we’ve got a lot more listening to do. You can’t heal until people have an opportunity to express their positions, an opportunity to listen, and an opportunity to come together. Today is a first step. Today is a chance for us to look forward, rather than back. But today is a chance for us as a campus as a community to say our best days are ahead of us. And it’s going to take a lot of work, the days ahead of us are going to be very difficult. But I’m committed to navigating this institution through that difficulty,” he said.
Though there is much to do before the community and university can heal, Noland said, it will take some time and patience to get there.
“I can’t fix everything. This university can’t fix everything, but this university needs to be a part of the solution, but it’s going to take time. It’s going to take time. This has been one of the hardest years in our nation’s history, we’ve hid behind masks to keep one another safe for a year, and it’s going to take years for us to recover from the wounds that COVID, social unrest and the economic challenges that are facing our country had inflicted upon us,” he said.
Coach Oliver said he is no stranger to student athletes wanting to kneel in protest. He said he dealt with it when his players wanted to join the national movement at the University of Tennessee.
“So when our players came to me at Tennessee, talking about the same approach, I said give it, give it two weeks, and instead of wanting to meal. Go and talk to people who don’t look like you go and talk to classmates via zoom, in the dorms and have this at the end the conversations that your kneeling would be all about in the first place, and just see if you can gather information. If you can have a more of an impact of that way, than the other way. And you know what they did. They came back in two weeks and said coach. We are classmates, we asked why didn’t think like me, that were crying and said I love you, and I told my story as far as far as a kind of where I’m from, how I grew up. And so, that’s all I know is talking to my guys. And that’s going to be our approach, is communicate. I want by the time we start playing the 13 scholarship guys that we have to be so much better at communicating using their ability to talk to people, to create change, that no one’s going to ask that question here and another month because they’re going to know: ETSU men’s basketball team is out in the community, and they have put that to bed. They are communicating, they are talking, and the community on campus and off, oh my goodness, how much have they embraced these young people, and certainly, they’ve had some difficult conversations that they couldn’t have had before, but they’re having those conversations so that that’s my approach is, is talking about it,” Oliver explained.
He added that he is excited to get the team together and to build relationships not only among the players, but among the community as a whole.
“I’m excited to start the process. I’m excited to get out in the community and start meeting people and take our guys with me and spend time shaking hands, but more so spend time talking and communicating, and so the jury is out. We have a lot of time to heal. I don’t think the healing takes place overnight. I told our guys there’s no magic wand I can wave to just make everything great tomorrow, right? It takes time for development, it takes time for improvement and the good thing is I and we are willing and able and ready to do it,” Oliver said.
Oliver made history Monday after he was announced the head coach of the men’s basketball team at ETSU.
He and ETSU women’s head basketball coach Simon Harris have become the first Black men to hold their respective roles. Oliver, the first Black man, and person of color to be named head coach of the men’s basketball team.
Athletic Director Scott Carter praised both men after the press conference Monday.
“Outstanding people, outstanding coaches, people all over the country that have said, ‘If you don’t hire that guy, somebody is gonna hire them and they’re gonna beat you. So you better beat him to the punch’, and it’s best people I’ve had a chance to get to get to know through processes of interviews, the people who put their names actually in the references both players and coaches, and people that aren’t even in the game that just know how they work with the community, on campus, I couldn’t be prouder to have both coach Harris and coach Oliver. Thank you for asking that question because I’m so proud that their part of out ETSU family,” he told News Channel 11.
He said Monday that he was excited to officially introduce Oliver as the head coach, since Oliver had what he called good character.
“You know, when you talk to people about Desmond Oliver one of the first things they’re going to say: he is one of the best relationship builders that they’ve ever seen, and person after person, friends that we shared, that had built relationships with him that built relationships with me that I trust, they’ve said that knowing him through the years people said that from around the country. So I think you’re going to see an authentic handshake when we can shake hands again, hugs when we can hug again. Listen, communicate, he kept talking about communicate, communicate, communicate let people know who you are and get to know them. He’s a wonderful leader and I think had a great time at our institution great time in our community, and our region,” Carter said.
But Oliver’s appointment did not come without controversy.
Merely six days after the resignation of now-former head coach Jason Shay, Carter said hiring Oliver was the right move.
“First of all, I always say Coach Shea is a tremendous part of our tradition here at ETSU, is part of championship teams obviously great part of some of the best runs we’ve ever had, best record we’ve ever had. He’d been my friend for 16 years I love Jason Shay and I wish him his family, the very very best. His representation brought a resignation to us and had terms they wanted us to consider, we countered, we negotiated and I think everybody saw the Separation Agreement, the other day contracts are negotiated all over the country, daily, sometimes that’s what happened here, and wish Coach Shay the best and very very proud though for today to be about Desmond Oliver,” Carter said.