JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – East Tennessee State University men’s basketball fans reached by News Channel 11 expressed disappointment at first-year head coach Jason Shay’s resignation Tuesday.

“I really felt like he was the right coach for the job and I think he had shown that at least in his first year, and this is really too bad,” said Russ Brown, a professor at Quillen College of Medicine who has held season tickets to Buccaneer basketball since 2003.

Brown said it was hard to imagine that the players’ decision to kneel for the national anthem this season — and Shay’s full-throated support of their decision — didn’t play into the resignation.

He said he believed the players’ explanation that their action wasn’t meant as a disrespectful one.

“They were quite clear on where they stood, they even have relatives of theirs that of course have served in the military,” Brown said. “But that’s neither here nor there in my opinion – they have the right to express themselves freely and that’s what they did. Freedom of speech.”

Another long-time fan and alumna of the university also seems convinced the resignation was forced.

“He’s a first year coach. He should be given another chance to continue and I can’t see any other reason to ask him for a resignation except for the fact that he supported his students in doing something that…other people outside the university didn’t support,” said Nancy Fischman.

She also worries about the future of the program.

“The team that he put together could have been outstanding and I worry about being able to bring student-athletes in, especially student-athletes of color,” Fischman said.

Dick Nelson, a local business owner who owns Nelson Fine Arts and Frames, has been a loyal fan for many years, said he hoped “the kneeling part” was a nonissue.

“Jason Shay is a great coach and I’m at a little bit of a loss right now,” Nelson said shortly after the announcement that Shay had resigned after leading the team to a 13-12 record and a quarterfinal win in the Southern Conference tournament. “I’ve framed stuff for the athletic department…he’s a very likable person and I think he’s a tough coach and it’s going to be a sad day.”

Brown said Shay had put together a good season after Steve Forbes, under whom he served as an assistant, left for Wake Forest and a number of players chose to transfer.

“He recruited well in the slots that we needed,” Brown said. “This year, I mean he was up for coach of the year mid-January. I know the team slid after that but the bottom line is we had a winning record, he’s a good recruiter, he’s a good coach, he’s a really good Xs and Os guy.”

Brown also expressed disappointment at the reaction to the players’ kneeling, first reported by News Channel 11 after an away game at University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.

ETSU basketball players kneel during the national anthem at a Feb. 15 game in Chattanooga. (Photo: WJHL)

“The powers that be said that this was disrespectful, and they’re not listening to (the players),” Brown said.

“They need to listen to their issues. We do this all the time as professors. This is something I do in my job and I’ve done a lot of it. You gotta listen, and when you don’t listen I think it’s just really a shame.”

On the other hand, some say Shay is to blame.

“He did bad with PR and he did bad with development of players and I just think losing the trust of the boosters really hurt him,” said Mark Vicars, who graduated from the university in 2019. “It also felt like the basketball program kind of tried to hide it from us so to speak…trying to keep it out of the public view”

Vice President of the Student Government Association Seth Manning says he hopes the university provides transparency around the situation.

“As a university we are so heavily invested in both academics but also athletics but when you have a coach that was really handpicked to lead the program and he’s leaving after one year…there are questions logically from that,” said Manning. “[It’s] too early to draw any conclusions but certainly a lot of questions need to be asked.”

News Channel 11 contacted state Sen. Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol), who chastised ETSU President Brian Noland during a Senate Education Committee budget hearing early this month, asking for a reaction.

We sent ETSU’s news release on the resignation for Lundberg to review, but in the end he said he would “probably like to pass.” State Rep. Tim Hicks (R-Gray) also declined to comment.

State Sen. Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City) and State Rep. Rebecca Alexander (R-Jonesborough) did not respond to our requests for comment.

ETSU Board of Trustees member Kelly Wolfe, who also spoke on the issue at a Feb. 19 trustees meeting, saying “things were handled very, very poorly” surrounding the kneeling incident, said the university’s policy dictated that only the president or the trustee’s chairman was authorized to comment.

News Channel 11 reached out to the university to ask President Brian Noland about the questions surrounding the resignation. Questions were referred to the athletics director and we are still waiting to hear back.