JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Richard Sander is beginning a second stint as East Tennessee State University’s athletic director, shedding the interim title he’s held since Scott Carter’s Aug. 1, 2022 resignation.
Sander, who was a basketball coach early in his career, was ETSU’s AD from 2013 to 2017. He remained on ETSU’s payroll as director of the university’s Center for Global Sport Leadership and as an assistant to President Brian Noland.
Noland announced Monday at a press conference that Sander would step back into his old role in a permanent capacity. You can watch the full press conference below:
ETSU’s return to the Southern Conference and its resumption of football occurred during Sander’s tenure, with the team playing its first full schedule in 2015.
Sander was still at the helm when ETSU got its first Southern Conference win a year later over Western Carolina at Bristol Motor Speedway on Sept. 17, 2016 and beat its first ranked opponent in a final game win over Samford that same season.
Sander was also AD when men’s basketball moved its home court from the ETSU minidome to Freedom Hall starting in the 2014-15 season. The team’s second season in the more basketball-friendly venue saw the introduction of Steve Forbes as head coach.
Forbes put together the most wins in any five-year span in school history and captured two conference championships before taking the Wake Forest job following ETSU’s 30-4 campaign in 2019-20. That season ended with the disappointment of a canceled NCAA tournament due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Forbes had compiled a record of 130-43 when he departed two-and-a-half years into Carter’s tenure.
While ETSU enjoyed some significant successes under Carter, including the team’s first FCS football playoff win since the 1990s during an 11-2 campaign in 2021, the school was also beset by several high-profile pieces of negative publicity.
After controversy over the men’s basketball team kneeling for the national anthem in February 2021, first-year coach Jason Shay resigned. Brittney Ezell was also fired as women’s basketball coach after the 2020-21 season.
2022 saw further issues, highlighted by a Title IX investigation into Ezell’s successor, Simon Harris, that ended in his resignation in mid-August. By then, Carter had also resigned. Complaints about the women’s softball program led to the recent firing of coach Belinda Hendrix.
Sander told News Channel 11 he had already worked on addressing and moving the program forward from those problems in his interim role.
Since Sander took over as interim, the school has hired a new women’s basketball coach and a new softball coach. He called both hires important steps, especially with the women’s basketball squad off to their best start in years.
As interim athletic director, Sander said he instituted greater levels of oversight, including “evaluative and supervisory processes” between sports supervisors, coaches and athletics administration.
“They have done a great job of engaging with the coach,” Sander said. “I meet with the head coaches probably at least once every three weeks.”
He also made coaches create a set of core values that are communicated to teams.
Noland said Sander’s change in philosophy has already made an impact on players and coaches among the athletic department.
“It’s been really refreshing to watch the smiles return to the department, so I look forward as we move into the Spring and into the years to come to going back to the expectations that I had,” Noland said. “Represent the university with class, excel in the classroom, play by the rules and win championships. If you do the first three, the fourth comes in time.”
Sander said his goal now as the full-time AD is to build a culture that not only wins on the playing field, but also creates a better environment for student-athletes to succeed.
“Winning is important, but it also needs to be in a form and in a fashion where they really enjoy what they’re doing and give it everything they’ve got,” Sander said.
But the landscape of college sports has changed dramatically since Sander left the role in 2017.
The NCAA’s transfer portal allows players to switch schools with ease. New rules allow players to profit off their name, image and likeness (NIL).
Sander said the department is exploring the possibility of creating an NIL collective, a fund that would give the university the chance to attract higher-caliber players to ETSU.
“I have a pretty good idea of how to do this, but it’s going to take a unified community to make that happen,” Sander said. “We’ve had some brief meetings before with some people in the community.”
Sander said there are three options for how ETSU could do a collective in which student-athletes are compensated, either through a 501(c)3 where players are paid for work in the community, businesses paying players for their name, image and likeness, or through a booster club.
Despite those on-field successes for ETSU’s money-maker sports, football and men’s basketball, in recent years, their performance has seen a dip in the 2022-23 season.
Noland believes Sander is the man to get the people in place to right the ship for the Buccaneers.
“You’ve got to take a long-term perspective, and I’m confident we’ll get those two flagship programs back where we want them to be because he put them there in the first place,” Noland said.
Noland said Sander is not under contract for his role, serving in a “will and pleasure capacity” and that “we will work together until we get the department where we want it to be.”
Sander is a 1968 graduate of the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. His college career began at then-Memphis State University in 1982. He left the assistant AD job there to become Virginia Commonwealth University’s Athletic Director in 1986 and stayed in various roles there for more than two decades.
VCU won more than a third of all Colonial Athletic Association championships from the time they joined the conference in 1995 until Sander moved to an executive role in 2005.