Updated: August 22, 2003, 10:06 PM ET

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. -- East Tennessee State finished 4-8 last season, then the university announced it was ending the football program after this year. No one would have blamed the coaches and players if they had left.

Team loyalty proved too strong for that to happen.

The Buccaneers, who open the season Aug. 28 at Eastern Michigan, have been holding preseason practice like all the other teams nationwide with nearly every player returning.

"Even if I was offered to go, I wouldn't have because this is my school. I love playing here. I love the coaches. They have been like a father to me," senior defensive lineman Brandon Calton said. "I just couldn't turn my back on the situation."

University president Paul Stanton announced in May his final decision to eliminate the Division I-AA football program after the 2003 season to help save money.

"My first thought when I got the word was, 'What do I tell the players and how do I continue to make the players believe and realize that certainly good things are going to happen for them? And let them know that whatever the future holds for them that I was going to help them?" said head coach Paul Hamilton.

"I assured them I was going to stay in this thing to the end."

Each player was released from his scholarship and will be allowed to play at another school immediately without sitting out a season like regular transfers.

When workouts began this month, only one upperclassmen had decided to transfer, leaving 63 on the Buccaneers' roster. Of the 15-member signing class, five freshmen enrolled. Every assistant coach, including six hired this winter, remained on the staff.

Freshman Brandon Barnes, an offensive lineman, initially thought about finding another school but changed his mind.

"I've committed to them and I promised I'd be up there, so I'm going to go ahead," he said.

Defensive coordinator Billy Taylor, a former linebacker and assistant coach since 1997, wasn't ready to leave his alma mater yet.

"I was hoping I could retire here. But those plans definitely had to change," he said.

Several colleges have had to end their football programs in recent years for financial reasons. For example, Swarthmore dropped football after the 2000 season.

Boston University's decision in the middle of the 1997 season to ax the program outraged players, who traded in their school jerseys with generic ones they bought with black numbers.

There was little public debate about ETSU's decision. Stanton was faced this summer with having to cut more than $7.5 million from the university's $139 million budget as part of a statewide initiative.

Football, which loses $1.1 million annually, would be in trouble anyway because of a decision by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, which governs all state colleges and universities, to remove all state funding from athletics programs by 2007.

ETSU would have to find other means of making up the deficit, and private fund raising was not considered a realistic alternative. The school's home, the 13,000-seat domed Memorial Stadium, also would likely need its indoor turf replaced in the near future.

"You have to take the bull by the horns. Even though it's a difficult decision, it's the right decision to make," Stanton said at the time.

Hamilton, 45, said the emphasis on football has been in decline since he became coach in 1997. The school dropped Elon and James Madison from its 1998 schedule and played Miami and Mississippi State instead to make up for a $425,000 deficit. The next year, five scholarships were removed to make way for women's softball.

ETSU, a Southern Conference member, last won a league championship in 1969, and its best recent year was 1996 when it went 9-2 overall and 7-1 in the conference.

Hamilton, a former assistant at Air Force from 1990-96, has a 33-34 record after six seasons, making him the third winningest coach in the program's 80-year history.

ETSU has produced many top-notch players -- receiver Cecil Moore, an all-conference player in '02, signed as a free agent with the New York Jets this year.

Hamilton believes some of his players will be attending Division I schools next season. This year gives the players a chance to showcase their talents and get on film so other colleges can see them.

"I'll tell you, this team will be recruited a great deal. I've got I-A schools calling that want some of our players already," he said.

One of those could be junior safety Gerald Sensabaugh, an all-conference performer last season with 56 tackles and four recovered fumbles. He's not worried about playing somewhere else but fitting in as a senior.

"What I intend to do is find somebody that needs a safety where I can come in and play," Sensabaugh said. "I'm going to be like a freshman. How can you lead a team? Who's a freshman that leads a team?"

As for Hamilton, he's more worried about getting his players settled in new schools by January than finding a new job.

But one of his most pressing issues at the moment is finding a consistent field-goal snapper -- while keeping a sense of humor.

"We can't get down to the end of the game where it's 24-24 and we drive the ball down and we've got a perfect field goal lined up and we snap the ball and roll it on the ground," Hamilton said. "That's the kind of thing that will get me fired!"


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