Chancellor Conway speaks on ECSU athletics

The chancellor is set to retire from post in May

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Chancellor Thomas Conway

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By Malcolm Shields
Sports Editor

Sunday, April 8, 2018

There has been plenty of change that has occurred within the Elizabeth City State University athletic department during the past month.

ECSU announced the firing of head football coach Earnest Wilson on March 14 after two seasons at the helm of the program.

On Monday, April 2, ECSU named Anthony Jones as the new football coach and on Wednesday, athletic director Derrick Johnson and men's basketball coach John Hill were fired.

With ECSU chancellor Thomas Conway set to retire from his position on May 31 and interim chancellor Karrie Dixon set to be more hands-on with decisions made at the university starting on Monday, The Daily Advance secured an interview with Conway on Thursday in his office following a board of trustee meeting to talk about the state of the athletic department.

The Daily Advance was limited to around 10 minutes with Conway.

The Daily Advance asked Conway during the exchange specifically about why Johnson, Hill and Wilson were not retained.

Conway was asked if Johnson’s release was due to financial or a disciplinary issue.

The chancellor was asked specifically, in the case of Hill, if the brawl after the Virginia State/ECSU men's basketball game on Jan. 24 played a role in Hill's ouster.

The chancellor did not provide a reason for the terminations citing state personnel law.

Conway did note that Johnson's release was “not for cause.”

The following is the question and answer exchange with Conway:

The Daily Advance: Why did you feel like now was the time to make the changes in the athletic department?

Conway: Sometimes, situations dictate the timing of changes. We had to go ahead now and start looking at, across the board, we're looking at operations at the university. As we're seeing where they’re changes that need to be made or should be made, or can help us optimize what we're doing, we're going ahead and acting on those.

Conway on Johnson and Hill: I considered Derrick Johnson and John Hill both really good people.

TDA: With your time working with Derrick, from your perspective, what did he do to improve the athletic department?

Conway: With a program as under-resourced as the Elizabeth City State program has been for the last several years, generating new ideas for raising revenue, being creative about bringing in coaching talent, being creative about requiring coaches or pushing coaches to increase squad sizes that allow more students to have the opportunity to … playing at Division II, we can actually bring in more students and give them the opportunity to experience college athletics than Division I institutions can in some instance. I think those kinds of creative measures were things I would say he added.

TDA: Wanting to confirm this, all these decisions about making the changes were yours and it wasn't collaborated with Ms. Dixon... These were all your decisions?

Conway: I wouldn't make these decisions without collaborating with the person who is going to have to sit in my chair when I walk away. We talked about these decisions before they were made.

TDA: With Mr. Jones coming in, does he have the requisite bachelor's and maters' degrees for the position?

Conway: That is a prerequisite of the program. I think at this point, he is completing his degree, but will have it completed prior to the beginning of the academic year. 1

TDA: At this point, since that is not completed, is he allowed to coach the football team at this point?

Conway: The coaching part of the contract is not the part that requires the master's degree. There is an academic component of all of our coaches' salaries. In order to move into that role, he has to have that program completed.

TDA: Spring football is usually around this time. It can be anticipated that he [Jones] should be in town and should be coaching the guys....

Conway: We want to get him here as quickly as we can.

TDA: Is there any consideration from the university perspective to potentially consider Division III? 2

Conway: [Extended pause] We've not discussed Division III and I don't think that is going to be necessary. I think what we have to do... The issue that is stifling growth right now is the issue that the university has been talking about for the last several years and that's enrollment. As the enrollment grows, a lot of the pressure on things athletics department budgets and other kind of things will ease up. A lot what carries the athletics programs are student fees. If the students aren't enrolling, then you've got a lack of revenue. I think the answer to your question is growth.

TDA: At this point, ECSU, from your perspective, is still committed to staying Division II?

Conway: At this point.

Conway on Wilson: Coach Wilson, I will say, personality-wise, from the standpoint of my interactions with coach Wilson, always positive. Always a gentleman. These were very creative people who we enjoyed having around, but when you got to make changes, you've got to make changes.

TDA: This was before you, but there was a target date for this spring for the baseball team to potentially come back. Why did that not happen this spring? 3

Conway: Enrollment. One of the things that... we've been looking at that very carefully, in order to afford a baseball program, what we needed to do was to grow our enrollment enough to absorb an additional $75,000 a year in terms of expenses to float a baseball program.

Enrollment has not grown as fast as we had hoped that it would grow. We believe that it will eventually get there. I still believe personally, that this is a good area for baseball.

Baseball is a good sport for Elizabeth City State University. Were the enrollment where we had hoped it would be by now, I would have been pushing to return baseball. And it is my hope in the future, it does return to the institution.

Again, this is a great area. If you look around us, the high schools, the institutions that's around us all have really good talent on their baseball teams. It would help us with enrollment on one end. It also would also help us in many ways, again, more students having the opportunity to participate in collegiate athletics.

TDA: The door is open for baseball to return?

Conway: I want to leave this office saying the door was open when I walked out.

TDA: There is a perception out there that the university handled Derrick's issue with DWI, then Alico Dunk, the former basketball coach, with his issue with assault, differently. What would you say to those people? 4

Conway: Absolutely not. One, they were two different situations. One has to do with... on the coaching side of the equation, there are decisions that you have to make that are different from the protections that faculty have. In one of those cases, Mr. Dunk was both a faculty member and a coach. The decision initially was voluntarily with him.

With the situation with Mr. Johnson, we had to wait to see what the facts were going to be. And we had to wait and see what the facts were going to be in both cases. Because it took a while for all of the proceedings that, the due process if you will, to work through. If you think about at the end of the day, both of those cases I think were eventually dismissed.

TDA: What's impressed you about the student-athletes here at Elizabeth City State?

Conway: The heart. I will say with absolutely no hesitation whatsoever, I love to see our athletes compete. It doesn't matter, whether if its the softball team, the volleyball team, the football team, the men and women's basketball team, when they hit the court, they're going to give you what they've got. You cannot criticize that.


1: When the university announced the hire of Jones on Monday, April 2, the university noted that Jones was in the process of completing his master's degree in student affairs at the University of West Alabama.

2: ECSU is a member of the NCAA in Division II. Division II programs provide athletic-based scholarships. NCAA member schools in Division III do not provide athletic-based scholarship.

3: In May 2014, ECSU announced that it would suspend the baseball program for at least the next three seasons in order to raise money.

4: Derrick Johnson was arrested in November 2016 and charged with driving while impaired, while in October 2016, Alico Dunk was arrested and charged with assault on a female from a September 2016 incident. The university at the time said that Dunk went on leave from the men’s basketball program. Charges in both cases were dismissed. Dunk did not return as men’s basketball coach for the 2017-18 season.