East Tennessee State named veteran Tennessee assistant Desmond Oliver its new men’s basketball coach Monday, less than a week after the school’s former coach resigned amid a backlash triggered when his team kneeled during the national anthem.
Oliver replaces Jason Shay, who faced withering criticism from Tennessee lawmakers, university boosters and some fans for his support of his players’ protest of social injustice before he resigned Wednesday.
Oliver, 51, is the first Black head men’s basketball coach at ETSU. He’s a longtime assistant coach and highly regarded recruiter who has worked on the Tennessee staff since 2015. Previously, the Buffalo, New York, native was an assistant at eight other universities — Niagara, Texas A&M, Cornell, St. Bonaventure, Rhode Island, Georgia, Canisius and Charlotte — since he started coaching in 1994.
Oliver takes over a traditionally strong program now reeling following the kneeling controversy and Shay’s departure. At least seven ETSU players have entered the transfer portal.
During his introductory news conference Monday, Oliver promised to coach a fast-paced, crowd-pleasing style at ETSU and to recruit hardworking, high-character players. One of his first tasks, he said, would be to try to “re-recruit our guys.”
Shay, who was in first year as ETSU’s head coach, had been in the center of controversy since he supported his players’ silent protest, which was first noticed before the team’s Feb. 15 game against Chattanooga. The demonstration touched off a wave of outrage from key supporters of the university. The entire Republican caucus in the Tennessee state Senate signed a letter demanding presidents of all the state’s public universities to enact policies barring such protests. Additionally, some key ETSU donors and season ticket-holders withdrew their support from the school.
One car dealership, Johnson City Honda, which provided loaner vehicles to members of the ETSU coaching staff, reclaimed its cars after the controversy erupted. Joe Trujillo, the owner of the dealership and a member of the university’s fundraising board, told a local reporter that he objected to any protests staged during the playing of the national anthem.
“I just don’t agree with the platform of kneeling during the anthem. Is there injustice? Absolutely there is. If they want to take a knee before or after I’m the first one there,” Trujillo told WCYB-TV. “My dad served 30 years in the United States Army. We’re a military family. The flag … means a lot to me.”
Trujillo’s stance may be a popular one in conservative eastern Tennessee, but it clashed with Honda’s official corporate position. “These actions are contrary to our beliefs,” Honda tweeted on April 1. “We shared this with appropriate parties for further action.”
Trujillo did not respond to ESPN’s requests for further comment.
Many in the community, including some of Shay’s players, are convinced that backlash to the kneeling prompted his resignation.
“I’m not 100 percent sure he was forced to resign, but the controversy had to play a part in in,” senior guard David Sloan told ESPN.
University officials, however, insist Shay was not forced out.
“ETSU did not fire Coach Shay nor force Coach Shay to resign,” athletic director Scott Carter said in a statement last week. “As outlined in the terms of the separation agreement, in Coach Shay’s statement and in my previous statement, Coach Shay decided to resign.”
Shay, who was earning more than $300,000 a year and had two years remaining on his contract, received a $450,000 severance package from ETSU to be paid out in $18,750 monthly allotments over 24 months, according to the terms of a separation agreement he entered into with the university. He and his family also will receive health insurance through the university for two years, or until he finds a new job, whichever comes first.