The dream is big, the roadmap in place and reality rests just months into the future.
Eastern University, a hamlet some 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia in the affluent St. Davids community and near Villanova, is launching an NCAA Division III football program.
The launch of the program, slated to get off the ground in 2022 and begin competition in 2023, comes from the aligned vision of athletics director Eric McNelley, the school's president and board, and a plan now two years into its implementation from conceptualization.
It was a conversation with Eastern Provost Dr. Kenton Sparks at a golf outing that truly set McNelley's quest in motion to launch the Eagles' program.
“We started talking shop about not only what it takes to start a program but maintain a successful program,” McNelley told FootballScoop. “We were very much in line with our thought process and what he had already been doing on his side. His due diligence was very much in line with how I thought the process needed to be handled and how we needed to invest fully into this kind of commitment.
“If we are going to start this sport, you can never do it with a glass half full. It has to be a full glass of water that we're all drinking. From the board on down, president and provost, advancement team, admissions, our dean; everybody's got to be on board to successfully launch the sport.”
Eastern, as it announced in public at the onset of the process, earmarked between $20-30 million for a comprehensive athletics initiative that included the outline for the football program. Also there will be a new athletics administration building with plans to house coaches' offices.
Already, Eastern has signed a lease agreement with Valley Forge Military Academy as host site for its football program and included in the operating budget were funds to resurface the football field and track, enhance locker rooms and provide additional upgrades.
For McNelley, Eastern's former head basketball coach who earlier had a successful stint as coach and athletics director at Westminster Christian college prep in Miami, there simultaneously is patience and urgency for the program launch.
News of Eastern's ambitious athletics vision centering on the football launch already is drawing interest from college coaches, former Philadelphia Eagles still in the area and additional football personnel.
The timeline? McNelley intends to start virtual interviews sooner than later and hopes to have the program's first-ever coach in place by late November – unless the right candidate emerges and expedites that timeline.
“The single-biggest step right now is to find the right leadership,” McNelly said. “That's why it was an early announcement. Some coaches found the timing a bit odd. Like, 'Hey, it's right at the start of football season; why do that?' There are a lot of reasons we did that collectively. We wanted the news out early because I wanted everybody to have thorough opportunity to apply for this. I didn't want to announce at the end of November and have applications coming in from coaches off of emotional reasons, like their season just ended.”
McNelley finds the mid-September announcement gives all potential parties more time to fully assess the burgeoning opportunity at Eastern, a nearly hundred-year-old private Christian institution.
“We want to really dive into where they are, if they are an established head coach or a coordinator. First and foremost, if they're from out of the area, you would be moving in to one of the most affluent areas in the country,” McNelley said. “There are a lot of selling points to our university. It's got if not the top educational public schools, then some of the top public schools anywhere and there's a draw and appeal to that. It's a phenomenal area to have a higher education institution.”
Targeting the hiring of a head coach in approximately eight weeks, McNelley explains, also allows the program's leader to jump-start recruiting. A junior varsity season, if feasible in 2022, is supported by McNelley and Eastern's administration.
“We want fall of '23 in Middle Atlantic Conference play,” McNelley said. “This fall, '22, the goal is to have developmental jayvee games within the MAC, and some other schools already have reached out as well.
“We would like the coach to be able to put something out on the field in fall of 2022. We will not put a number on it. If they tell me a five-game schedule, I'm all for it. If he tells me it's safer to do one or two, I'm good with that too. I'm not going to dictate to the head coach his expertise when it comes to having a product on the field and ready to go.”
Eastern is, however, going to arm that coach with the ability to recruit with autonomy to hire multiple full-time staff members almost from the outset.
“We're going to have our head coach and three coordinators, four full-time coaches committed to the program,” said McNelley, who told FootballScoop that applicants can send resumes to firstname.lastname@example.org to apply. “We'll see what our first recruiting class looks like from January up until August. Maybe they bring in 60 kids? Maybe it's different. That's why I'm going to value somebody who can give me a game plan and has been there, done that. Who has a vision and can tell us where the program will be in 30 days, 60 days, 90 days.
“Pennsylvania is loaded with talent. Being from South Florida, I know there's talent all over that state and we can recruit there. We're not targeting unrealistic recruits but there's also linemen, linebackers, safeties, receivers all over that state that can't all go to Florida, Florida State, Miami, FIU and FAU. We can go to Texas, California; Tennessee has a lot of talent. Our track and field program can flourish with us adding football. I want a lot of synergy here to share and give our student-athletes a different experience. That's what Division III is.”