Tennessee State football is coming back to Hale Stadium — at least for a portion of the 2012 season.
The Tigers will play two football games, possibly three, on campus for the first time since 1998 in conjunction with the school’s centennial celebration despite it current 30-year agreement with the Metro Sports Authority to play its home games at LP Field, home of the Tennessee Titans and four miles away from campus.
TSU athletics director Teresa Phillips said on Wednesday that the Metro Sports Authority has given the school permission to play at least two games in 2012. TSU also received approval from the State Building Commission and the Tennessee Board of Regents’ Office of Facilities Development to move forward.
“We have not made a commitment past 2012 at this time,” Phillips said. “We are in the planning stages of how to move forward with some improvements in order to prepare to play ... 2012 will hopefully give us a feel for the commitment of our alumni and our fans, as well as our students.”
Phillips said homecoming and the John Merritt Classic, which have averaged more than 20,000 fans in recent years, will stay at LP Field next season. The Tigers are in the process of filling open dates for the 2012 schedule, which features five home games. Phillips said the two — or three games — at Hale would most likely be against Ohio Valley Conference opponents.
The decision comes a month after an overwhelming majority of students, staff, alumni and community members voted in favor of returning to Hale. Votes were open to the public and cost $10, raising money toward student scholarships. A total of $6,124 was raised with 588 votes in favor and 24 against.
To play football at the 58-year-old Hale next year, renovations would cost more than $1 million, which the university has saved through internal funds.
Immediate renovations would include power washing and painting, tearing down the old ROTC building at the main entrance, adding temporary restrooms and concessions stands along with adding up to 4,000 grandstand seats. Hale Stadium, which the football team uses for practices, currently seats 12,000.
Eventually, TSU administrators want the capacity to reach 27,000, which would cost about $27 million, according to Ron Brooks, TSU’s associate vice president for facilities management. But a timeline has not been set for that expansion and would depend on internal and external funds.
“As they said in the old days, you have to crawl before you walk,” interim president Portia Shields said. “The [$1 million] will be well spent. It looks terrible. It is an eye sore and it is unsafe.”
While playing at an NFL stadium is an enormous recruiting tool the reality is TSU can’t replicate an NFL-type atmosphere at LP Field. Homecoming and the John Merritt Classic are big draws but during conference games, no more than 8,000 regularly spill into the stadium.
Still, Phillips said if the Tigers move back to Hale permanently, the financial support would need to be overwhelming.
“You always want to play on campus,” Phillips said. “But we have great relationships with the Titans and LP Field. My main concern is, as we move forward [past 2012]… is ensuring that we have a facility that we can recruit to and that our student-athletes will have the amenities that they need to have in order for us to build the program we’re trying to build.”