JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Former and current ETSU men’s basketball players were met with shock and surprise upon learning of head coach Jason Shay’s resignation this week.

ETSU announced the first-year head coach’s departure Tuesday afternoon. Shay, a Galesburg native and Iowa alum who played four years as a walk-on for the Hawkeyes, spent the last five seasons as a Buccaneers’ assistant coach.

Shay called the team in for a 3:30 pm. meeting Tuesday to deliver the news.

“He was like ‘don’t feel bad but I’m resigning’ and then it was just quiet,” Bucs senior Jordan Coffin said. “We were all just dumbfounded and lost but he was like he feels like it’s better for his family and that was pretty much all he said but players know what’s going on.”

In a statement by the university, Shay called this past year “extremely challenging for me in many different ways.”

One of those challenges was the backlash from the team taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem prior to basketball games.

Many are still wondering if his resignation was linked to his support of the ETSU team’s decision.

“I know this is more than basketball it’s a business but there’s also a side where it’s about family too ETSU should be one big family we say it all the time, one, two, three, family,” Coffin said.

Former Buccaneer Tray Boyd III echoed Coffin’s thoughts, who played in the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons when Shay was an assistant under Steve Forbes.

“When it comes to basketball Shay was the man and for him to stand up for what he stood up for that just shows he’s a man of integrity as well,” Boyd said, who led the team in scoring in both seasons.

The Bucs have started a search for their third head coach in the last three seasons.

“Now you have to go find another guy to try and reach that standard that we put on here at East Tennessee State basketball so now that will be the hard part to find a guy who fits every category to make everyone happy,” Boyd said.

Four ETSU players announced that they entered the portal Wednesday.

At least one player told WJHL that the vibe among the team changed during the season.

I really felt like he was the right coach for the job’: Fans react to ETSU coach’s resignation

“I was like something bad is about to happen.. The coach is probably going to leave. The vibe was different it wasn’t the same.. Whatever you do make sure you make the right decision,” Sadaidriene Hall, forward for the ETSU men’s basketball team said.

Coffin, one of the players who were shown kneeling at the Chattanooga game in February, said Shay has always been sensitive to the wants and needs of the players.

“He asked the seniors and stuff what we thought we wanted to do and we got together and we were just like, with all this going on, we feel like just to keep bringing awareness, and we told him we wanted to kneel and so we went and told him in his office and told him, he was like, ‘alright, well that’s what we’ll do,’ he was very supportive of it. We kneeled in Florida, kneeled when we played Alabama at Alabama, and we kneeled at the Furman game, and then kneeled at Chattanooga,” Coffin said.

ETSU men’s basketball players continue to enter transfer portal after Shay resignation

Players said Shay never told the team they could not kneel at home games, but that they were just never presented with the opportunity to do that. The national anthem would be played while the players were in the locker room.

The university and men’s basketball program faced immense backlash after the team was seen kneeling during the playing of the national anthem before the Feb. 15 game at Chattanooga. An ETSU official confirmed to WJHL that the team had kneeled prior to other games as well.

ETSU basketball players kneel during the national anthem at a Feb. 15 game in Chattanooga. (Photo: WJHL)

When Shay addressed the matter a couple of days after the Chattanooga game, he said his team meant no disrespect toward the country’s flag or veterans.

“It was a decision our team made prior to the season as a call to action and empowerment against racial inequalities and injustices,” Shay said on Feb. 17.

Lawmakers took issue with the team’s conduct. Rep. Diana Harshbarger called the kneeling “disrespectful.” State Sen. Rusty Crowe said such conduct “will not be tolerated.” During the university’s budget hearing, state Sen. Jon Lundberg compared kneeling during the national anthem to flipping off the American flag.

‘Putting that knee down gave the bird to our flag sir’: Questions raised about ETSU men’s basketball team kneeling during state budget hearing 

All 27 Republicans in the Tennessee Senate signed a letter to university presidents across the state calling on them to ban student-athletes from kneeling.

It is unclear if the kneeling controversy influenced Shay’s resignation.