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Baker: ‘We will win a lot of football games’

GSU AD looks back at 2006 season

    Almost a year ago, Georgia Southern’s athletic director Sam Baker made a move he felt was necessary.
    He fired a winning head football coach and brought in Brian VanGorder to revamp the Eagles after a second-straight, first-round playoff exit. That move involved more changes than most Eagle fans ever anticipated, including this year’s 3-8 season, just the second since the school resurrected the program in 1982.
    But given VanGorder’s January arrival, the sheer magnitude of the offensive and defensive changes and a few other reasons, Baker essentially gave VanGorder a free pass this year. And when he looks back on it years from today, Baker hopes this season will be nothing more than an aberration.
    “It was just an odd year, and what you hope is that everything that could go wrong went wrong this year and that we’ll get back to the normal,” Baker said. “1996 and 2006 were tough years.”
    On Tuesday afternoon Baker sat down with the Statesboro Herald:

    Q: What’s your reaction to this season, and what’s it been like for you personally?
    A: I think it’s been a trying season. I feel like we are so close to accomplishing what we were looking at, but the end result was a 3-8 season. But when you go back and analyze — a kick here, a first down there, a call going our way in other game or two — and you are looking at different outcomes. But it is what it is.
    It reminds me in a way of the 1996 season when we went through another losing season. We felt like we were building then, and I think we made progress. Anybody that came out to practice saw the progress that was made from spring practice to the end of the season in certain areas. I think Coach VanGorder knows now what areas need to be worked on. I think there’s a familiarity that developed between he and his team, and they understand what his vision is and his goals are. I think when spring practice starts it’s not going to be like starting from square one where he has to teach them (everything) even how to do the drills. I think the coaching staff now knows what he expects. And I think if you watched it, the practices became very smooth as the year went on. The kids really kept playing.
    I thought a play in last Saturday’s game showed me that the kids still had the desire. It was when the Central Arkansas receiver caught a pass and we tackled him at the 2-yard line. If a team is not playing hard, they would have never tried to make that tackle. If they weren’t playing hard, you wouldn’t have seen that type of effort.
    We took the No. 1 (Appalachian State) and the No. 10 (Furman) teams in the country to the wall. Like I said, it was disappointing. Nobody wants to win more than Brian VanGorder, the team, myself. We have high expectations, but we also want to please our fans and our alumni. We take that very seriously, and I think that losing hurt a lot of people along the way, it kind of caused them pause. But I think those that understand where we are going fully have the vision that we are moving in the right direction. We are going to be good.
    Q: When you say “understand where we are going,” what are you referring to?
    A: Well I think so much has been made out of us changing our offensive style. Everything about our previous program rotated around the option, and that’s all it was — the option. And I think what we are doing now in this new leadership is he’s laid the foundation to be a very strong defense. We are going to be a different offense.
    I almost equate this to General Motors or Ford when they go to build a new model of a car. They have to go into that factory and retool the factory to build that type of car, and sometimes that takes time. The only problem is, in sports you are up against a clock when you have to play those games. It isn’t like an arbitrary time when you are producing a product that will hit the market at a certain time. This is point blank you’ve got to be ready to play (by the season opener) and it’s got to go and work through 11 regular-season games. But I think those that have watched see the defense is getting better.
    We always talked about how the option had a certain style to it. Well now the defense has a certain style, and it’s not as visible perhaps as an offensive style. The offense this year struggled at times, and at times it was running very well. At the same time, sometimes the option struggled. Any offense has its moments when it looks beautiful and when it’s ugly. Unfortunately at times this year we did struggle, but that doesn’t mean that it is the wrong offense or that it won’t get right. It just wasn’t hitting on all the cylinders right now. But when you get all the right pieces into the puzzle it will run right.
    Q: Why did you feel like the program needed retooling?
    A: I felt like when we decided to make a change, that we had to make a decision which direction we were going, much like when Paul Johnson announced he was leaving. The decision we had to make was: Were we going to stay with the option?
    At that moment, we felt the system was working. We had just gone through a time of success, and we felt like we needed to stay with the system.
    This time, in trying to make the decisions that I made, we felt like we needed to move in a different direction. There are only so many people out there that can coach the option (and you have to deal with that) when you go look for a coach, unless you want to pin yourself into a very narrow group of coaches that coach the option. And the group of coaches that coach the option like we had played it, is even a narrower group because the option we ran is a creation of Coach Johnson’s mind, so it would have to be somebody that was in that narrow group. So when we decided to look broader, when you meet with a coach and make a decision on hiring a coach, you don’t want to tie their hands on what they see as what they want to work as a program.
    I think Coach VanGorder, even at the hiring press conference, talked about his vision of an offense and what it would be. He was very upfront about it was going to mean some changes to the program. I think some people, for some reason, did not hear that expressed, didn’t understand that we were going to make this change and didn’t understand what that change is going to entail. It was going to entail some work on our team’s part. And I throw nothing but credit to the young men in the program because they worked hard and really did some good things along the way.
    Q: Did you anticipate that the process would involve a three-win season?
    A: Every season can involve a losing season. You go back and look at our past. Even in our success, there are ballgames that we could have lost just as well as we won. It’s just that bounces go your way sometimes, and this season it seemed like everything that could go wrong went wrong.
    We probably played Appalachian State, the No. 1 team in the country, the best of anybody. In my mind we could have won that ballgame, but there were some outside things that happened in that game that I think played a definite role in the outcome. I think the Furman game, if we make a play it’s there. When you lose, you go if, and, and but, but in winning, sometimes you go, “Hey, we were lucky there that we made that play.”
    Certainly, you don’t go into the season thinking that you are going to lose, but at the same time, you sit down and you kind of assess where you are, and you realize, “Hey, we’ve got to have everything go right.” There may be a team out there, but what other team had trouble kicking extra points and field goals like we did? It started from the first game on and it had a ripple effect through the season. These young men worked hard and tried. We had our moments along the way where special teams could have won a ballgame and they didn’t. We get so focused on offense or defense, and we forget about the very important third part of a season.
    It was one of those seasons where for whatever reason, everything that could bounce wrong just bounced wrong.
    Q: Now that the season is over, do you feel like these changes were the right move for Georgia Southern?
    A: I felt like we made a change, and in assessing the coaches that I felt could come, this takes a strong coach to make a change like this. You cannot have someone that’s weak make a change. You have to have someone that is focused, hard-driven, and I think Brian fits that bill. He’s stayed very focused through all the turmoil. I’ve never heard him waiver from anything that he’s working on. I have the utmost respect for Coach VanGorder.
    I wish more people could meet him, and that’s one of the things we are going to work hard on. More people need to get to know him and see him as a person and not just as a football coach that’s single-minded and driven. When you talk to him one-on-one about other things, he’s a delightful person to be with. I’ve enjoyed getting to know him. You get to know somebody when you drive miles around the state going to Eagle Clubs. He’s proud to be at Georgia Southern, he’s proud to be in the program, he wants to do the very best for the university. I feel like it was a good move.
    One of the things we have to remember is this is a process. It’s got longevity. People only see today. I’m looking at it four years down the road. That’s where I am. When we get our recruiting, get our players in, we are going to be a strong and once again dominant football team.
    Q: Do you have a timeline for how quickly you expect to see things turnaround?
    A: Every game is the next game. I think the fans want it yesterday. Our goal is we’ve got recruiting in front of us. They feel like we are being received very well in Georgia by the high schools and the recruits that are out there.
    Georgia is a hotbed of high school football recruiting, so why wouldn’t we be able to attract outstanding football players?
    I think we will see progress next year. We were real close. If you step back and analyze it, we were very close this year to having some good things happen for us. And I admire the young men that played and wore blue and white this year because they did give it everything they had. I think we will grow as they get into the weight room, and as they get into spring practice, we’ll see a better group of players next year.
    Q: What kind of response have you gotten from the community this season?
    A: I’m sure people are upset. I’ve been at this for 30 years now. I’ve worked at Vanderbilt and the University of Oregon through tough times. Fans are with you win or tie and you don’t tie very often. I understand that. That’s part of this business. Every Saturday in football, you go out there and you’re judged. We are entertainment. People come and want to be entertained, and they don’t always see it from the preparation Sunday through Friday that goes into getting ready for a football game.
    Some people are upset. Some people understand that we are in a long process. I value everybody’s opinion. Georgia Southern fans are valuable to us. We need to continue to grow.
    I look at it this way — the University of Texas AD talked to me one time about an institution that when they won everybody was “we” and when they lost it was “they.” The tradition at that school was a mile wide and a foot deep. He said tradition at Texas — and they went through some tough times too — is a mile wide and a mile deep.
    At this moment, we are finding out: What kind of tradition have we built in 25 years of football? What kind of staying power have our fans developed?
    Everybody has an opinion whether it’s the right direction or not, and I value those opinions. But in my assessment, Brian VanGorder is an outstanding football coach. We will win a lot of football games. What’s most important to me is the young men believe in him. The young men have worked hard to live up to his goals and his expectations. With work in the weight room, spring practice and this offseason — we’ll get there.
    Q: How do you feel like the new staff has handled off-the-field issues like discipline and academics?
    A: I think he’s been fair. I think the student-athletes know who they report to, and he’s been more than fair with them. He’s been very direct.
    We went from a 2.0 team GPA last fall to 2.68 this spring. I feel like we’ve made progress in the classroom. He has been very focused with working with our academic services and holding the young men accountable for their grades. I feel very comfortable where they are academically and with attention to their demeanor.
    Q: What about on the field? Were you happy with the coaching this year?
    A: I have to assess the program. We were 3-8. There are things that we need to step back and look at. I hate to lose more than anybody, but I (look at) what we tried to do, of making such a dramatic change in our offense and defensive system, and overall I felt like we took a step. It probably wasn’t as giant a step as I had hoped for, but it was a step.
    The important thing to remember is — this isn’t the end, this is just the beginning. That’s what’s kind of caught me by surprise is that most of our fans feel like this is the end. But this is the beginning. This is where, when you go back and assess it, Brian coached an NFL playoff game in January, flew in, graded his film, turned his report in to Coach Del Rio, drove up to be here to meet with the team on Sunday, met with the team, finished up with the Jaguars, got here and put together a staff. He’d worked like 20 hour days when he took the job with the Jags and us to get all of that together. He had two weeks to get everything together, to look at film, to assess potential recruits, assess where we are at, look at the team we had, then try to go out and recruit a limited number of scholarships and get that done by the early signing date in February, then get everything in order to make a dramatic change. He had a lot going on, more than the average person would understand or even try to do.
    So I think overall from where we were that Saturday when we started spring practice to where we ended up, I think we laid a block. Now we’ve got to go and keep adding on to that to get us back. We made a change. We’d been very successful, obviously. But I feel like we will be successful again with Coach VanGorder at the helm of this program.
    Q: No matter what kind of year the Eagles have, there’s always talk about moving to Division I-A. What are your current feelings on that topic?
    A: I’m focused on winning now. I-A is a discussion for another day. Right now my focus is getting us back to being one of the premier teams in America. Our focus is recruiting toward that. I’ve always said that if things change or if we need to review that we will, but right now our focus is getting our program back to being a winning program.
 

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