This report is part two of a six-part series about the state of Georgia Southern Athletics. It will run Wednesdays throughout the summer. Part two takes a general look at Georgia Southern’s “non-revenue” sports competing in the Southern Conference — Golf, Softball, Volleyball, Men’s and Women’s Soccer, Men’s and Women’s Tennis, Track and Field and Cross Country.
For most Division-I athletic programs, basketball, baseball and especially football are the driving forces creating the revenue to support all the other programs, and at Georgia Southern, it’s no different.
How does one evaluate the “other” sports?
“Each sport’s different,” said GSU director of athletics Sam Baker. “You can’t just lump them all together. I think the key is if you feel like the young men and women are competing — getting good coaching and competing in the Southern Conference at a good level — I feel like in some sports that is a success.
“What we try to do is be realistic, but at the same time, if we’re going to get on the bus and go play, we want to win.”
On a national scale, GSU’s golf program has enjoyed more success than any other sport. The program has won the SoCon just twice, but in the 10 years since taking over the program, head coach Larry Mays’ Eagles have enjoyed eight NCAA regional appearances and a SoCon-best four trips to the Division-I national championship.
His teams have finished in the top three in the SoCon tournament nine out of his 10 years, finishing second in the 2010 tournament and advancing to the 30-team national title round as the league’s only representative — no easy feat considering the parity in the sport.
“In golf, the top 70 teams in the country are all pretty good,” said Mays. “Each year you’re going to have five or six teams that really separate themselves from the rest of the country, and they’re definitely the class of the field. From Nos. 6 or 8 or 10 up to No. 70, on any given day anybody can beat anybody.”
Mays cites location, facilities and a GSU education as some of the reasons for the program’s success.
“We’ve got a great university where kids can get a great education, we’re in the south, we’ve got great weather where we can practice year-round, and we’ve got a great practice facility,” said the GSU coach. “When I got here that first year and we made the first run for the national championship, it was kind of, ‘OK, what do you need?’ We didn’t have any place to practice. Now we can’t use that —we’ve got a great place to practice.”
The only down-side for Mays is the program’s mid-major status, but he doesn’t let that get in the way of competing among the nation’s elite.
“I call it a ‘hat school.’ Georgia Southern’s not a hat school,” Mays said. “They’re not selling Georgia Southern hats in every city across the country like a USC or Notre Dame or Texas or Georgia or Florida. It’s just not going to happen. … They’re not selling our hat nationwide, so we’re not a hat school, but we can compete with the hat schools.”
Maggie Johnson came into a pretty good situation when GSU offered her the first head coaching position of her career two years ago.
The Eagles had won the 2006 SoCon Tournament and advanced to the NCAA regionals, where they defeated Coastal Carolina before facing elimination against No. 8 Georgia. Overall, the program has the league’s third-best historical winning percentage (.567) and is tied for second in league titles (2) behind Chattanooga, which has won 11 of the SoCon’s 17 championships.
“Coming in we knew that we had a program that had been successful, kind of on the edge of really breaking through,” Johnson said. “That’s really what I saw — an opportunity to come in to something that’s already in place and kind of run with it.”
Johnson became the first GSU softball coach to finish her first season with a winning record, falling to Chattanooga in the 2009 SoCon finals.
Her Eagles were one of four teams to make the 2009-10 conference tournament after cost-cutting measures shrank the field.
Over $1 million was spent recently on upgrades to GSU’s softball facility, which put the program in position to win the bid to host the 2011 SoCon championship.
Chad Callihan is another relative newcomer to GSU, arriving in 2008 to a GSU sport that doesn’t have a history of SoCon success.
The program has remained in the middle of the SoCon pack in both league winning percentage (.464) and overall (.479). The league’s tournament has been dominated by College of Charleston, which has a .789 winning percentage in SoCon play.
That hasn’t stopped Callihan from putting together some lofty expectations for his volleyball program. He wants GSU to raise its RPI — the Ratings Power Index used to rank teams based on wins and losses and strength of schedule — to a Top 50 ranking among Division-I programs.
“We were in the mid-200s when we got here two years ago and we’re pushing about 100 now,” Callihan said. “I think we’re making that step. There’s something about being able to say you’re one of the top 50 programs in the country. When there’s over 330 schools, I think that says a lot for a mid-major school in southern Georgia.”
Callihan’s young Eagles won 21 games during the 2009-10 season, falling just short of a bid to the SoCon’s four-team tournament.
Track and Field and Cross Country
Georgia Southern’s women’s outdoor track and field program won the SoCon championship in 2007, and is one of only three current member programs — the others being Appalachian State (16 titles) and Western Carolina (five titles) — to do so.
In comparison, the cross country team hasn’t won a SoCon championship. Since GSU joined the league, only two current programs have — Appalachian State (10) and Chattanooga (four).
The track-and-field Eagles became more relevant to the SoCon when they joined ASU, WCU and recently Samford, as a program with a facility — which also included a soccer facility — capable of hosting the league’s championships.
“One of the things I take great pride in is the development of our track that we built,” Baker said. “When we first started track, we had a cooperative effort with the recreation department, the school board and Georgia Southern, and we used the high-school’s track. When we finished paying off the (football) stadium, we were able to use that money to help us pay bonds to renovate J.I. Clements Stadium, Iron Works and build the track/soccer stadium, and all of a sudden we had a 400-meter, Mondo-surface track that we can hold Southern Conference championships on and we can use that facility to recruit.”
Soccer and Tennis
In four seasons, GSU men’s soccer coach Kevin Kennedy has had success ranging from a SoCon tournament run in 2006 and a 4-1-2 league record, to last season’s 0-6 (1-15-1 overall) campaign.
The Lady Eagles (1-17, 1-10 SoCon in 2009) didn’t fare any better.
“Our two soccer programs struggled last year,” said Baker. “We’re not going to be able to make a quantum leap and all of a sudden dominate the conference. We’re going to have to take it in steps to get out of the basement. The first step is get back in the middle, then to get up near the top.”
The GSU men’s tennis program is in a similar boat. It won its lone SoCon title in 1994, while the women won back-to-back titles in 1995 and 1996.
While there’s been some parity on the men’s side, Furman has dominated women’s tennis in the SoCon, taking 10 of the last 11 titles.
Rating the non-revenue GSU programs together with a single score is no easy task, but with a quick look at the top-heavy sports of the Southern Conference, a scale starts to develop. Most SoCon sports have a program at the top (the “A” programs) and a few nipping on the heels (the “B” programs).
At the top of Georgia Southern’s non-revenue sports is clearly golf, which is in a league of its own competitively on a national level, as well as with its resources.
GSU softball’s deep tournament runs and top-notch facility have it in the SoCon conversation, but it still has a long way to go to catch Chattanooga.
Volleyball comes in behind softball in that it appears to be on the rise, but can’t be graded solely on potential. Charleston has the bar set extremely high.
Track and field has a long way to go as far as playing second-fiddle to ASU and WCU, and the rest of the non-revenue GSU programs have hardly, if ever, been relevant in the conference.
The sports at the top average out with the ones at the bottom, although each program has at least shown that it is capable of competing within the league.
Still, title runs have been few and far between.
Overall Grade for GSU’s “non-revenue” Sports: C+
Over the following four weeks, we continue to evaluate each sport through which GSU competes in the SoCon and take a look at the goals and expectations as the 2010-11 athletics season approaches. Part three will run next Wednesday and focus on GSU women’s basketball and coach Rusty Cram — GSU’s longest-tenured head coach.
Matt Yogus can be reached at (912) 489-9408.