As Georgia Southern has authored an incredible turnaround season, honest thoughts on the team have been easy to come by when speaking to head coach Chad Lunsford.
Whether it’s popping up around campus to promote the team, going viral with locker room videos or dealing out tough truths following losses, Lunsford’s candor and openness have given Eagle fans a front row seat to the process that has the team on the verge of becoming just the fifth program in college football history to improve from 10 or more losses to 10 or more wins in just one season.
In fact, the only thing Lunsford doesn’t say much about is how important his role has been in taking the team from its worst record in school history to the doorstep of a possible 10-3 season when Georgia Southern takes on Eastern Michigan tonight in the Camellia Bowl.
As the season progressed and the wins continued to mount, Lunsford repeatedly has been asked what his secret is. After all, the Eagles not only are winning, but they’re doing it with what is mostly the same two-deep team that went 2-10 last fall.
Invariably, Lunsford will answer those questions with some form of talking about his players’ willingness to go along with “the process” and their effort and commitment to improve in the weight room leading up to the season. To be sure, it has taken a lot of hard work on the players’ part and it’s their execution that makes the plays during games. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a player that doesn’t begin his description of the team’s turnaround with the head coach.
“You can see the difference every day,” senior tight end Ellis Richardson said.
Richardson arrived in Statesboro as a transfer from Alabama A&M fresh off of the Eagles’ 2015 GoDaddy Bowl victory. He saw the team take a step back during his redshirt season and was on the field for last year’s disastrous campaign that saw Lunsford take over as interim head coach midway through the season.
“He gets everyone fired up and ready to compete every day,” Richardson said. “At the same time, he doesn’t try to act like he knows everything. He gets advice from coaches and players and he’s not afraid to go back to things that have worked before.”
Lunsford found himself in a position that is rather unique when taking over for a fired head coach in that he wasn’t walking into a brand new situation. In fact, because he had remained at Georgia Southern through the departure of both Jeff Monken and Willie Fritz and their staffs when they moved on, Lunsford had more tenure than any player or coach in blue and white.
And as a celebrated recruiter and former recruiting director for the Eagles, he had a relationship with players far stronger than most interim or newly arrived head coaches.
“I’m really happy for our seniors that we have this chance to play in a bowl game,” Lunsford said before the Eagles embarked for Montgomery. “I sat in the living room of a lot of those guys and told them how — if they came to Statesboro — we’d be playing for bowl championships. With them wrapping up their time here, it feels good to keep those promises.”
The feeling is mutual as many of the Eagles’ upperclassmen were recruited by Lunsford or coached up by him on special teams as they tried to prove their worth and earn more playing time throughout their careers. Players were one of the loudest voices asking for Lunsford to be named permanent head coach during his interim term. The administration listened, and the players and new head coach alike have spent the past 12 months making the decision a great one.
“I don’t know if we improve as much as we did without Coach Lunsford,” senior defensive lineman Logan Hunt said. “He’s been here the whole time, coaching us up. He went through the tough times with us the last couple of years, but he wasn’t going to give up on us.
“Getting to this bowl game means a lot to me and the seniors. I know that Coach Lunsford and the younger guys are going to keep it going after we’re done.”
Following the regular season, Lunsford was named Sun Belt Conference Coach of the Year by Southern Pigskin. With a win in the Camellia Bowl tonight, he can become the fifth Eagle head coach in the modern era to win 10 games in his first full season leading the team.