In one of his first interviews after becoming Georgia Southern University's 12th president in January 2010, Dr. Brooks Keel said:
"Athletics is like the front porch of the university. It gets people who don't know much about our university and lets them look inside the university and see the good things we are doing at Georgia Southern. They might start taking a look at us. Athletics also provide a mechanism and conduit for the community and alumni to contribute back to the university."
So, it really should be no surprise that about two years later Keel announced plans for Georgia Southern to move its football program from its current position in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) into the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS).
"There's no question it's where we want to go," he said. And his primary reasoning today for the move closely echoes what he said in 2010.
He said as an FBS school, it would help Georgia Southern "move from a regional university to a national university."
"When you have national TV exposure, that's just marketing 101," Keel said. "Even for an old scientist like myself, I understand that. If you can get us on national TV it's going to bring exposure to us, and it's going to affect the students who want to come here. And it's going to affect faculty at other universities, who are sitting in their living room in Lawrence, Kan., and watching TV and saying, ‘You know, I'm tired of shoveling snow. I think I might like to go south. Let's take a look at Georgia Southern.' It's going to have a huge impact on our national footprint."
We support Keel's decision to move forward with plans to move to the FBS level, fully recognizing the two huge challenges the plans face - financial and emotional.
Let's look at the emotional side first.
Except for a four-year blip beginning in 2006, Eagles fans became accustomed to competing for national championships almost from the reinstatement of the program in 1982. Erk Russell and Paul Johnson spoiled us and Jeff Monken restored our swagger and expectations immediately in his first two seasons as coach.
Come September, Paulson Stadium will be filled with fans who believe strongly competing for a seventh national championship is a given.
That won't be the case once GSU moves to the FBS. In fact, it's hard to imagine a scenario where Georgia Southern would ever truly be in the mix for a national championship.
We know Coach Monken would disagree and he would be committed to trying to reach that goal, and have his team and coaches committed, as well. We would expect nothing less.
But the reality is the expectations of the fans must be transferred to competing at the highest level, to watching your team match up against tougher competition and to the excitement of watching a big-name opponent playing in Statesboro in an expanded Paulson.
Also, we are confident, Georgia Southern would play in a bowl game not long after joining FBS. It just won't be for the national championship, but it would be on television attracting a large audience across the country.
Meeting the financial requirements of a future FBS move is, from every angle, a daunting task. And Keel is upfront about just how tough a task it is. Georgia Southern's current athletic budget is $12 million, which puts it second to last in the Southern Conference and 95th among 125 FCS schools. Keel said a move to FBS would take a minimum budget increase of $4.4 million per year.
The $4.4 million would have to come after Georgia Southern's "Soaring to Victory" capital campaign has secured most of its $36.6-million goal - a hugely ambitious project aimed at upgrading all of the university's athletic facilities and other infrastructure.
For a recent comparison, Georgia State in Atlanta launched its football program in 2010 and will move to FBS next year on the back of student athletic fees that are significantly higher than what Georgia Southern students pay.
They also have a lot more students.
The approximately 30,000 full-time students enrolled at Georgia State pay $263 per semester in athletic student fees. The 20,000 or so Georgia Southern students pay $154 per semester. That's a difference of $9.4 million per year in athletic budget revenue Georgia State receives that Southern doesn't right from the start. Further, the legislature and Regents made it clear the time of raising student fees every year is over.
And while Georgia Southern has a vocal and loyal fan base, it does not have the sheer numbers advantages inherent in a larger school like Georgia State or a huge metropolitan area like Atlanta to court corporate sponsors.
The first goal of the Soaring to Victory campaign is to gain enough pledges to break ground on the $10 million Football Operations Center. Keel said the university isn't going to hold a ground-breaking ceremony until they actually have $10 million in pledges.
Some kind of ceremony might be good public relations to start, but Keel isn't interested in half-baked gestures. He wants all followers of Georgia Southern to know the university is fully committed to joining an FBS conference and it must have the financial support necessary to make the move.
We support Keel's vision and understand his long-term reasoning in a world of college athletics that is completely different since the advent of the BCS.
We also support his conservative financial approach to making the move to FBS.
While the era of competing for a national championship every year may end when the Eagles move up, the excitement of Georgia Southern football certainly won't.
Imagine seeing this headline: "Eagles upset 12th-ranked West Virginia at Paulson."
Keel certainly does. And we agree the benefits for the university the media exposure from a victory like that would extend well beyond the field.