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The architects' perspective
Builders of GSU football program reflect on Florida win, past and future of the Eagles
Georgia Southern football began with the dream of Dr. Dale W. Lick, former president of Georgia Southern College, pictured above, on the site of the future Allen E. Paulson Stadium. - photo by Georgia Southern Athletics

It was just another ordinary Saturday for Dale Lick.

He was sitting in the stands in Doak Campbell Stadium on Nov. 23, watching the Florida State Seminoles dismantle the visiting Idaho Vandals, when all of a sudden, Georgia Southern, where Lick served as president from 1978-1986, became the center of attention in Tallahassee, Fla.

“We looked up at the scoreboard and Georgia Southern was leading the Florida Gators in the second half,” said Lick, who stepped down as president of FSU in 1993 and still resides in Tallahassee.

Despite the fact that FSU was winning its football game — the No. 2 Seminoles eventually won 80-14 — the loudest cheer of the day happened when Georgia Southern’s final score was announced.

“The whole stadium was watching that game, and you should have heard the applause when the score came up, 26-20,” Lick said. “The place went wild. I was shocked and I loved it.”

Were it not for Lick, along with Georgia Southern College athletic director Bucky Wagner, former director of institutional development Ric Mandes and a “Dirty Dozen” of other supporters and donors, it’s possible there would be no college football in Statesboro.

Ever since the day Lick decided Georgia Southern should have a football team in 1980, the Eagles have dominated the Football Championship Subdivision (Division I-AA), won six national titles, and now, have beaten the Florida Gators — GSU’s first ever win over a Football Bowl Subdivision team. The program will join the FBS Sun Belt Conference in 2014.

“It’s just too unbelievable to be true,” Lick said, “and it’s all true.”

‘We need football’

Lick knew he needed Georgia Southern to stand out. The college, which had 6,200 students in 1978, had trouble marketing itself, and the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia tried to temper Lick’s expectations.

“They kept telling me, ‘Dale, you must understand. You’re going to lose students. You’re not going to grow.’ They kept saying that, particularly when they were talking budgets,” Lick said. “The chancellor told me that there are two crazy things colleges do. They start a medical school and they put in a football program when they don’t have one.”

Lick kept exploring football anyway, talking to other schools about the sport, and the idea gained momentum.

“I remember the comments of one president who dropped football and brought it back,” Lick said, “I said to him, ‘Why would you do that?’ He said, ‘Well, we couldn’t afford to have football, then we learned we couldn’t afford not to have football.’

“I just decided that we had to do something to break out of the confines that we were in by being in south Georgia and having a chancellor and a board that wasn’t really pro south Georgia. I just decided it was a go.”

On one condition.

“If people wanted it,” Lick added. “I decided if we could raise $300,000, it was a go. If we couldn’t, people didn’t really want it.”

Lick, Wagner and Mandes began fundraising, and rather than raising hundreds of thousands, they raised millions.

“There’s no way we would have ever had football without the guts of Dale Lick,” Mandes said.

‘We need a coach’

It started as a joke.

From 1964-1980, Erk Russell was the defensive coordinator of the Georgia Bulldogs, so when Georgia Southern started looking for a coach to rebuild a program that was dormant since 1941, nobody was really serious when they said, “Why not him?”

But Lick was serious.

“One of Bucky Wagner’s jobs was to go to the athletic director at Georgia (Vince Dooley) and ask for permission to talk to Erk Russell,” Lick said. “They had just won the national championship, so (Dooley) laughingly said, ‘Sure, you can talk to Erk Russell. No problem.’ Anyway, we did.”

Lick said Russell was looking for a new challenge, so, in a move that made waves across the state of Georgia, he ended up deciding to take the job.

“My good friend Lewis Grizzard, a big columnist, was sitting on an airplane,” Mandes said. “He saw an Atlanta Journal-Constitution on the seat, and saw, ‘Russell to go to Southern.’ He stormed into the pilot’s cabin saying, ‘I’ve got to use your phone!’ The pilot said, ‘You need to go sit down.’ Lewis said, ‘You don’t know how important this is, there’s mutiny going on down in Georgia! I’ve got to get in there.’”

‘We need to grow’

After Georgia Southern had its first football practice in 1981, Lick asked Russell what he thought about the team.

“They’re not very good, but they’re slow,” Lick laughingly recalled Russell’s response.

That didn’t stop the Eagles from bursting onto the college football scene, winning the program’s first I-AA national title in 1985.

Lick’s dream was coming to fruition as the college started to explode with growth that would lead to university status in 1990.

Lick asked one member of his staff how to capitalize on the football team’s success.

“He said, ‘We don’t need to worry about anything, and things are going to go well.’ It meant a significant increase in applicants in a significant increase in quality students,” Lick said. “That fall, we had three times as many applicants with high SAT scores as we ever had before. We put in a marching band, and the number of music majors doubled that fall.”

Lick was also working hard to start a nursing program, which currently ranks as one of the top 20 in the nation.

“Now it is one of the really wonderful examples of nursing in rural America,” Lick said. “We wanted to help the people of south Georgia. I think we did that, and the university is continuing to do that.”

The future

Wagner, who served as GSC’s AD from 1981-1995, remembers the first time Georgia Southern played the Florida Gators. The Eagles had just won their first national title, quarterback Tracy Ham was one of the country’s most exciting players and expectations were high.

Georgia Southern had played in front of a crowd larger than 20,000 only once. There were 74,221 at the Swamp on Aug. 30, 1986, and the Gators won, 38-14.

“Our boys were so tight,” Wagner said. “Tracy fumbled the first three snaps, and the Gators ended up wearing us down.”

On Nov. 23, 2013, things were different, and Georgia Southern’s win over the Gators, Wagner said, couldn’t have happened at a better time. The Eagles open the 2014 season at N.C. State, and also face Navy and Georgia Tech before beginning Sun Belt play.

“There’s no way the timing could have been better,” Wagner said. “Now, our people can say, alright, we’ve got North Carolina State, Navy, Georgia Tech, well, let’s go get ’em.”

Wagner, who was the AD when Georgia Southern played in the Trans America Athletic Conference and guided the football team as an independent into Division I-AA, always saw the Eagles playing at the highest level. In the 1980s, the timing was bad because there was no conference affiliation for the GSC football team.

“You have windows of opportunity,” Wagner said. “Our problem at that time was that we couldn’t play anybody at home. When you’re not in a conference, you’re not guaranteed anything at home, so we’d have played two at home, two more nobody’s ever heard of and seven on the road. We just weren’t ready to do that. We thought, well, let’s play in 15 games a year and play in the championship until something opens up.”

The Eagles joined the Southern Conference in 1991 and remained in the SoCon when a spot in the Sun Belt opened up for Troy in 2004 and Florida Atlantic in 2005.

“When the Sun Belt opened up before, I thought the move should have happened at that time,” Wagner said. “Now, there’s leadership that’s very forward thinking and very good.”

Wagner sees the win over Florida as only the beginning of what’s to come for Georgia Southern.

“If you’re playing in the top 25, or you’re playing people who play against the top 25, you have an identity,” Wagner said. “And if you don’t, you might as well be Division III. We dominated the I-AA market, but this is going to be all new for the fans.”

The Florida win, coming on the heels of GSU’s move to the FBS, was just another example of the “stars aligning” to Mandes.

“I said, sitting here thinking about it to myself, that this is a move of our destiny,” Mandes said. “This is the gods looking out for Georgia Southern saying, ‘You can do it. Nothing is impossible.’ That’s how I feel about it.”

    Matt Yogus may be reached at (912) 489-9408.

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