The last time the Georgia Southern football team was seen in action, the Eagles were celebrating at midfield. It was the Dec. 23 GoDaddy Bowl and the Eagles had just unleashed a 58-27 pasting of the Mid-American Conference champions from Bowling Green in front of a national audience.
It's safe to say that the program's current standing in the college football world is as far away as it has ever been from its modest beginnings.
Practice fields that normally served as tennis courts, double-wides that doubled as coaches offices and hand-me-down equipment marked the birth of Georgia Southern football, which has now grown into a team that competes at the highest level and is quickly making a name for itself in places far outside of Georgia.
While the winning helps that cause, it was the behind-the-scenes work that set up Georgia Southern to succeed and to do so as quickly as it did.
Former president Dr. Dale Lick, former athletic director Bucky Wagner and legendary coach Erk Russell formed the face of Eagle football as the program restarted in the 80s, but the work of Morris Lupton - a community member who simply believed in the program and what it could become - has played just as big a role in the team's history.
That support has now come full-circle as Lupton will be presented with the Erk Russell Spirit Award by the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame later this month. The award is presented annually to a person who embodies the spirit and enthusiasm that Russell brought to coaching.
With more than three decades of tireless support and giving, there is no doubt that Lupton is a deserving recipient.
"Receiving this award is an incredible honor for me," Lupton said. "Georgia Southern has really grown and achieved some great things. But I don't think they'd be where they are without Erk Russell.
"Erk is the one who really got the Georgia Southern name out there. To be linked to him in this award is a great honor for me."
Lupton's involvement with building Georgia Southern football goes far deeper than simply cutting a check or providing some services. He was fighting for the team's life prior to it even being officially reborn and before Russell was in the picture. When proposals were initially made to restart football at Georgia Southern, the majority of the school was against it.
Lupton - having already been a key supporter for the Southeast Bulloch High School team - knew the kind of impact a winning team could have on a community. He was one of just a few to push back against the resistance and backed up his beliefs with sizeable promises of financial and physical support.
A knock on the door
One day, those many years ago, as he prepared for a normal day of work overseeing his Time Saver convenience stores, opportunity literally came knocking on Lupton's door.
"On the day of ‘A Day for Southern,' I was reading the paper and the headline was that Dr. Lick would take a look at starting football," Lupton said. "It wasn't two minutes later that two gentlemen from the foundation were at my office.
"Until that point, I had never even set foot on the campus, but I told them to get word back to Dr. Lick about what I'd be willing to do to get football started."
When a study claimed that the school would need $250,000 to get a football program up and running, Lupton dove right in, promising $25,000. He also wanted to ensure that fans would be in attendance, so he pledged to buy 100 season tickets and donated half of his free time for the purpose of participating in events and efforts to drum up more support for the fledgling program.
Many people are to be commended for opening up their wallets to lend a hand, and it has taken 36 years of such generosity from thousands of Georgia Southern supporters to get the Eagles to where they are today.
But the real visionaries and agents of change like Lupton are the ones who see the bigger picture. To Lupton, simply starting up a football team wasn't going to be enough if that team wasn't also given the means to grow and be great.
After getting the Statesboro community on board with Eagle football, Lupton led the fundraising charge out of Bulloch County, spreading the seeds of GSU's early fan base and boosters across the state.
"I originally went to two people I knew in Statesboro and was turned down by both," Lupton said. "So I decided to talk to other people I knew up in Atlanta. I heard from some in town that people wouldn't make that trip. Maybe they wouldn't do it for every basketball or baseball game, but I was betting that they'd make the trip and support the program for five or six games in a football season. That's what happened and that's how things started to grow."
Vision for expansion
An original plan for a stadium would have seated 10,000 with the stands all on one side in what is now the Herty Pines Nature Preserve next to J.I. Clements Stadium. Lupton, however, pressed for a larger stadium site that would allow for expansion as the program's popularity grew. That larger site turned into the current Paulson Stadium and GSU fans recently saw that predicted growth as a mid-deck was added to the north stands in 2014.
"I think Dr. Lick's secretary had a lot to do with that because she was pretty fond of those trees," Lupton joked. "I knew about some land (at Paulson Stadium's current location) and after talking to Bucky and Dr. Lick, we decided to move forward with that."
To top off the larger stadium, Lupton also put in the financial means and part of the physical effort to build a locker room and a booster entertainment venue behind one of the end zones. The former Lupton Building has since been replaced by the larger Bishop Building, but still serves the same purpose and - just as Lupton had envisioned - has grown along with the program to provide the football team with everything they need to compete and succeed against the best.
"When Erk got here, we were still playing at Statesboro High," Lupton said. "He told me that he needed a stadium, and that - if he got that - he'd get the team going.
"I told him that I'd help with that and that I'd never question his coaching so long as he never tried to run one of my (Time Saver) stores. I think that arrangement worked out pretty well."
Roots of success
As current GSU head coach Tyson Summers remarked on the latest recruiting class two weeks ago, he had plenty to say about the peripherals that contribute to the allure of Georgia Southern football. He noted that the recruits might have two and three-star ratings, but that the school's facilities and atmosphere are four and five-star. Today's modern amenities have been built, torn down and rebuilt since the early days of the program, but much of what the program has become can be directly traced back to the initial efforts of Lupton.
Someone must have forgotten to tell Lupton that monetary support and a burning desire isn't enough to succeed in the cutthroat business of college football. Then again, the same could be said about Russell, who likely could have taken a head coaching job with an already-established championship squad, but instead chose to build his own from scratch.
The two are both unique in their ability to create something - and a great something, at that - from nothing.
It's fitting that, through Lupton's award, these two cornerstones of Georgia Southern Football will now permanently be linked in the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame.
Mike Anthony is sports editor for the Statesboro Herald. He may be reached at (912) 489-9408.