Georgia Southern University wants to move its football program to the NCAA’s highest level of competition – the Football Bowl Subdivision, formerly known as Division I-A.
“There’s no question it’s where we want to go,” GSU President Brooks Keel said Thursday.
Georgia Southern officials plan to leave the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA), where the Eagles have won an unprecedented six national championships since 1985, three years after restarting the football program following a 40-year hiatus.
All of the university’s 14 other sports programs already compete at the Division I level but, along with the football program, would leave the Southern Conference for membership in another conference once football moves into the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Keel, who became Georgia Southern’s 12th president Jan. 4, 2010, said the Eagles are “exploring all options” with other conferences. Keel is leading GSU’s attempt to move up because he said he believes the national media exposure GSU would attract by playing football in the FBS, especially games televised by ESPN, 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.”
Moving up to the FBS would require more money. The process of securing the necessary funds has begun and is part of GSU’s “Soaring to Victory” campaign, an eight-year, five-phase, $36.6-million initiative designed to ensure future athletics success.
“It’s the plan with a price tag,” Keel said.
The five phases of the “Soaring to Victory” campaign are Phase I: “Stabilizing the Program” ($15.5 million); Phase II: “Enhancing the Student-Athlete Experience” ($2.85 million); Phase III: “Upgrading Athletic Facilities” ($7.5 million); Phase IV: “Improving the Fan Experience” ($10.5 million) and Phase V: “Expanding the Technology Infrastructure ($275,000).
Phase I, “Stabilizing the Program,” is focused on giving GSU’s football program a recruiting and training advantage over its competition. Also, the effort includes ensuring that coaches in all sports are paid at or above the Southern Conference mid-point to keep good coaches in Statesboro.
“There’s no reason Georgia Southern should be the training ground for good, young coaches,” GSU Athletic Foundation President John Mulherin said Thursday. “If you’ve got a good, young coach, you want to keep them.”
Paul Johnson left for Navy in 2001 after winning two Division I-AA championships. Jeff Monken, after two appearances in the FCS semifinals in his first two years as head coach, is likely to attract lucrative offers from FBS schools.
The marquee project of Phase I is the construction of a 57,000-square-foot Football Operations Center in the east end zone of Paulson Stadium. The multi-purpose facility would house a weight room, sports medicine rooms, locker rooms, coaches’ offices, team meeting rooms, equipment rooms and the university’s football hall of fame.
Georgia Southern’s Athletic Foundation is trying to raise $10 million for the construction of the facility, the single-largest privately funded project in the school’s history.
“We sat down almost two years ago with each one of our coaches and said, ‘What do you need to win a championship every year?” Mulherin said. “They came up with a list. We put a price tag next to it. And we developed a plan to get there.”
Mulherin said the campaign began July 1, 2011, and the GSU Athletic Foundation has generated $5.1 million in cash and signed pledges.
“We have to have $10 million in signed pledges,” Keel said. “And there’s a lot of misconception that if we had 60 percent we could break ground. We’ve got to have 100 percent. And it’s not because of a Board of Regents requirement. This is just business. What bank is going to loan us money to do this unless we can show we’ve got 100 percent of that, basically, in collateral from pledges? That’s just good business sense.
“I don’t want to have a ceremonial groundbreaking and, three years later, we actually start putting bulldozers over there. When we get the $10 million in pledges, we’re going to break ground and get going as quick as possible. And the Board of Regents is not going to be a hold up on this at all. They’ve been very supportive of everything that we do. But they’re good businessmen and women on that board, too. They want to make sure that we’ve got the money pledged to do it.”
Monken, who guided the Eagles to a SoCon championship last season, said a Football Operations Center is “absolutely critical” in order to entice the nation’s best recruits to come to Statesboro.
“My hope is that if we’re playing at the FCS level, we’ll be the best,” Monken said Thursday. “We’ll have the best facility, the best team, the best fans and be the program that everybody at this level points to and says, ‘If you’re going to do it, you need to do it like Georgia Southern.’ If there’s going to be a possibility of us (moving to the FBS), and I hope that we can do that, then we’re going to have to have a facility that is in line with other schools that play at that level. … I hope that we’ll build this so that if we do go to the FBS that it will be in line and as good, or better, as many of the schools at that level.”
Mulherin said many Eagles fans are unfamiliar with the “Soaring to Victory” campaign because a marketing blitz to create awareness has not begun.
“In any capital campaign there’s a silent phase and a public phase,” Mulherin said. “Our plan is, once we hit $6 million, to go into the public phase. I don’t want to go sell a locker sponsorship until I have a building to make sure that locker’s going to go in. You’ve got to be sure that you can fulfill it. Any capital campaign, you’re typically going to get 50 to 75 percent of the money in place before you go to a public phase of the campaign.”
Keel said GSU has received unfair criticism from some fans who question the existence of a plan.
“It’s critical that we have this silent part of the campaign to get the majority of the money already in place,” Keel said. “And now you’re talking about big corporations. Donors and friends of the university who have the wherewithal to commit six, seven figures. That’s the type of persons that we’re talking to right now to get the building done. And then we’re going to be able to let the entire Eagle Nation have a piece of it.”
Keel said a Football Operations Center could be built within a year.
“If we get the funds, it could be built in 12 to 18 months, the typical construction pace to make this all happen,” he said. “But it could take us three years simply because, again, we’ve got to have the money in hand before we can do it. If we’ve got $5.1 (million) in actual signed pledges and cash, and we’ve got $4.9 million in outstanding pledges, if those pledges were to come in the next couple of months, we’d go straight to the Board of Regents. That’s usually a 60-day process. And if they’re comfortable with it — and we’ve been having conversations with the board for over a year now to let them know what we’re doing — then we could break ground during (the 2012) football season.”
Seeking more millions
GSU’s athletics budget is about $12 million, Keel said. To move up to the FBS, GSU will need a minimum of an additional $4.4 million to cover everything from travel expenses to more scholarships if the football team moves from the 63 scholarships in the FCS to 85 scholarships in the FBS.
“It’s going to be a little over $4 million a year,” Keel said. “It’s just plain and simple. To make a move to the FBS, and that’s paying the coaches’ salaries, what the FBS coaches make. New scholarships. Just in football alone we’ll go from 63 to 85 scholarships. And travel. You’re talking about a whole other conference with a larger (geographic) footprint. We can debate what conference is best for us, but regardless it’s going to require travel and $4.4 million is the minimum, and it’s all the sports that will have to be affected by this. It’s not just football. Our volleyball team’s got to travel a lot more, for example. And that ($4.4 million) just keeps us on par with where we are now.”
Keel said Georgia Southern’s athletics budget ranks 95th among the 125 schools in the FCS.
“We’re second from the bottom in the Southern Conference,” he said. “And that’s where we are right now. So just $4.4 million will basically put us at the bottom of the FBS. And that’s not where we want to be, clearly, but that’s the minimum it’s going to take us to move up. So we’ve got to have facilities. We’ve got to have money. And we’ve got to get invited, too.”
On July 30, 2009, GSU released the findings of a feasibility study conducted by the Rosser International Inc., consulting firm, exploring the possibility of moving to FBS.
“The feasibility study showed that we needed $4.4 million in annual increase to our annual operating budget, but we also needed for our facilities to improve if you moved to (the FBS),” GSU athletics director Sam Baker said Thursday. “I’ve always said it’s not a unilateral Sam Baker decision. There isn’t an athletic director in America that can make a decision that we’re going to change a conference or do anything. It’s an institutional decision. It involves the entire university making a decision that this is good for the university and this is what we’re going to do.
“But everything within a university is financial. It’s like any business, whether it’s a newspaper business or running a store in a mall. It comes down to budgets, and there’s not any opportunity to run deficits. I’ve got the fiduciary responsibility to make sure we run it and run it appropriately.”
Baker, who supports moving to the FBS, said it costs $1,200 just to outfit a football player for games and practices.
“Every scholarship costs money,” Baker said. “Our scholarship bill right now is about $3.4 million. That’s money that we’re going to have to pay for those scholarships for all of our student-athletes. That’s why John (Mulherin) and his staff work very hard trying to find new donors, and keep the ones we’ve got, but find new donors to increase our donations.”
In addition to building a Football Operations Center, GSU has plans to expand Paulson Stadium by 6,300 seats and add a new scoreboard. Other facility upgrades include relocating the soccer field and track stadium to where the Eagles’ football practice fields currently are at Beautiful Eagle Creek, and building football practice fields behind Paulson Stadium. Hanner Fieldhouse would be renovated, and some coaches would move from Hanner to the Parrish Center, which would be vacated by football coaches.
“We need the very best facilities so we can to do the very best job we can, and that’s why this Football Operations Center is so important for us,” Keel said. “And that’s important for us whether we decide to move anywhere or not. Our locker room is atrocious. It’s embarrassing. It’s so embarrassing we don’t even take our recruits to show them. It’s awful, by any standard. It’s just awful. It’s rusted out. It’s dim. It’s dark. I wouldn’t want to take my mother in there, that’s for sure. I think we’re doing our players a huge disservice. And that’s not our fault. We’ve just not had the resources to do something with that.”
Shopping for a new conference
Keel said GSU’s plan to move to the FBS is not a knee-jerk reaction to Georgia State University accepting an invitation earlier this month to join the Sun Belt Conference on July 1, 2013. Georgia State plays its third football season this fall.
Keel and Baker both said GSU is “exploring all options” with other conferences but they declined to name those conferences.
“Obviously, to make a move like this, there’s a tremendous amount of activity that goes on behind the scenes. No question about that,” Keel said. “Both from the conference point of view and from our point of view. There are a lot of things that have to fall into place in order for this to happen. We’re exploring every option we possibly can. It wouldn’t be appropriate to comment. It wouldn’t be appropriate for the conferences to comment about their business with us either.”
Risk and reward
Keel said becoming a lower-tier program in the FBS instead of remaining a powerhouse in the FCS is a concern, “but I’m also worried about keeping our coaches.”
Keel is confident GSU can avoid becoming a doormat in the FBS.
“To take the university to the next level, regardless of what you think about it, the national exposure that you have with the FBS is far and away better than the FCS,” he said. “No one gets excited, no one nationally (about the FCS). The NCAA doesn’t get excited about the FCS championship game. If you ask anybody in the country, ‘Who’s playing in the national championship football game?’ last year, what would they tell you? ‘LSU and Alabama.’ That wasn’t a championship game! That was a bowl game! The championship game was the FCS game that took place in Frisco, Texas. I have a hard time getting people to know where Frisco, Texas is. Does anybody even know who played in that thing? Even our own fans would not be excited unless we were playing in it.
“It’s hard for us to get an ESPN, big-exposure game, playing in the FCS. Even when we almost beat Alabama (last season), that really wasn’t a very highly televised game. So from an exposure point of view, even if we were a Troy or whatever, we’d get a heck of a lot more exposure. I mean, you see Troy on TV. You see the University of Louisiana-Lafayette on TV. You see UL-Monroe on TV. You don’t see Georgia Southern on TV. And I think a university that’s 20,000 students, with as much reputation as we now have, outstanding academics, moving research forward in a major way, we’ve got to get out of South Georgia because I don’t think we can effectively do our job in South Georgia unless we have a national reputation and exposure.”
Monken said the ambitious plan reminds him of the vision former Georgia Southern President Dale Lick and legendary coach Erk Russell shared to resurrect the football program despite opposition (the faculty senate voted against it) and build Paulson Stadium for $4.7 million in the early 1980s.
“I hope that every Eagle fan, everybody that loves Georgia Southern, will see what an impact this is going to make on not only our football program but our university for decades to come,” Monken said. “When you do things like this, when you build buildings like this that are going to be there for lots of people to see, 20,000 people, six, seven, eight times a year on Saturday afternoons, graduations, concerts, just the pride of seeing that building and that stadium that this community built from nothing — didn’t have a football program and now we’ve got Paulson Stadium, one of the prettiest stadiums in America — it will be a source of pride for everybody.
“We need Eagles fans, Eagle Nation, to give what they can and realize the impact they’ll make with a gift, however big or small that may be. Just as people gave in 1984 to see Paulson Stadium be built. There are a lot of people who gave. Times were tough. The economy wasn’t great. They did it then, and we need to do it again. And I’m excited and confident. I believe in the Eagle Nation, that they’re going to see that this is something that we need to do, and they’re going to answer the call.”
Noell Barnidge can be reached at (912) 489-9408.