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GSU staying in FCS, Southern Conference for now



Georgia Southern University is not moving up to the Football Bowl Subdivision or leaving the Southern Conference to join another conference anytime soon.

GSU athletics director Sam Baker on Thursday told the Statesboro Herald that the university has had discussions with only one conference - the Sun Belt Conference, whose officials said they are content with 12 members (10 of which play football) after recently adding Georgia State, Texas State and Texas-Arlington.

"We’ve had no conversations (with other FBS conferences)," Baker said. "We reached out just to see what the temperature was in the Sun Belt (Conference)."

The Sun Belt Conference is losing Denver this summer to the Western Athletic Conference. Next summer, North Texas and Florida International will leave for Conference USA. They will be replaced by Georgia State, Texas State and Texas-Arlington.

"We reached out to (Sun Belt) Commissioner (Karl) Benson just to touch base with him just to see what the conference thinking was, and if he had any insights as we go forward," Baker said. "With them bringing on Texas State and Georgia State into the conference they now have 10 football-playing institutions, and then they added Texas-Arlington. So now there are 12 overall. They feel very comfortable with that.

"They just said that right now they’re at the number (of schools) that they’re interested in, and certainly they would keep us in mind as they would a lot of different institutions."


Conference options

Did the Eagles have all of their eggs in the Sun Belt Conference’s basket?

"I don’t know if we had eggs in any basket," Baker said. "We reached out to them because, if you had to look geographically and financially, as far as the budgetary issues, it probably is the one that might work. I think it still remains that people want to have a competitive program. And it still comes down to how you’re going to finance it. If you increase your football scholarships to 85 (up from 63 in the Football Championship Subdivision), we’re going to have to increase our women’s scholarships in a proportionate number because of Title IX. It’s going to be a major economic move. It’s just not football, it’s an entire athletic program."

The Sun Belt Conference appeared to be GSU’s best option at the FBS level, much better than the Western Athletic Conference, which would be a huge financial undertaking because of the travel involved.

Baker said GSU will not join the WAC, even if an invitation is extended, because it is not economically viable for the Eagles.

"The WAC has got some issues," Baker said. "Right now they’ve only got two football programs and I believe five schools overall in the conference after this year. … They’ve been at the brink of being dissolved a few years ago and they came back from the abyss, but I don’t know this time if they can make that."

And GSU can forget about joining Conference USA, at least at this time.

"If you look at the schools that went into Conference USA, they came out of large media markets," Baker said. "I think everybody in the country is where they’re going to be at this moment. I don’t think there’s any conversations going on anywhere about new conferences."

The Colonial Athletic Association, an FCS conference, has extended invitations to SoCon members Davidson and College of Charleston. Is GSU interested in joining the CAA?

"Oh, no. We’re in the Southern Conference," Baker said. "If we’re FCS, this is the conference we’re going to be in."

The CAA lost Georgia State to the Sun Belt Conference, Virginia Commonwealth to the Atlantic 10 Conference and Old Dominion to Conference USA.

"There’s been an invitation from the Colonial to Davidson and Charleston," Baker said. "We’ve not heard, as conference members, where that may lead. It would be hard to tell. I think they both benefit by being in our conference."


Funding must increase

GSU President Brooks Keel in April said the Eagles plan to leave the FCS and the SoCon at some point 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 GSU "move from a regional university to a national university."

Last July, GSU’s Athletic Foundation began a "Soaring to Victory" campaign, an eight-year, five-phase, $36.6 million initiative designed to ensure future athletics success.

Keel said $10 million in signed pledges must be secured before the construction of a 57,000-square-foot Football Operations Center in the east end zone of Paulson Stadium can begin. It is the marquee project of Phase I in the five phases of the "Soaring to Victory" campaign.

The five phases 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).

In April, GSU Athletic Foundation President John Mulherin said $5.1 million in cash and signed pledges had been generated.

On Thursday, Mulherin said the amount has increased to $5.9 million.

"We’ve always said we’re going to do what we have to do to have football at a meaningful level here at Georgia Southern," Baker said. "And we will do everything we need to do to try to do that. But it’s going to mean, if you read the feasibility study, a major influx of money to make it all work. We work very hard right now to live within the budget to make it all work with the budget that we currently have, which is a little over $11 million.

"Right now we’re spending about $3.4 million just on scholarships out of that budget, so it makes it very difficult to have the operational monies we need to do the things to help the program. I feel like we do a good job of trying to manage the funds that we have available to us."

There is no way of knowing how long it might take GSU to move to the FBS and another conference. It might never happen. It all depends on fundraising.

Even leaving a conference costs money. The SoCon’s exit fee is $300,000 if a school gives two years’ notice or more of its intention to leave. The fee is $600,000 if less than two years’ notice is given.

"We’ve got to see how we can fund it," Baker said of a move to the FBS. "We’ve got to do all the steps within the university. It’s not something that is going to happen overnight."

This fall, GSU plans to ask each student to pay an additional $25, raising their activity fee to $190, to help pay for 6,000 more seats at Paulson Stadium.

"We’re talking to the students about a program to fund 6,000 seats for the students," Baker said. "It would be the first major addition to the stadium since the press box was added on to several years ago."

Mulherin said GSU must continue to move forward and do everything it can to attract an FBS conference. If it never happens then at least the Eagles would have one of the best athletics programs at the FCS level.

"What we’re trying to do is put ourselves in the best position possible to take advantage of any opportunities that may come along whenever that opportunity comes along," Mulherin said. "So what you’ve got to do is, it’s sort of like dating a little bit. You want to have a nice haircut. You want your shoes to be polished. And you want to present the best possible image you can present to any potential suitor. And what we’re doing is just making sure that we’re prepared, that we’ve got everything already in place so that we will be attractive to a conference when they come around.

"Regardless if they do or not, we want to do that because it’s the right thing to do for our program."


Noell Barnidge may be reached at (912) 489-9408.