Since the surprising announcement Friday that Georgia Southern University's director of athletics Sam Baker is relinquishing his duties, university President Brooks Keel has started looking to the future.
Baker was not in attendance when Keel met with the media Monday morning to discuss the next steps and declined to comment, according to a GSU spokesperson. Though no timetable was mentioned, and Baker will remain director of athletics until a replacement is named, Keel has big plans for the next Georgia Southern AD.
"This is a very, very important decision," Keel said. "We'll use a national search firm to help identify the best candidates. This will be a national search in every sense of the word. There is no short list. I don't have a favorite, select person out there waiting in the wings. We're going to get the very best person from across this country we can find. I think this is going to be an incredibly attractive position for a young, aggressive, assertive, dynamic, exciting individual to come and lead this program forward."
Keel said the national search would be conducted by a "small but inclusive" committee. He said it would include faculty, staff, student-athletes and the community. Baker will not directly participate in the search, according to Keel.
Baker will remain with the university as special assistant to the president. Keel said Baker will remain involved in the athletic department's academics and facility enhancements.
Keel said that among the duties of the new director of athletics, fundraising would be "huge, absolutely huge."
Keel added: "The next athletic director will not only have the highest ethical standards you can imagine - we'll never have a Penn State (child abuse controversy) at this university, for example - and this individual will also have to care deeply about the student-athlete. Academics is the most important thing here. We always talk about football and athletics, but academics is the most important. That individual will have to have those two primary characteristics. After that, the individual will not only have to want to do fundraising, but will have to have a propensity for fundraising and have to have the skill set to do fundraising. That requires a very public individual, someone who's seen by the public a lot."
Fundraising will become all the more crucial if Georgia Southern gets invited to join a Football Bowl Subdivision conference in the future, and leaves the Football Championship Subdivision to place all sports at the highest level of NCAA competition.
"Sam and I have talked about moving to the FBS since I interviewed here two-and-a-half, almost three years ago now," said Keel. "He and I both knew the single biggest hurdle for us to get over is financial. Sam has had to work with a budget that is very much below many of the other teams that we have to compete with. Our budget is ranked 95th out of 125 FCS teams in football. We're second to the bottom in the Southern Conference, and we've all been struggling with that sort of thing. We both knew that to make this move was going to be a financial decision, and that's why you're seeing a lot of discussion we're having about trying to raise the $4.4 million it's going to take to do it."
Keel stressed the importance of athletics for the university as a whole.
"Regardless of whether you support athletics or whether you think athletics are important, athletics are a huge component of any major university," said Keel. "I emphasize the word major. Georgia Southern is a major university. We're trying to move us from a regional university to a national university. There is no way you can do that without making sure that the athletic programs you have here are of equal quality to the academic programs, to the research programs, to the service programs that you have at a university like this. Athletics plays a huge role. I've used the analogy many, many times that athletics are the front porch of the university."
Keel also addressed fans of GSU athletics who have been unhappy with Baker's 17-year tenure as Georgia Southern's director of athletics.
"I think whenever you get to a position of that public stature, there's always going to be a faction of folks that want you gone, and there's always going to be a faction of folks that wants you there forever," said Keel. "That's true for our current athletic director. That's true of the current president of this university, I can assure you. When you're in a position as long as (Baker), you're certainly going to have your supporters, and you're going to have your detractors. Sam's no different from anybody else in this country who has been in a high-level position like that for as long as he has."
Matt Yogus may be reached at (912) 489-9408.