It’s been a trying time for first year Georgia Southern athletic director Jared Benko. He entered in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, and things haven’t gotten much easier since then.
Benko has tried his best to put a positive spin on all the hurdles he has had to try and overcome. The biggest could be in the not to distant horizon though, as Benko and his staff try and navigate the complexities of planning for a football season, that may or may not happen.
“We are trying our best to make lemonade with the lemons we have been given,” Benko said. “I like to use analogies, and right now I’d say we are like a plane flying above Hartsfield-Jackson International airport in Atlanta waiting on the okay to land.”
“We’ve got all the internal plans in place, but we don’t know when that is going to be,” Benko said. “All we can do is control what we can control, and we are expecting to hear more in the next week or two.”
Some decisions have already been made. The Sun Belt conference made a decision last week to push all fall sports back to September 3rd. The conference released a statement saying that the delay will allow conference members additional time to implement protocols for a safe return to competition.
“A month ago, I felt better about all this than I did a week ago,” Benko said. “We are always going to do what is in the best interest of our student athletes, and our fans. Part of that is not being tethered to a specific date. We have plans in place, but this is definitely a fluid deal.”
Many more decisions will be out of Benko’s hands. If the Sun Belt Conference decides to go with a conference only schedule. If the Mountain West or SEC conferences decide to go conference only, that could eliminate the Boise State, or Ole Miss games. If the Ole Miss game was cancelled the Eagle could stand to lose approximately $1.4 million.
“The Boise series is a home and home. Ideally we could just move that game back to Boise and keep that series, with them returning here,” Benko said. “The Ole Miss game is a guarantee pay off for us, so we are working to see what we can do. The good thing is that game is in November, and I feel like it’s much better to have those guarantee games in the back end of the schedule instead of the front end.”
“What the Power Five conferences do will have a huge impact on what we do,” Benko said. “If the SEC makes a decision to not play out of conference games, it starts a domino effect. That’s what makes it so complex. We can talk about starting points, but if your opponents go in a different direction, that can leave a hole.”
“I think in the next 5-10 days there will be a lot of activity. I don’t think it’s going to be stretched over a week, I think a couple of announcements will happen, and then things will go pretty quick.”
Another big question is what happens if there are a number of positive tests on a team? Will there be a forfeit, or a cancellation? That is one of the many scenarios athletic directors are playing out.
“When we start testing, who knows if we will run into a kind of Miami Marlins situation (The Marlins had 15 players and two staff members test positive).” Benko said. “We hope nothing like that happens to any team, but this is a fluid situation and things can change rapidly.”
As far as the home schedule goes, the Eagles are putting things in place for social distancing at Paulson Stadium, as well as the tailgate area.
“These is going to be a seating capacity piece that will probably come down from the state saying we are allowing a certain percentage of people at a venue,” Benko said. “The social distancing component is a little tougher. If there has to be six feet distance, that is really going to limit seating. It knocks out seats, and knocks out rows as well.”
“The social distancing component is what we are focusing on,” Benko said. “We are going to try and do things to open up capacity, like opening up the hills for seating and repurpose some areas for seating.”
If the decision comes to limit seating to say 5,000 how will Georgia Southern determine who will fill those seats?
“It will be a combination of lifetime giving, season ticket holders and students,” Benko said. “The best thing about Eagle Nation is its members. Once we figure out our capacity number we will do our best to get as many members of Eagle Nation in there as possible. Our student body is a huge home field advantage, so we need to make sure we have their best interests in mind as well.”
While the days ahead are filled with anxiety Benko feels there has been some positive things that have come out of the trying times Georgia Southern has been going through.
“I feel like there has been a locking of arms on campus,” Benko said. “Under Dr. Marrero’s leadership, we are all working together. There is an alignment from the top on down. In a regular situation you can get caught up in your own things, but when you are working through a pandemic we are talking to people all over campus every day of the week. That is the kind of thing you need to put your best foot forward in a University.”