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GSU Football to I-A: What does it mean for basketball?
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    It’s almost 2008, the year in which Georgia Southern has decided it will put numbers behind all the talk.
    Sometime after the New Year, the university will commission an outside firm to conduct a feasibility study on potentially moving the football program from the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) to the Football Bowl Subdivision (I-A). Whether or not the school should upgrade its highest-profile sport has been widely discussed among Eagle fans for decades.
    Though the move specifically applies to football, the impacts would be significant for the entire athletic department.
    What effects would it have on men’s basketball?
    “The football move is great for basketball because of the visibility,” said Don Maestri, men’s basketball coach at FBS member Troy University for the last 25 years. “You are going to be a lot more visible with your football program at I-A.”

Conferences and recruiting
    If Georgia Southern decides to elevate its football status, the success of men’s basketball would depend greatly on which conference the Eagles joined, GSU coach Jeff Price said.
    If the school moved to the Sun Belt — a lower-tier FBS conference — he believes his team could compete right away. Most of this season the Southern Conference has been ahead of the Sun Belt in the Ratings Percentage Index, a national ranking based on winning percentage and strength of schedule. Conference USA — a midrange FBS league — is ranked significantly higher than both the SoCon and Sun Belt.
    “I think we are an equal basketball-wise with the Sun Belt particularly right now,” Price said. “Obviously if you are talking about a bigger league (than the Sun Belt) it would impact things in a different way where you would have to turn it up a notch from all aspects.”
    When it comes to recruiting, young players are most interested in conferences and how high they’re rated, Price said. Though the SoCon is ranked better than the Sun Belt and has what Price considers superior talent, the Sun Belt is perceived as better, he said.
    “Everything in this business is pretty much based on recruiting,” Price said.
    “You are going to be as good as your recruiting is. The Sun Belt — for whatever reason — from a name standpoint, has basketball recognition.”
    The Eagles recruit Florida heavily, and Price’s efforts in the Sunshine State have been affected by Central Florida, Florida Atlantic, Florida International and South Florida joining the FBS in recent years.
    “We used to be able to beat those schools in recruiting for basketball,” Price said. “Because they have all made the (FBS) move they went to different conferences besides the Atlantic Sun where they were, it has made it a little tougher for us to recruit.
    “We (used to) pull (former stars) Julius Jenkins, Frank Bennett, Terry Williams and those type of players out of Florida. Now the Sun Belt is recruiting those types of kids, and it’s not as easy to (get them to sign with GSU). There are many kids out there who would rather play for the worst team in the SEC than the best team in the Southern Conference.”
    Central Florida jumped to the FBS in 1996, and its basketball programs left the Atlantic Sun for Conference USA in 2005. That’s a pretty big leap, but the Knights were fortunate and have enjoyed a smooth transition. Against tougher competition, coach Kirk Speraw’s already successful program continued winning, and he garnered league coach of the year honors last season following his team’s second-place finish in its second season in C-USA. But it wasn’t a cakewalk for everybody at UCF.
    “That’s a very difficult transition to be competitive on a nightly basis and in recruiting, and it has been for all of our sports,” said Speraw, who is in his 15th year with the Knights. “We felt it was probably a four or five-year timetable for us to be in the upper half of Conference USA. Our progress was much faster than what we thought it might be. To be competitive in one of the eight or nine top conferences in the country, you’ve got to recruit at that level.”
    At Troy, the Trojans are working to be successful in the Sun Belt since departing the A-Sun following the 2003-04 season. Troy’s football team became a full-fledged FBS member in 2002.
    “We’ve been competitive, but we’re hopefully on the verge of turning the corner,” Maestri said. “But it takes time. You just can’t do it overnight. You have to have some patience. We have a great administration that supports us and knows the difficulty in moving up in conferences.”
When it comes to perception

    Though Division I’s subdivisions only apply to football, other athletic programs at FCS schools have to battle preconceived notions that they also belong to a lower rank. Even well-versed sports fans and media have trouble with the distinction.
    “We’ve educated most people, but we still have to deal with it some,” Price said. “We’ve learned to fight that and have pretty much overcome it. That’s something that’s out of our control.”
    Speraw said UCF’s move to the FBS gave the football Knights more television time, which created a heightened awareness, particularly on a national level, for the university and all of its athletic programs. That knowledge pays dividends on the recruiting trail.
    “Prospects that maybe wouldn’t know anything about your school might have caught a football game somewhere, so their interest would be there more so than if you didn’t have a football program on TV and getting that kind of exposure,” Speraw said. “Our football team has been on ESPN four times this year. That kind of exposure for your university and your programs is hard to get, and that’s what we’ve grown to over the past few years.”

Possible negatives
    In Speraw’s eyes, the only potential negative consequence of a football move would be if budgets for other sports are limited while money flows exclusively to football. That doesn’t currently happen at UCF, although it has in the past, specifically when the school moved from Division II to D-I in the early 1980s.
    “The investment in football happened, and it’s paid off for us,” he said. “All of us are now benefiting from what football has been able to do, but there was a time where we were held steady and not able to grow because of the investment that needed to happen for football.
    “In the short term, it is a huge financial investment. If it’s at the expense of other sports, then those programs might suffer and it could slow their progress. At the same time, if football becomes a money-maker, it’s a huge benefit financially for all sports. Certainly your community is going to have to step up. There are very few programs in the country that are making money in athletics, but if you can get your football program to bring in revenue it can certainly help all sports.”
    Over at Troy, Maestri doesn’t think a football upgrade could negatively impact basketball or any other program.
    “We’ve been fortunate,” he said. “We’ve always had a strong football program here as Georgia Southern has. I think having a strong football program helps basketball. It sets the tone for the school year.”

    Alex Pellegrino can be reached at (912) 489-9413.