Newly hired Georgia Southern Athletic Director Jared Benko has his both ends of the spectrum since landing his new job - and his official start date is still a week away.
After being introduced during a March 9 press conference, Benko seemed to usher in an incredible run for Georgia Southern teams. The previous weekend - after Benko had already been announced as the school’s new athletic director - had seen GS Baseball notch a sweep while the softball and tennis teams continued great starts to their respective seasons. Just hours after his introductory presser, Benko was in attendance as the GS men’s basketball team rallied for a huge second half comeback in the Sun Belt Conference tournament.
The Eagle baseball team completed a season sweep over No. 2 Georgia with wins on each of the next two nights and the men’s hoops team crushed Georgia State in the Sun Belt quarterfinals on Wednesday night to put all of GS Athletics at a fever pitch.
And less than 24 hours later, it was all gone.
Just after noon on March 12, the Sun Belt announced that it was cancelling the rest of its basketball tournament due to the coronavirus pandemic. Hours later, the NCAA cancelled all spring championships. And any hopes of some ceremonial regular season for spring sports ended the following day as the Sun Belt called off the rest of the year for all sports.
Now Benko is responsible for taking over the athletic department while also dealing with an unprecedented situation that has brought on-field activities to a halt.
“We’ve had several talks with coaches to stress everyone’s best interests,” Benko said during a Tuesday teleconference. “For our athletes, we’re concerned with academics, rehab and mental wellness. At the end of the day, we’re here to provide for them.”
Benko added that he has also been in contact with plenty of Eagle athletes - especially those whose seasons were cut off just weeks into action.
“Obviously, they’re disappointed,” Benko said. “But I’ve been impressed with their ability to understand the big picture. Right now, it’s about looking out for everyone’s safety.”
Once athletics are able to resume, the question on everyone’s mind will be how eligibility is handled. The NCAA has hinted that it is in favor of restoring another year’s eligibility to seniors in spring sports whose careers have currently ended, but there are plenty of questions as to how schools will be able to afford funding scholarships for returning athletes while honoring scholarships pledged to incoming freshmen for the 2020-21 season.
Benko said that the Sun Belt will host a conference call early next week pertaining to how the league will start up athletics once it is deemed safe to do so.
"Schools will be taking a financial loss on a lot of things," Benko said. "In addition to revenue lost during the spring, Sun Belt schools would also be looking at an additional $400-500K to cover spring sports seniors for an additional year."
Benko ended Tuesday’s call with an update on what will be his first hire as the new athletic director.
Men’s basketball coach Mark Byington accepted an offer at James Madison University last week, opening a spot for an Eagle hoops program that has been steadily rising, but that will also be trying to replace six seniors from the 2019-20 squad.
The current state of affairs due to the coronavirus outbreak will likely cause diversions from typical national searches for a new coach, but Benko is confident that Georgia Southern will track down and hire the person best suited to take control of the men’s basketball program.
"There has been a ton of interest in the position alread," Benko said. "We'll have to see about any travel restrictions related to our search, but we're going to get the list down to a small number of great candidates and bring in someone who will continue the trajectory this program has been on in previous seasons."
Benko and Georgia Southern Athletics will continue to release information about future schedules as it becomes available.