Georgia Southern Director of Athletics Jared Benko was hired in March of 2020 and was immediately thrown into chaos.
Not only did he have to hire a new head men’s basketball coach and try and acclimate to a new school, but just over a week after his hiring came news from the NCAA that college athletics would be shutting down due to the COVID pandemic.
Instead of complaining Benko rolled with each and every punch thrown his way and not only kept the Eagle athletic department on track, but actually improved things despite a global pandemic.
Georgia Southern Athletics showed gains in the classrooms, in fundraising and on the field as well as the Eagles placed 151st nationally in the Learfield Cup Standings.
“The Learfield Cup Standings is a way for us to look at how competitive we are across the board in all sports across the country,” said Benko. “That is the highest we have finished since 2012. We had a good year, but we want to have better years. We finished with a 3.04 cumulative GPA so academically and athletically we are on an upward trajectory. We also exceeded several fundraising goals in a COVID environment, so I really feel like our best days are ahead.”
In addition to navigating COVID issues, Benko was also busy with finding replacements for five different coaches at Georgia Southern who have chosen to part ways with the school. The success of the hirings in many cases is yet to be seen, but Benko has increased Eagle coaches' salaries and their pedigree is pretty impressive.
“The fit that I was able to do with hiring when I was in the SEC is what I’m trying to do here at Georgia Southern,” said Benko. “We are trying to hire who I hired when in the SEC. When you look at our five recent hires four out of the five have experience coaching on the Power-5 level. The only one who doesn’t is women’s soccer coach Chris Adams who has over 200 wins with arguably the top program in D-2 women's soccer in the country.”
“All of our coaches are also driven to help our student athletes succeed in the classroom as well,” said Benko “It’s not going to always happen overnight, and some hires may take a couple years to really get going but I believe when you look across our department to our head coaches' rooms, we are getting significantly better.”
The Eagles have over $68 million for facilities projects over the next three years headlined by a $56 million convocation center which will also be the site for Eagle basketball games, as well as an indoor practice facility.
The convocation center is scheduled to get underway in the first or second quarter of 2022,” said Benko. “We have a good cross-section of people on campus that are currently designing that right now. The indoor practice facility will benefit all 17 sports. We are getting close on that to be able to roll it out for the public very soon and have had a lot of momentum on that recently.”
With fall quickly approaching like many Eagle fans Benko is excited about the 2021 football season which currently has no COVID restrictions allowing for maximum capacity at Paulson Stadium.
“Our ticket sales are approaching record levels,” said Benko. “This should be arguably our toughest home schedule ever. We have made 17 stops on our Eagle Club tour and excitement seems to be at an all-time high. Some of the excitement I’m sure is getting back to some semblance of returning to normal. Right now, there are no seating restrictions, so our goal is to pack out Paulson Stadium.”
“We are continuing to try and make the game day experience better,” said Benko. “There is so much rich tradition and history at Paulson Stadium but there is no reason we can’t make that experience better. Last year we had to deal with so much due to COVID restrictions so we had to invest a lot of time with that so this year will be more like what I had envisioned when taking over last year.”
The Eagles open the season Sept. 4 at home against Gardner Webb which is one of six home games this year. For ticket information call 1-800-GSU-WINS or visit gseagles.com