After 132 days of searching for a director of athletics, Georgia Southern University President Brooks Keel introduced Tom Kleinlein, the deputy athletic director at Kent State University, Monday evening at a press conference in the Nessmith-Lane Conference Center.
Kleinlein will replace Sam Baker, who resigned from the GSU director of athletics position on July 27 after 17 years in the role.
Throughout the day Monday, Kleinlein and Chris Kingston, the senior associate director of athletics at North Carolina State University, interviewed for the position.
The two candidates were chosen from a pool of eight, who were interviewed off-campus.
A search committee of faculty, staff, student-
athletes and community members aided the athletic director search.
“We were all on the same page,” said GSU baseball coach Rodney Hennon, the only Georgia Southern coach on the committee. “We felt really good about the two candidates that we brought in and felt like we had two outstanding options, but at the end of the day we felt like Tom Kleinlein is the best fit for Georgia Southern, where we’re at right now and where we’re headed.”
Kleinlein began the day unsure whether or not he would be the one introduced in the press conference with a new job.
“I didn’t know it,” said Kleinlein, who was accompanied by his wife, Tara, at the introduction. “When I woke up (Monday) morning, I said that I was going to come out here and talk to people and, like anything, it’s a competition. I was going to give it my best shot and sit down and be me, talk about what I can bring to this institution. At the end of the day, the two visions really meshed and we came together.”
Perhaps the biggest task for Kleinlein will be taking the reins in the push to join a Football Bowl Subdivision conference and play football at the highest collegiate level.
GSU students recently voted to approve fee increases for a proposed seating addition to Paulson Stadium and FBS funding, and the fees are still awaiting approval from the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents. Still, Georgia Southern’s goal is clear.
“Our goal and our vision for this institution is to be on the FBS level,” Kleinlein said. “What I’ve been hired to do is to figure out how we’re going to get there as quickly as we can get there, and what’s the road map to get us there.”
Kleinlein said he and Keel quickly discovered they shared the same vision.
“When you sit down with the leader of the institution and you hear his vision, and his vision is in line with what you want to do, it’s music to your ears as an athletic director,” Kleinlein said. “Now (Keel) wants to take the athletic department and use that to drive the great things that are going on here on this campus. At the same time, you also know that it’s his vision and it’s his goal, so you’d better get it done.”
The move to FBS would impact all Georgia Southern sports, and the coaches of each sport seem to be on the same page as Keel and Kleinlein.
“The most important thing is that it’s the right thing for the university,” said men’s basketball coach Charlton Young, who was on hand for the press conference. “It’s the right thing for us to evolve. If you don’t evolve, you take the risk of becoming extinct. We have a great product, a gold mine. If you look at 20 years ago when I was in college here, we were pounding Middle Tennessee State and Marshall and Central Florida. Fast forward 25 years later and those schools are looking down on us, playing in major bowl games. At some point you’ve got to evolve, or you become extinct. You can ask the Walkman or the record player. You don’t see them anymore. I’m very excited that we’re taking that step.”
The Eagles can’t move to an FBS conference without an invitation, but Keel is confident Kleinlein is the right person to get one.
“He’s got an experience base that can take us anywhere,” Keel said. “If FBS is in our future, he can clearly get us there quickly.”
Football coach Jeff Monken also was on hand for the introduction.
“I knew Dr. Keel would find the right person for this job,” Monken said. “This is an important hire for our university. I’m excited to have Tom in place, and to be able to move in a new direction under his leadership.”
Kleinlein said he expects to begin work at Georgia Southern full-time starting Jan. 1, but will be involved with the department while finishing his duties at Kent State.
“As much as I can be back and forth the next couple of weeks, I’m going to try to be here as much as I can,” Kleinlein said. “I’ve got the personality where I’m going to want to sink my teeth in here, but there are some things I need to clear up there as well.”
Since Kleinlein’s arrival in 2010, Kent State’s football team has improved from 5-7 to 9-1, 6-0 Mid-American Conference so far this season. The 25th-ranked Golden Flashes could play in a bowl game for the first time in 40 years.
Kleinlein played football at Wake Forest from 1989-92. He coached high school football before taking on his first administrative role at Wake Forest as an academic consular in 1998.
“He’s a very complete candidate -- a former coach, a former player, and an administrator,” Young said. “It was very clear from the interview process that he understood the importance in making sure the entire department moves forward. One thing I will say is that Sam Baker’s 17 years of service did a great job of bringing us to this point.”
Matt Yogus may be reached at (912) 489-4908.