Just a few hours after this piece makes its debut, Georgia Southern University—in this case personified by University President Brooks Keel and Athletic Director Tom Kleinlein—will announce the school’s intention to make a move to a new conference, the Sun Belt, and in the process a long-long-long-anticipated move to college football’s biggest division, the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). The Stonebrook Institute, acting as The Sunday Eagle on a Tuesday, has scoured the Internets and social media for facts and opinions about the university’s big step. In the hopes of sparking conversation before and after the big press conference at 9 a.m. Wednesday, many of the points posed by both pro-move and anti-move proponents are presented here in a question-and-answer form. Like the longstanding debate over the status of Georgia Southern’s football program, athletics department and the institution of Georgia Southern as a whole, this debate may not entirely proceed in the direction one might expect.
This is the worst-kept secret in the history of Georgia Southern athletics, isn’t it?
Yes and no. As President, Keel has been keen on pushing Georgia Southern into the FBS since he stepped on campus. The student body voted to increase fees to support the expensive move in the fall and Kleinlein was hired with a mandate to make the athletic department grow and improve. Also, the Sun Belt is the lowest entity in the FBS conference hierarchy with any proximity to Georgia Southern and began hemorrhaging schools as bigger conferences started consolidating the most powerful football-playing programs into super-conferences, creating a domino effect in which the Sunbelt was the last tile to fall. So, no. The move is hardly a surprise.
The unknowns surround just who else would be joining the Eagles in the Sunbelt. Apparently, Appalachian State is also making the jump, preserving the best rivalry either school has going. Other names, like New Mexico State and Idaho, are also floating around as “football only” members of the conference.
It isn’t that the announcement is a big surprise. But some of the emerging details could still be coming.
Is the Sun Belt the best fit for Georgia Southern?
Not if you believe the Eagles have no business taking their program to the FBS level.
I believe the Eagles should be in the FBS. Now is the Sun Belt a good fit?
As good as you’ll get right away. In fact, as it is constituted right now, it’s actually pretty divine. Keeping the rivalry with Appalachian State—as well as having a twin sister for the move up—is a stroke of good fortune (and probably a lot of inter-institutional emails and meetings, if we’re honest). The nascent Georgia State program is a member of the Sun Belt, giving Georgia Southern (1) an in-state rival, (2) an in-state rival with a new (and so far spectacularly unsuccessful) football program the Eagles should be able to treat like a red-headed stepchild for a decade or more, provided the Eagles don’t take the stepchild in question for granted and (3) a home game in Atlanta for GSU alumni living in that area. Okay, technically it would be a GaState home game, but let’s not fool ourselves.
Also, Troy is team the Eagles faced in the past with some degree of regularity and is a geographic win for the Eagles.
BUT! In terms of stability, the Sun Belt is like having a beach house on a cliff overlooking the sea in California. If the earthquakes and mudslides don’t get ya, the wildfires will. A slew of schools, including former GSU rival Middle Tennessee State, fled the Sun Belt for the (presumably) more fertile ground of Conference USA. Western Kentucky will almost certainly be elsewhere by the time Georgia Southern joins the league in football for the 2015 season. Don’t be surprised if Troy or Arkansas State jump ship or if New Mexico State and Idaho join the conference just to bolt again a year or two later. In the unpredictable land of college athletics, the only certainty is that low-rung conferences like the Sun Belt and Conference USA are filled with member institutions that will bolt for bigger and better opportunities as soon as a “name” conference comes calling.
Couldn’t Georgia Southern have just started in Conference USA?
Rabid Eagle fans lurking on message boards and otherwise detached from reality firmly believe Conference USA has been a viable destination for the Eagles. Some of them also believe Georgia Southern belongs in the Big East or the ACC. They also believe in Bigfoot and think the moon landing was staged on a Hollywood back lot.
Most of the programs in Conference USA are at least somewhat more established as FBS entities. Not necessarily successful, mind you. But established. In fact, should Georgia Southern, App State, Georgia State or any other fledgling FBS program show signs of sustainable success in the Sun Belt, don’t be surprised if a larger conference then comes knocking on Keel and Kleinlein’s doors.
This is the end of the “big fish in a small pond” days, isn’t it?
A lot of Georgia Southern fans from the “status quo” camp are lamenting this aspect of the jump more than any other, and you know what? That’s valid.
But before we start wringing our hands and pining for the “good old days,” why not first step in the Institute of Higher Thinking Time MachineTM and visit the far flung past of, say, 1989. Erk Russell has just concluded his tenure as the first coach of Georgia Southern by winning his third national championship in five years. In I-A (this was before the change from I-A/I-AA to FBS/FCS), the Southwest Conference and Big Eight still existed, the Big 10 had only ten schools and the SEC was still three years away from pioneering the conference championship game.
If time stood still right there, Georgia Southern would have been poised to be nationally prominent as the biggest fish in a pond of smaller, but quality, opponents.
Instead, college football grew and changed at the topmost levels. Adding conference championship games to the end of the season helped make the SEC the premier brand in college football. Other leagues, eager to catch the same wave, added members, pilfering the once-rich field of I-A independents for the likes of South Carolina, BYU, Florida State, Virginia Tech and Miami. The moves also made I-A desirable to any school in I-AA with designs on escaping the “Division II” perception, that is, the perception among other sports fans that every program in a I-AA school’s athletic department was playing a division lower when, in fact, the school’s athletic department was a Division I entity and only football in the whole of the college sports universe was split into subdivisions.
The I-AA branding problem is one of the main reasons Georgia Southern and Appalachian State, with nine I-AA/FCS titles between them, are making a move. While past champions of the level like Marshall, UMass, Western Kentucky and Boise State (insert angelic choir here) all jumped up to the FBS, the Eagles have stayed put. Even non-champions from FCS like Central Florida and Nevada have made names for themselves at the next level.
Not that this is total abdication for the “let’s move up” crowd. Georgia Southern fans can be fickle. Remember when we talked about fans leaving the program’s last ever playoff game to catch the Georgia game? That’s hardly big-time, even in the small pond.
Even so, Georgia Southern will never win an FBS championship. So what’s the point?
Here is a list of schools not currently in the BCS conferences who might one day realistically win a FBS championship:
Many, many of the schools in FBS but outside of the BCS conferences have a nice football profile—higher than Georgia Southern’s, in fact. National championships shouldn’t necessarily define a program, unless that program is Alabama. Hell, the University of Georgia hasn’t won a championship in over 30 years and the Bulldogs still manage to field a team every year.
Let’s get to the real question:
If the Eagles move up and don’t dominate the competition like fans are accustomed to seeing, isn’t there a chance the product will die out like others have? One day, could Paulson Stadium be a ghost town instead of the thriving spot it is now on gameday Saturdays?
This is the question that should be keeping the Georgia Southern administration up at night. Let’s look at the tale of the tape:
In Georgia Southern’s favor: Even the woeful tenure of Chris Hatcher featured generally well-attended games; the preserved rivalry with App State and the addition of in-state rival Georgia State to the slate of games will be a shot of energy for the fans; there are no real powerhouses in the Sunbelt after the recent defections, giving the Eagles a shot at some immediate success; Georgia Southern has a 30-year tradition of winning—they won’t forget how to do it overnight.
Working against the Eagles: Being the third most prestigious FBS school in the state instead of the most prestigious FCS school in the nation; the Georgia Bulldogs are still never coming to Paulson Stadium; a matchup with South Alabama is about as sexy as a matchup with Western Carolina; Eagle pride might have to take a few lumps as the program acclimates to a larger setting; weeknight Sun Belt games will suck out loud; in its current iteration, the postseason bowl structure lacks glamor and often costs participating schools some red ink.
That looks like a wash. Any idea what the key to a successful move will be?
In a word: Administration.
It’s easy to be excited now. But there are so many different threads to follow with the Sun Belt move, even 2,000 word blogs only begin to scratch the surface. The Eagles will need to aggressively court new income sources, including corporate ones. The track record there hasn’t been strong, but Kleinlein’s resume suggests he might be able to reverse those fortunes. Georgia Southern also can’t afford to price its fan base out of coming to games. One of the reasons GSU has averaged around 20,000 fans at home games has to do with affordability as much as victory. And although the non-revenue sports and baseball should fare okay in the Sun Belt, Georgia Southern’s basketball program needs a complete overhaul, including facilities. That’s more money.
While the administration is at it, finding new funds for non-athletic endeavors is pretty critical, too. The on-campus community of professors and adjunct staff has been subjected to budget cuts and other restrictions for years. If the school can’t parlay the growth in athletics to growth for the overall university, the entire Sun Belt/FBS experiment will be a monumental failure. And that, folks, is what they call “burying the lead.”
For newbies: Scott Garner is a former award-winning sports writer. He attended GSU from 1991-1995 and covered the Eagles from 1993-2005 and occasionally since then. He is now at work on his first novel while holding a day job at a beer, wine and liquor distributor.