The irony was fairly palpable. The long-anticipated statue of Erk Russell, founder and patron saint of Georgia Southern football, was publicly unveiled Saturday prior to the Eagles’ playoff game against Central Arkansas. Yet at the half, with the Eagles enjoying a seemingly comfortable 24-9 lead, a sizeable percentage of the student body made an exodus to catch the kickoff of another game featuring another team with ties to Russell. The University of Georgia was trying to earn a trip to play for the national championship, something the Bulldogs had not won since Russell left Athens and took his magic south to Statesboro.
Such a travesty would simply go down as another smack in the face of the greatest Division I football program of the last 30 years, reduced in status by the simple sub-classification of “big” college football, if not for the larger picture. Presumably the same students who fled the bleachers for couches and flatscreens are the very electorate that pushed to vault Georgia Southern into the highest level of college football with their own money1. Presuming a conference invitation to Georgia Southern by a FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) conference—and if you haven’t been paying attention, several of those conferences are sporting gaping holes thanks to the latest round of college football musical chairs—the Eagles will likely enter what the NCAA terms a “transition” period as soon as next season. Georgia Southern will be trapped between FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) and FBS. While building up scholarships and otherwise arranging to play a new, bigger (and, presumably, better) brand of opponent, the Eagles will be excluded from the FCS playoffs but ineligible to participate in a FBS bowl game.
This equation means that unless Georgia Southern defeats Old Dominion next week in Norfolk, Virginia, and (and!) North Dakota State trips up against Wofford, Saturday’s game could very well be the end of a historic period of postseason games at Paulson Stadium.
Not that everyone knew. A highly unscientific poll of random attendees found about half had considered (or been informed of) the potentially historic nature of Georgia Southern’s matchup against Central Arkansas. Tracy Ham, the quarterback under center for Georgia Southern’s first three playoff games at Our House and the man at the trigger for the Eagles’ first two national titles, had not considered the ramifications of the game. When the scenario was explained to him2, he didn’t waste time waxing nostalgic about the Good Old Days, either.
“It’s what you have to do if you’re going to get bigger and better,” he said.
And there lies the crux of the argument and the worrisome future possibly foreshadowed by the departing Georgia Southern students at the half. Are the Eagles really getting better by getting bigger? Is there any scenario in which a team from Statesboro might one day play itself into the national championship picture at the next level of football? Is it even a relevant concern? There is a strong school of thought, stated succinctly by Ham but prevalent among a big swath of Eagle Nation, that simply stepping onto a larger stage enhances the university.
Another thought, which has been tossed around in FCS circles since it was still officially called “I-AA,” maintains the FBS is marching inexorably toward another subdivision3. The Big Boys like those in the SEC, Pac-12 and the erroneously-named Big Ten are sick and tired of sharing revenue with Boise State and any other school from a mid-major conference who happens to barge into the BCS conversation. To combat the problem, as the theory goes, four or five “Super Conferences” will emerge and immediately shut the door to the clubhouse for everyone else, ensuring no one like Kent State, Northern Illinois, Cincinnati or (down the road) Georgia Southern ever gets so much as a whiff of the audacious crystal sphere that is the championship trophy. According to this view of the future, Georgia Southern isn’t moving up so much to compete against teams like Georgia for the national championship but rather to remain in football’s second tier when the biggest schools rid themselves of the mid-major remora attached to their collective underside. If the scenario comes to pass, Georgia Southern has simply positioned itself to be right back where it started under Russell, only with more scholarships and a bigger stadium.
That’s a win, right?
The Tribe of Both and An Uncomfortable Truth
Where the University of Georgia is concerned, Georgia Southern fans largely fall clearly on one side of a completely rhetorical line or the other. On one side is the tribe of “they’re both my team.” These fans take the distinction between the FCS and FBS levels of football and apply it to their own allegiances. It isn’t so different from having a favorite college team and a favorite professional team.
Diametrically opposed to the pragmatic Tribe of Both is the “No Bulldogs” camp. Those fans still in the bleachers as Georgia Southern held off Central Arkansas’s furious last charge are 100 percent No Bulldog loyalists4. For these Georgia Southern supporters, red and black clothing constitutes a fashion faux pas. Going to a Georgia game in Athens is a sin. Doing so when the Eagles are playing in Paulson is a mortal sin. To a lesser degree, the No Bulldogs camp also subscribes to No Yellow Jackets, No Volunteers, No Fighting Irish, etc. But the real ire is reserved for Georgia.
In a bar or on a message board, the fine line between loyalty for Georgia Southern and Georgia can be adjudicated from thousands of angles. In the end, though, the simple existence of the line is as troublesome for a Georgia Southern team in the FBS as it is for the one still playing for the FCS championship. Because unless your Aunt Sue went to Clemson and married Uncle Sam from South Carolina, major college football programs don’t see split allegiances coaxing their fan base out of the stadium at halftime. Texas fans aren’t happy for Texas A&M when the Aggies beat a SEC powerhouse like Alabama. Michigan fans don’t tune the televisions in the Big House luxury boxes to the Michigan State game unless their own Big Ten fate is somehow tied to the outcome of the game.
As long as Georgia Southern remained at the FCS level and played well enough to compete for a shot at the national championship, the Tribe of Both was mostly an annoyance to more dedicated fans. If the Eagles complete their move to the next division, those fans could be the difference in filling up a renovated and expanded stadium or having it appear empty and sad compared to the heyday of overflow crowds spilling onto the grass hills of Paulson as we know it.
Getting back to the irony, though, means getting back to Erk.
In Athens, Russell is regarded almost as dearly as Vince Dooley, the head coach for whom he served as defensive coordinator for so many years. Russell was long seen as the “heart” of the Bulldogs and he coined most of the popular vernacular now claimed by the Eagles—“GATA” foremost—while in Athens. Russell himself kept a room full of memorabilia from his days as a football coach, almost evenly divided between Georgia Southern and the University of Georgia. A case could be made for Erk Russell as the ultimate symbol of the Tribe of Both. And a case could be made against it. After winning the 1985 I-AA championship, he famously insinuated that the citizens of Statesboro could replace their Georgia and Georgia Tech merchandise with the Georgia Southern brand.
His admonitions didn’t get as much traction as they might have. But his results as a head coach couldn’t be argued against. And at Georgia Southern, those results were clearest in the playoffs.
Wrapping Up History
If Georgia Southern versus Central Arkansas ends up being the final playoff game at Paulson Stadium, at least it was a win, 24-16. It wasn’t a pretty win, although quarterback Jerick McKinnon came tantalizingly close to the FCS playoff rushing record, held since 1999 by Georgia Southern icon Adrian Peterson5. Georgia Southern coach Jeff Monken made a rare clock-management error at the end of the first half, allowing Central Arkansas time to get the ball and kick a field goal as time expired. Then the usually potent Eagle offense fizzled while the oft-maligned pass defense rose to the occasion to preserve the win.
Twenty-four, as they say, is more than sixteen.
Beating the Bears will not go down as one of the epic playoff games in Paulson history. The Eagles won two national titles on their home field. That includes a three-point win over Stephen F. Austin in 1989 to preserve a perfect 15-0 season, Russell’s last as the team’s coach. In 1987, the Eagles won a playoff overtime game against Maine (a team Georgia Southern has faced three times in Paulson, always in the postseason). A year later, a recovered fumble preserved a one-point win over Idaho6 on the way to the school’s fourth national title. The same magic had been in play in 1988 when a fumble by Eastern Kentucky halted a game-winning drive on the Eagles’ 20-yard line. The list goes on: the comeback against FAMU, a slugfest with Appalachian State, and two heartbreaking losses to Furman and Western Kentucky.
There was also last season’s barn-burner7 against this week’s playoff opponent, Old Dominion. The 55-48 final was a track meet and ODU actually figures to be better this year than last.
Littered across the graveyard of the playoff vanquished are programs already playing at the next level. Arkansas State and Nevada lost national title games to the Eagles but moved up (with mixed success) to play in the FBS. Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee State, Idaho, Central Florida, Troy and Connecticut all faced the Eagles in the playoffs—most of them at Paulson—but now play a level above the Eagles. Of the list above, only Western Kentucky bested Georgia Southern.
A portion of Eagle Nation has pined for Georgia Southern to play with the so-called “big boys” for years, and the list of teams on the back end of their own jump up is salt in the wound. A smaller but loyal segment of the fan base points to the mixed success of former I-AA/FCS teams: Boise State has become a major program in college football, but the list of truly significant programs to emerge from a jump in classification is short.
Of course, when Erk Russell came to Georgia Southern, the list of programs with a national championship trophy on the shelf after just two years of competition was short, too. Those who believe in the magic of Eagle Creek are hoping for “One More Time.”
But as one Middle Tennessee State graduate said after the game in Paulson Saturday, “I’ve seen what moving up did for my alma mater. I wish they would have stayed.”
Stay tuned, Eagle Nation.
1 (“…with their own money”) Or their parents’ money. Or the government’s. Or the banks’, which will be due back with interest.
2 (“…scenario was explained”) By this story’s author, specifically.
3 (“…marching inexorably toward another subdivision”) In case the whole “subdivision” thing is baffling (and it can be), here’s the “fits in a footnote” version. In 1978, the NCAA decided to take all the Division I schools and reduce the financial burden of football for the smaller schools. Although these “I-AA” schools could have from zero to 63 full football scholarships, they were theoretically on the same playing field as their “I-A” brethren in every other sport. Thus, there is no I-AA/FCS basketball or baseball or golf. Only football was truncated. Thus, Georgetown is a basketball powerhouse and a football lightweight.
4 (“…No Bulldog loyalists) Or they have their split allegiance in a clear, unambiguous hierarchy.
5 (“…rushing record, held since 1999”) McKinnon racked up 316 yards and two touchdowns. Peterson rushed for 333 yards and five touchdowns in the 1999 national quarterfinal against defending champion UMass. Peterson famously had flu-like symptoms, drawing comparisons to Michael Jordan. There was no immediate word on McKinnon’s health.
6 (“…preserved a one-point win over Idaho”) Idaho, notably, is one of the teams Georgia Southern hopes not to emulate at the FBS level. The Vandals have been consistently, tragically awful since leaving I-AA.
7 (“…last season’s barn-burner”) Shamelessly, the author now points you to the live blog written about the game while staying home with a three-week old baby: http://www.instituteofhigherthinking.com/2011/12/03/gsu-odu-a-live-blog/ (Parental advisory: contains cussin’.)