When Georgia Southern plays host to South Carolina State on Saturday in Statesboro, it’ll mark the Eagles first appearance in the NCAA I-AA (or FCS) playoffs since 2005.
That may seem no big deal.
But it’s a long time away from the limelight for a program with more postseason wins than any other since the division was created in 1978 as a less expensive alternative than Division IA.
And though it would be easy to dismiss what took place in Statesboro over the last five years as an aberration, Georgia Southern’s half decade of football darkness is worth remembering for a number of reasons, not least because of what the philosophers say.
You know: those who don’t remember their history are doomed to repeat it.
In GSU’s case, the weirdness began in earnest when upstart Texas State ambushed the Eagles in the opening round of the 2005 playoffs. What followed is still hard to get one’s head around.
First, coach Mike Sewak, one of the game’s true gentlemen, was canned despite a 35-14 record, three
NCAA playoff appearances and two Southern Conference titles in his four seasons in Statesboro.
At Georgia Southern the standard just half a decade ago was pretty simple: you win all the time or you’re gone.
Sewak’s firing divided the fanbase, though hindsight has been far kinder to the genial coach than the moment or many Southern fans ever were.
But what happened next was probably not what anyone who swears allegiance to the program built by Erk Russell had in mind.
Eagle football was demolished. Razed. Blown up.
After six NCAA national titles, the most playoff wins in I-AA history and the third highest winning percentage in all of college football — and all that accomplished in a little over 20 years of football — athletic director Sam Baker brought in a wrecking ball of a coach and turned him loose.
That coach was Brian VanGorder, who was supposed to bring big time football to Statesboro.
VanGorder only lasted a year, but his impact on the program reverberated around FCS. He pulled the plug on a number of GSU traditions, but most notably on Georgia Southern’s trademark option offense, perhaps because he still had nightmares about the way GSU ran all over UGA’s defense in 2004.
All of a sudden, the Eagles were trying to do the same thing everyone else was and not doing it very well.
The Eagles finished 3-8, the worst mark since football was reborn in Statesboro in 1982 after a 40-year hiatus because of World War II.
Further, VanGorder’s prickly demeanor — he hailed from Michigan and apparently had little regard for small towns in the South — never fit in around Statesboro or GSU.
Before VanGorder left, he said publicly that neither Eagle fans nor local media knew near as much as he did about football, but would one day thank him for all that he’d done.
Or something along those lines.
Most GSU fans breathed a sigh of relief, noting at least he wouldn’t do any further harm to their program.
At that point, many fans had hopes Baker would hire a certain coach named Jeff Monken, an assistant at Southern and Georgia Tech under GSU Hall of Fame coach Paul Johnson.
The idea was that Monken would bring back the option offense and restore GSU’s winning ways.
Instead, Baker hired Chris Hatcher.
The choice was popular for a number of reasons, including Hatcher’s background as Valdosta State quarterback and his abundance of Deep South charm. Hatcher, an offensive genius from Macon, was even compared by many to a "young Erk Russell," surely the greatest praise a football coach in Georgia could get.
But mostly, Hatcher was popular because he went 72-16 while coaching at Valdosta State and won a
Division II title in 2004. Three years and an 18-15 record later, he got the ax from Baker.
Enter Monken, who quickly reinstalled the triple option offense over the offseason and had the good sense to bring transfer quarterback Jaybo Shaw with him from Georgia Tech.
The Eagles went 7-4, finishing third in the Southern Conference. And they’ll be playing after
Thanksgiving for the first time in half a decade.
It’s the first step toward restoring Georgia Southern to its former vaunted place in the I-AA (or FCS) football universe. Few have doubts that will happen now if Monken is given time.
In the meantime, some will say what transpired since 2005 never should have been, that what wasn’t broke shouldn’t have been fixed — merely tweaked to get it up and running again.
Others will say it’s just more proof that Baker should have long ago been given his walking papers.
But in the end, the last five years may’ve been necessary — hard as they’ve been to stomach at a program once quite seriously called by some the "Notre Dame, Florida State and Nebraska, all rolled into one" of I-AA football.
Necessary, if only to lend a little humility to a fan base that grew to see the post Thanksgiving playoff appearances as an entitlement, not the achievement each really was. Or as a reminder to us all that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.