News that Georgia Southern is heading to the Sun Belt Conference started popping up on the Internet on Monday afternoon and became official with Wednesday’s news conference in Statesboro. I wish I could say I thought it was a good idea.
But I don’t.
The Eagles have had a run like few others since restarting football in 1981. It’s been the stuff of legend, really. First, the school hires the legendary and charismatic Erk Russell as its first coach in the modern era, and officials have to send someone across the street to buy a football because Georgia Southern didn’t have one to use as a prop at the news conference announcing the school is going to restart football.
While that was hardly an auspicious debut, by 1985, Russell had the Eagles winning the first of what ultimately would become six NCAA Division I-AA national titles.
The last came in 2000 when the great Adrian Peterson uncorked the “Son of the Run,” a 57-yard sloshing, slippery gallop on a cold, rainy Saturday night in Chattanooga to help the Eagles beat Montana, 27-25.
I was fortunate enough to be there that day. It was something special and prompted no less than Sports Illustrated to report afterward, “With back-to-back national championships and a record six titles in the past 16 years, Georgia Southern is the undisputed gold standard of Division I-AA football,” in its Dec. 25, 2000 issue.
But along the way, the bloom fell off the rose when it came to I-AA, aka the Football Championship Series, or FCS, at least as far as a vocal portion of the GSU fanbase was concerned.
Apparently raised or at least sold on the ESPN-spawned idea that hype is what really counts, this segment of GSU’s “Eagle Nation” looked at other former programs now supposedly basking in Football Bowl Subdivision glory and more ESPN air time and decided the idea of winning national titles at the FCS level was old hat. Georgia Southern had been there and done that in their eyes, and never mind that the last time GSU did that was in 2000, now 13 years ago.
To be fair, there is something to be said for competing at the highest level, though there’s nothing about the Sun Belt Conference that suggests it’s much better than the Southern Conference, the home the Eagles are leaving. But most FBS proponents say the Sun Belt is merely a launching pad to bigger things, so why not Georgia Southern?
Here’s one reason: Until the Bowl Championship Series loosens its financial and competitive grip on college football at the highest level, the deck will be stacked against smaller schools and conferences, which always will be playing catch-up against schools with a great deal more resources.
Want an example? According to various media sources, Alabama’s football budget in 2011 was $36.9 million. Georgia Southern’s entire athletic-department budget in 2011 was $11.2 million, according to the NCAA website. What’s more, a study conducted at Georgia Southern’s behest in 2008 concluded the school would need an additional $5 million in revenue to meet the higher cost of doing business in FBS — such as paying for 85 scholarships instead of 63. That means it’s about to get more expensive to go to a game.
It’ll also be more crowded. At least, school officials will be banking on that to help pay the freight. But some of what made GSU games special will be lost. Of course, it’s easier to feel a sense of ownership when you’re one of 17,000 fans than it is when you’re just another number. But it won’t be as easy to find a parking spot.
It’s also more fun to be part-owner of something when it’s successful, and Georgia Southern’s reputation as a small-college powerhouse was well-deserved. Whether they can translate that on-field success past the nether regions of FBS is anybody’s guess, and as most of us already know, BCS schools make sure the deck is stacked against teams like Georgia Southern.
And then there’s the bottom line, which is, all this is supposed to be about the kids who play the game, not the egos of those who live vicariously through them. Although it will play its full schedule this fall, Georgia Southern will be ineligible for football postseason play. I feel bad today for seniors like Jerick McKinnon, who ran his guts out last year and had the Eagles a few plays away from an appearance in the national-title game. The Eagles won’t get another crack at national championship No. 7, and that’s a sad message to send to the Eagle seniors.
But I suspect they’ll be supportive of the move. Team players always are, and Georgia Southern football usually has been a team effort.
For some reason, all this gets lost in the translation for those who think the only thing that matters is getting on ESPN and climbing ever upward on some invisible totem pole.
Ah well. It’s done, over with. Georgia Southern President Dr. Brooks Keel wants folks to get on the bus and come along for the ride. Keel also calls college football the “front porch” of a university. That’s hardly a new phrase, nor does it necessarily make sense. Is Alabama a better school than Harvard because its football team wins more?
Don’t get me wrong. I love college football. I just think there’s a limit. And count me among those who think today isn’t necessarily a good day for Georgia Southern football, no matter how much those like Keel, who’ve driven the bus to this point, say it is.