When you ask Georgia Southern’s new athletic director, Tom Kleinlein, what skill is most important for any AD, he quickly answers with one word: “Communication.”
For Kleinlein, who was named GSU’s AD on Nov. 12 and took over full time in January, communication is a two-way street.
“You’ve got to be able to talk and share your vision, but at the same time, you’ve got to listen,” he said. “People will cheer you, and people will complain. Both of those are good. When they’re cheering you, everybody’s happy. When they complain, they’re telling you something’s wrong. In both instances, they care. When you hear nothing, that’s a problem.”
Silence from the GSU fan base has not been a problem.
Kleinlein was brought in several months after GSU President Brooks Keel made public the program’s intention of moving the athletics department into a Football Bowl Subdivision conference from its current home in the Southern Conference — a Division-I league that plays its football in the Football Championship Subdivision.
Kleinlein doesn’t mince words about where he stands.
“Why you hear the president talk so much about FBS, unfortunately, is because of our identity. People don’t know what we’re about,” Kleinlein said. “I tell people all the time that we are branded very well regionally. In this region, everybody knows what we do. But outside of a 50- or 60-mile radius, people don’t necessarily know how good things are down here. Coaches know, players know … that world knows. But the rest of the public doesn’t know and. unfortunately, that’s because our identity is defined by what level of football we play.”
Kleinlein knows how important athletics are to the perception of an institution because he’s seen it before.
Tim Duncan came to Kleinlein’s alma mater, Wake Forest, in 1993, and put the Demon Deacons on the map.
Last year at Kent State, where Kleinlein served as deputy athletic director, something similar happened. In spring 2012, KSU knocked off Kentucky and Florida on the way to the College World Series, and last fall, the Golden Flashes lost the MAC championship in overtime against Northern Illinois, narrowly missing out on a BCS Bowl bid and earning a spot in the GoDaddy.com Bowl.
“We’re talking $1 or $1.5 billion in advertising for the College World Series. They’re estimating that may be double with the run they just had in football,” Kleinlein said. “Well, that’s all exposure for the university. That’s new people going, ‘What’s this Kent State deal?’ It helps in so many ways. The numbers that are associated with that run are staggering.”
It’s the identity of GSU to people outside the FCS that Kleinlein hopes to change.
“Right now, people ask me, ‘Do you play Division I athletics?’ I say, ‘Yeah, we’re Division I in everything.’ That’s not anybody’s fault, it’s just the reality of the public’s perception of FCS football,” Kleinlein said.
Regarding GSU’s national perception, Kleinlein and Keel say FBS football is the solution.
“It changes people’s minds, people’s perception,” Kleinlein said. “There’s that old saying, ‘You are who you run with.’ I’m not knocking anything in the Southern Conference. We’ve been a great partner, it’s been great football, and we love everything we do. But when you want to grow, that means you want to play on a bigger stage. I think when you start to do those things, people start to look at your university a little differently. They start to say, ‘Hey, what’s going on down there?’”
Georgia Southern’s first NCAA football game in the new era was a 16-9 win against Central Florida on Sept. 11, 1982. In fact, the Eagles are 10-1 all-time against UCF.
But Central Florida has come a long way since the teams last met in 1991. The Knights will leave Conference USA and join the Big East on July 1. They last won the C-USA title in 2010 and beat the Georgia Bulldogs, 10-6, in the Liberty Bowl that year.
UCF is also among the nation’s largest universities, with an enrollment of almost 60,000.
As has been the case since Kleinlein took the job, a move to FBS is out of GSU’s hands. Georgia Southern will begin construction on an expansion to Paulson Stadium and a new Football Operations Center with a groundbreaking at the annual Blue/White game on April 13, at 1 p.m., but the program will ultimately have to be voted in by the presidents of a conference’s member institutions.
“I’ve told people all along, ‘We’re going to do everything we can to make people interested in us.’ We don’t control it,” Kleinlein said. “We don’t control the presidents of those conferences or the decisions they make. All we can do is keep winning, keep growing, keep excelling in the classroom and keep doing the things we’re trying to do.”