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Georgia Southern stadium enhancements building for the future
Georgia Southern continues to gain ground in the effort to break ground for a $10 million Football Operations Center at Paulson Stadium.
Is this the first step toward the Eagles move to the Football Bowl Subdivision level?
“Let’s put it this way,” GSU president Dr. Brooks Keel said. “Moving up requires stadium enhancement. We can’t even make a decision of whether we want to move up until we have the resources and facilities to handle everything else that goes with it.”
So the big picture at Georgia Southern really will focus on a series of progressions. A year ago, the school announced a plan to build a multi-purpose facility at Paulson taking care of virtually every football need. Keel said $5.1 million in cash pledges have been raised with another $5.9 million in outstanding proposals.
When about 80 percent of the proposals come through, GSU will only need permission from the Georgia Board of Regents and the selection of a construction company before bulldozers begin preparing the east end zone area for the 57,000 square foot facility. GSU officials say the project may start in late spring.
The Football Operations Center will house a weight room, team meeting rooms, sports medicine rooms, coaches offices, equipment rooms, locker rooms and an area for the school’s football hall of fame.
“We’ve long needed to improve our locker room facility and we thought why not go the whole way and put everything under one roof,” GSU athletics director Sam Baker said.
Having all the football needs consolidated in one building was a vision head football coach Jeff Monken shared with Keel and Baker after getting hired before the 2010 season.
The Eagles currently have their football facilities scattered. Players meet with coaches and watch film in the Parrish Center on the outskirts of campus. They lift weights in a separate building nearby called Iron Works. Training rooms and locker rooms are in Hanner Fieldhouse. Their practice field is about a half mile from where they dress at Hanner and some equipment is taken over in vans.
On Game Day, the team dresses at Hanner and buses to Paulson Stadium.
“We want to keep the guys excited about the football program and have them feel that every day they’re in a first-class athletic program,” Monken said. “I know who we are. We’re not
going to rival the University of Georgia or Tennessee or Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech. Those schools are a different level. But I want to be (a mid-major program) that people say, ‘If you’re going to do it, do it like Georgia Southern.’
“My vision is to make us the best we can be at whatever level we’re playing.”
Plan for success
The fundraising goal for the Football Operations Center is the largest privately funded project ever at Georgia Southern — more than doubling the $4.7 million needed to construct Paulson Stadium almost 30 years ago.
Ambitiously, GSU has plans to upgrade the entire athletics program at a cost of about $36 million.
It’s all part of a “Soaring to Victory” campaign started when Baker asked each Georgia Southern coach, “What do you need to compete for a conference championship every year?”
The coaches of the school’s 15 programs responded, and the GSU Athletics Foundation — an independent, non-profit organization, which raises money for the school’s athletic scholarships and priority needs — put dollar signs on the requests.
“We have a dedicated fan base that wants to invest in our future success,” foundation president John Mulherin said. “In the past, we’ve had people who thought big to get our programs started. Now our generation has a chance to contribute and we’re laying out the plan. Here’s our path to future success.”
Mulherin said the plan is broken into five phases. Phase one starts with stabilizing the program, including not only the Football Operations Center but also the creation of a $5 million Margin of Excellence Endowment Fund, which will provide coaches with financial incentive for performance and hopefully keep continuity among the top coaching staffs.
The foundation wants to raise another $500,000 to get current coaching salaries at or above the Southern Conference midpoint.
It may seem to be an incredible financial burden for the fan base, but some see the chance to put their stamp on the school’s athletics programs.
GSU hopes to raise a big chunk of money for the Football Operation Center through naming opportunities — putting a price on everything from naming the center itself to naming individual lockers in the locker room.
The building will be co-named by donors who provide gifts of $1.5 million apiece.
Long-time supporter Rick Bean, the president of the Greater Savannah Eagle Club, donated $10,000 to have his family name attached to the building’s nutrition room.
“We’ve always been donors at certain levels, and we’ve grown over the years, but we felt this would be a unique opportunity to put our name out there at least semi-permanently to show our support,” said Bean, a Georgia Southern booster since 1985. “(Football) is a family thing for us. Our friends go to the games, we tailgate with friends. We need to invest in that.”
Alum Laney Claxton and her family are putting monies toward sponsoring a locker.
“I am honored, along with my husband Duane, to be a part of the fundraising effort for the new Football Operations Center,” Claxton said. “It is important to us to do whatever we can to move our program forward and to support Georgia Southern University.”
The optimism of Bean and Claxton is understandable.
“One thing you have to keep in mind is that people donate to what they’re passionate about,” Keel said. “Nationwide, you’re starting to see a resurgence as far as philanthropic support. The market is doing well. People are feeling better about things, and whenever people are feeling better about things, they’ll look to the future and feel more comfortable about supporting things like this.”
And there’s a hope at Georgia Southern that the timing is right. The football program has had a two-year taste of prosperity with the hiring of Monken and two consecutive Final Four appearances in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
“I’ve said many times that athletics represents the front porch of the university,” Keel said. “It gets people to look into the picture window and see what’s going on inside the house, whereas they may have driven by without paying attention. It brings a lot of attention to Georgia Southern from those who may not have thought of us before.”
Who could have seen the day at Georgia Southern when supporters would be asked to contribute $10 million for a football operations center?
Southern’s football program had such merger beginnings that school officials had to run across Ga. 67 to a K-mart to buy a football to use as a prop during the school’s announcement to restart the sport.
Coach Erk Russell and his staff originally squeezed into a trailer for office space.
Monken, as an assistant under Paul Johnson from 1997-2001, can remember when the football offices were located in the catacomb-like back end of Hanner Fieldhouse.
The Parrish Center provided the football program with a much-needed upgrade 11 years ago.
But that was 11 years ago. Along with the convenience of having everything in the same building, there are good reasons to having a football operations center.
Facilities play a big part in recruiting. GSU recruiting coordinator Brett Gilliland said potential recruits who come to GSU on a recruiting visit are shown everything they will encounter on campus as a student athlete.
“We try to be an open door so they can see everything they’re going to deal with,” Gilliland said.
He can only imagine bringing a recruit into a 57,000 square foot facility.
“To a 17-, 18-year old recruit, if there’s a difference (in schools they are considering), they pick up on it really fast,” Gilliland said. “To have a facility like that, just the wow factor of being able to say this where you’re going to be every day and there’s nothing better anywhere else, that’s huge.”
Providing a building for football would have a domino effect on other GSU programs. Some coaches would move from Hanner Fieldhouse to the Parrish Center. Non-football athletes would have more room in Iron Works.
“It would be a win-win for all our programs,” Mulherin said.
Georgia Southern’s plans don’t stop with the football operations center. Monken would like to see the Eagles’ practice fields moved behind Paulson Stadium, where a track currently lies.
There are plans to expand the stadium about 6,300 seats and add a new scoreboard.
“I want to be the best in the nation in everything we do and to do that we need to be pushing the envelope for success in every area,” Monken said.
Other GSU sports won’t be left behind. Current Eagle football practice fields would be home to a lighted soccer/track stadium.
GSU also has plans of allocating $5 million for Hanner Fieldhouse renovations.
“We walk a fine line at Southern between traditions based on when we didn’t have any money and putting facilities out there that new recruits want to come and play at,” Bean said. “This building is an important thing for the second part of that. We can still honor our old tradition, but we needed to have better facilities.”
By Donald Heath, Savannah Morning News