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Georgia Southern need not play big-time football to be big-time school
Enrollment nearly doubled in the 1980s and has almost doubled again since the program went from upstart to overlord. Consider that there were more students standing sweaty-shoulder-to-sweaty-shoulder in the Paulson Stadium stands for Saturday’s season opener than there were enrolled in the school when the Eagles fielded that first team in 1982.
The academic programs offered and the quality of the faculty rival that of any public university short of one of the public Ivys.
Credit football for that profile pop.
Yet today, 30 years later, would popping pads with what Keel calls the “big dogs” sharpen that image?
Lightning doesn’t strike twice
Make no mistake, competing for a berth in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl instead of the small college playoffs is far from the impetus for Georgia Southern’s big-time aspirations.
Fans may simply want GSU to run with those big dogs inside the hash marks, but Keel’s focus is on the school’s off-the-field reputation. He wants to attract students worldwide, compete for top faculty and pad the school’s endowment.
Click here to read what nationally recognized authority on college sports finance says about the pros and cons of moving
Yet he shouldn’t expect the returns of the 1980s again. Georgia Southern doesn’t have the resources to attain national prominence at the major college level the way it did at the small college tier.
The Eagles won a small-school national title in their fourth year of existence, 1985. They would be fortunate to ever — as in never — even be in a championship discussion were they to move up.
And sorry, Dr. Keel, but playing Arkansas State on a Tuesday night in late October on ESPNU (the U stands for unavailable) or getting pummeled by Alabama in a noon Saturday game on ESPN isn’t going to result in an overwhelmed admissions office the following week.
Even on a weekend when a school similar in size and geographic footprint to Georgia Southern defeats once mighty Penn State, it’s hard to rationalize such a move up.
The tab simply outweighs the resources. Georgia Southern wants to raise $36.6 million over the next seven years to improve facilities, coaches’ salaries and address other competitiveness issues. The school raised approximately one-sixth of that in the first year, and rumor has it the pace of contributions has slowed significantly.
Beyond that capital campaign, Southern needs to generate at least an additional $4.4 million annually to meet increased operating costs.
For a college in a small town in a rural area with a modestly affluent alumni base, the costs should scare everyone short of a congressman or senator.
The shifting college football landscape puts Georgia Southern in a Hail Mary situation.
The BCS, the pending championship playoff and conference bloating has Georgia Southern’s peers on the move. Five schools, including one of the Eagles’ past title game opponents, UMass, are moving up.
Several more want to intend to follow, SoCon rival Appalachian State and perennial powers Delaware and James Madison among them.
The dilemma is real: Move up, or be satisfied as a small college power playing against diminished competition — with the realization that could mean diminished interest.
Fortunately for Georgia Southern, football no longer need be the catalyst for university growth. The school’s academics, cultural activities and environment will draw talent. Given the football program’s tradition, the excitement will remain whether they are competing in the Sun Belt or for the small college championship belt.
University of Georgia President Michael Adams, who knows something about what football can mean to schools, puts the issue in perfect context.
“You build great universities brick by brick and stone by stone and almost none of those bricks and stones relate to football,” said Adams, who refused to directly address Georgia Southern’s future. “I honestly don’t know that (UGA) is better or worse today because of our football team’s records. I think that’s a common misperception at schools across that nation.”
By Adam Van Brimmer, Savannah Morning News