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  • The Move That Must Be Made

    Who would have ever thought a decision made over 1600 miles away, nearly two years ago, would set off a chain reaction still being felt to this day in 2012? The wheels set in motion by Colorado leaving the Big12 to the Pac-10, have resulted in a spooling of events that is just now rippling across the lower echelons of FBS and upper ranks of FCS.

    While it has been almost an annual rite of passage to spend the summer months the last fifteen years on and other messageboards to discuss the mundane and quirky mechanisms that get us from that final football game of the year, to spring practice and ultimately fall camp …. this off-season has been uncharacteristic in many regards. The last true cycle of college conference realignment was nearly a decade ago. So what is different this time around ? For starters, many of the potentially interested I-AA/FCS schools have a decade of growth and campus expansion behind them. Futhermore, the absolute explosion of social media (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) and the blogosphere has ensured that the daily and weekly news cycle is a thing of the past. Now, progress (?) can be tracked down to the minute and hours, detailing in excruciating fashion the merest of minute details …. and of course, rumors and unsubstantiated blathering.

    So, what to make of this brave, new world ? First, we must be honest and consider the history of how we got here, then understand the reality (as it exists today) and context of today’s environment both at the University and across the national landscape.

    The Eagles first opportunities with I-A were discussed in the late 1980’s, after GSC won three I-AA National Championships in the span of just five years. In 1989, Georgia Southern had approximately twelve thousand students, give or take a couple hundred. The Eagles were the toast of I-AA, and football was independent. Athletics was housed under the TAAC banner, and the lure of wanting to be part of the Southern Conference (the preeminent I-AA conference of the day) was huge both from a position of stability and the development of consistent scheduling and rivalries. Georgia Southern attained University status in 1990 and remained independent in football until leaving the TAAC (now known as the Atlantic Sun) for the SoCon in 1991,with football first competing in 1993. Erk Russell's retirement following the perfect season suppressed any thoughts of carrying the Eagle Empire forward to immediate greater heights. Dreams were quickly delegated to the daunting reality of finding a head coach capable of maintaining the level of performance.

    The second opportunity for the Eagles came when Georgia Southern’s dominance at the I-AA level was once again in full swing from 1998-2001, when the Eagles were coached by Paul Johnson. Coincidentally, the BCS had just begun (1998) and the 1-A leagues were jockeying for position. The Sun Belt, founded in 1976, did not begin sponsoring football until three years , in 2001. The Sun Belt started up football with far-flung affiliations, some full members of the Sun Belt and others as football-only additions. Utah State, New Mexico State, North Texas and Middle Tennessee State were among the early members. Troy State was added in 2004.

    During the early efforts to kickstart football in the Sun Belt, Georgia Southern intermediaries were approached to gauge interest in what was then going to be a new FBS football league. While contacts with surrogates did not manifest itself as a formal invite, discussions and evaluations occurred on an unofficial level between both entities. As mentioned before, this possible opportunity came along while Georgia Southern was cresting the peaks of I-AA supremacy. The Athletic Department rolled out a “Double Up” campaign as a marketing slogan to solicit support for the program following Y2K, to put funding in place to improve and solidify the overall athletic program and coaching staff. The underlying tone of the campaign was a thinly veiled message to boosters and supporters that without a significant financial commitment and increase, I-AA football would continue to be the order of the day. Many long time Eagle fans will remember twelve years ago, the talks and discussions on this very message board about the merits and shortcomings, the pros and the cons of making such a move. The end analysis resulted in the decision to stay I-AA. Paul Johnson left at the conclusion of the 2001 I-AA season when Navy called.

    Absent specific goals from the athletic administration and a direct pathway of transition from I-AA to I-A, slight increase in support did materialize. The eventual exodus of Johnson to Navy served to reset and temper expectations when Johnson’s understudy, Mike Sewak, took over the head coaching duties. A strong run to the I-AA semifinals in 2002 kept Southern at the top of the I-AA news cycle. With sophomore QB Chaz Williams running the offense, it appeared that Georgia Southern had made the correct institutional decision, while the early entrants to the Sun Belt were laying the foundation for their league.

    Fast forward to 2012 and conference realignment is in vogue once again. When one looks back at the historical timelines that affect conference hopping, and thereby the opportunities to improve upon conference stature, it is clear that these cycles are not permanent. It is also clear though, that they don’t happen every year. As detailed earlier, Georgia Southern has had opportunities in the late 1980’s and again a decade later, and almost predictably here we are in 2012 with a third chance to make a move. The past decisions are debatable, and are the ultimate “chicken-egg” type of debate. As a twenty eight year observer of Georgia Southern athletics, I can understand and appreciate both the pro and con arguments for 1-A/FBS football, relative to the institution at that time. I can also say that over time that as my University has grown, my opinion has changed and I fully support the move to 1-A/FBS.

    For starters, the current (as of 5/4/12) constituency of the Sun Belt has perhaps the best geographical footprint of any FBS league available to Georgia Southern, and it certainly has both some past rivals and other athletic teams worthy of future competition. It is also clear that with Georgia Southern and Appalachian State publically entertaining considerations for a higher playing field in football, the deafening silence emanating from Spartanburg, South Carolina implicitly approves the SoCon’s readiness for the Eagles and Mountaineers to move along.

    It is clear and it is time. For the first time since Erk Russell held up the now infamous K-mart football at the press conference introducing football back to Georgia Southern, the University has its best shot to proceed and move the program to the highest level. That is not to say it will be easy, and it is not to say such a move is without any financial risk. Details remain that have to be worked out. But for the first time there is a rational path to making FBS football work for the University.

    So what does Georgia Southern have to actually do? University president Dr. Brooks Keel essentially drew the line in the sand on with the announcement made to the Statesboro Herald. Baring our intentions to the intercollegiate world accomplished at least one major milestone: Keel clearly defined the end-goal of the institution relative to the near 30 year old question of 1-A vs. I-AA (FBS vs. FCS). What was not defined is the timeline. Current events may dictate how quickly that is answered.

    In an address on 4/14/12 to the Georgia Southern Athletic Foundation Board of Directors, Keel clearly articulated that any moves would be an “institutional decision”. Fans and boosters in attendance at numerous Eagle Club meetings held since that April 14th, 2012 meeting have received a steady dose of that phrasing, a clear sign that the edict from the President has been conveyed to any and all parties speaking on behalf of the University relative to moves and talk about conference realignment.

    Based on comments made just days earlier though, can Dr. Keel afford to gin up support and interest only then to bypass opportunity again ? Conventional wisdom says no. This issue, along with other items already accomplished during Dr. Keel’s tenure at the helm, may end up as a major issue defining his presidency, rightly or wrongly. It is not beyond the realm of consideration, given the average longevity of University presidents (8.5 yrs), to believe that this will be his only chance to make this decision.

    It has been suggested that those comments made a month ago, were more in response to questions made about whether or not the Georgia Southern athletic leadership had a plan. The fact is, yes, there is a plan. A plan has been present and work has been underway for some time. Other suggestions have been made that the comments were a direct response to the announcement made on 4/12/12 by Georgia State. Independent of the reasoning for the comments, the comments were made. With the pace of conference realignment hitting a frenzied pitch, it is possible perhaps even likely, that the decision point comes to a head faster than Georgia Southern’s idealized timeline would project.

    But here is the reality. We cannot afford to miss this opportunity. Our neighbor to the North (Appalachian State) is in a similar predicament, and both schools have an eerily similar situation and somewhat similar problems. Both schools have a storied history of accomplishment at the I-AA/FCS level, and both want to be wooed and courted. That is not going to be the case. If not clearly defined by the admission of Georgia State to the Sun Belt, and the offering of CUSA membership to Old Dominion, it is clear that the drivers of conference affiliation are based more on potential and less on accomplishment. Never mind that both Georgia Southern and Appalachian State are perennial leaders in Top 10 attendance; that isn’t germane to the new rules.

    No, the presidents at Georgia Southern and Appalachian State will instead have to make their case directly to the league that appeals to them. The public off-and-on approach to bringing Georgia State into the Sun Belt fold resulted in a mild rebuke by the Sun Belt presidents. It is completely evident that no public reach for league candidates and execution of searching for interested parties will be underway if and when the Sun Belt expands again. Despite this being an athletics issue, the job to now sell Georgia Southern and ASU resides in the hands of the presidents, not the athletic directors.

    In Georgia Southern’s case, the realization that it isn’t 2001 anymore and the presence of a president who understands the relationship of athletics and big time universities, is a great start. The Sun Belt now has over a decade as a FBS football league under its belt (no pun intended) and the product on the field is much improved. The league also is not nearly as far flung as it was back when Georgia Southern was first approached, which at the time would have been a far worse financial undertaking, with a much smaller student body underwriting portions of the GSU athletic budget.

    Georgia Southern, likewise, can ill-afford to fall behind on the pecking order within the state, and most certainly the advance of the Georgia State program to FBS will, not if, impact the ability of the Eagles on the recruiting trails, if it hasn't already. Georgia Southern is also fortunate to have young, energetic and proven coaches in the revenue sports (football, baseball, basketball) and failure to capitalize on these opportunities would further result in a diminished chance to retain those coaches as they succeed.

    Appalachian State leadership appears to have their own quandary, as it sees what may have once been promising CUSA opportunities slipping away. The Sun Belt might have never been a primary option due to geography, however now the Mountaineers have to wonder if it is the only option. Will Appalachian State’s recent indifference to the Sun Belt prove to be too bitter a pill for Benson and the Sun Belt presidents to swallow ? Since most Georgia Southern and Appalachian State fans have curiously put aside years of intense rivalry and found themselves in a recently acquired co-dependent state, hopefully such an unexpected alliance will demonstrate support of a working relationship that can only improve a conference gaining such members.

    Both fanbases sit with anticipation, wondering how it will go down. Will Keel and Dr. Ken Peacock @ Appalachian State make the call to the Sun Belt ? Time to decide is fast approaching, with today’s announced departures of North Texas and Florida International. Is there some other option still in the works ? Will just one of them call ? One thing is absolutely certain. If both or neither advance the cause for their respective institutions, and opportunity is lost again … some portion of the respective fanbases will be turned off permanently. If ASU makes the leap and Georgia Southern sits pat, a mutinous atmosphere will most certainly arise. One can only assume the converse is true.

    It would be an unfortunate result for either University if either or both were unable to leverage the success demonstrated both on the field and in the stands. Tough decisions are ahead, but they must be made.

    Paul W. Barkley, Sr.

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