Georgia State football finding way in tough times

Jason Getz/Associated Press
Georgia State football coach Bill Curry (left) will lead his team in the school's first game Sept. 2. The game is the culmination of a two-year journey getting the Panthers' program up and running.

ATLANTA --- In his previous head coaching jobs, there were plenty of things for Bill Curry to worry about.


Who's going to play quarterback? How does the defense look? Will these Alabama fans ever fully accept me?

There were other issues that never crossed his mind.

Do we have enough helmets and chin straps? What are we going to use for a locker room? Where are we going to practice?

But those are just the sort of things Curry has fretted over in what will certainly be the final coaching job of his career and arguably the most daunting one yet. In less than two weeks, Curry will lead the Georgia State Panthers onto the field for their very first game, the culmination of a two-year journey that exposed the exhilarating highs and excruciating lows of starting a college football program from scratch.

"It's been a real adventure and I've loved every minute of the challenge," the 67-year-old Curry said, pausing briefly and adding with a wry grin, "Well, almost every minute."

OK, SO HE didn't really love it when he learned that his first semblance of a team -- recruits and walk-ons who spent a formative year doing nothing but practicing and scrimmaging against themselves -- didn't actually have a field.

So Curry and one of his assistants, George Pugh, hopped in a car and started riding around Atlanta, looking for any patch of grass and goalposts within a 40-minute radius of Georgia State's downtown campus.

"We found a bunch of them. Then we had to find out who ran them," Curry said. "There was an awful lot of time and effort spent on those kind of things, and that's just one example."

It will all seem worth it on the night of Sept. 2, when the Panthers, an independent in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision, play their first game against Shorter, an NAIA school. From humble beginnings, they'll run onto a relatively grand stage -- the 70,000-seat Georgia Dome, the home field of the NFL's Atlanta Falcons, the site of the Southeastern Conference championship game, the venue for two Super Bowls and an Olympics.

"This is the reason why I came here," said Mark Hogan, who was Georgia State's first player. "I didn't come here to practice all year like we did last year, but that was part of it. That was preparation for this. It was well worth it. Now we're here, and we're about to play some real football."

GEORGIA STATE is one of six institutions launching programs this year, a diverse group that runs the gamut from South Alabama, which plans to make a full transition to the top level of Division I in 2013, to Notre Dame College, a former women-only school in Ohio that will compete in NAIA.

Plenty of others are on the way. According to the National Football Foundation, another 11 schools plan to have football teams up and running by 2013, including one right up Interstate 85 that is of similar size and urban location to Georgia State -- the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

For their own roadmap, the Panthers might want to look toward the Sunshine State.

South Florida started its program in 1997, holding the first team meeting under a shade tree and meeting in trailers until some actual facilities could be built. Within a decade, the Bulls had risen to No. 2 in The Associated Press rankings. They are now members of the Big East Conference and have appeared in five consecutive bowl games.

Georgia State isn't dreaming that big -- at least not yet, anyway.

GEORGIA STATE ALREADY has the makings of a competitive squad, thanks to several high-profile transfers. Joseph Gilbert, a starting offensive lineman at Georgia Tech the past two years, now plays for the Panthers. So does Star Jackson, a backup quarterback on Alabama's national title team.

Curry has landed other transfers as well -- one from Auburn, another from Georgia Tech, others from more modest football schools -- many of them enticed by the idea of playing in a major city at a high-profile venue such as the Georgia Dome.

"We are very enthused about our personnel," said Curry, who coached at Georgia Tech, Alabama and Kentucky but hasn't been on the sideline since 1996. "Some of them are guys we recruited from a lot of different places. And some of them just flat-out fell from the sky."

What Georgia State will have to overcome is a general apathy that has always existed toward the school's largely mediocre athletic program -- especially in a city with plenty of sports options, including four major league teams, three minor-league franchises and way-more-established Georgia and Georgia Tech.

"THE MOST UNPLEASANT part has been the economy," Curry said. "That's affected everything we've tried to do, like it has affected everything in world."

In the meantime, the Panthers have found ways to make it work. The locker and weight rooms are located in the school's basketball arena. Meetings are held in whatever classrooms happen to be available around campus.

For someone such as Gilbert, who was playing in the Orange Bowl seven months ago, it's been quite a change.

"The biggest thing is the walking," he said. "We have meetings in one building. The locker room is in another. We go eat in a building over there. That's been a big adjustment, I'm not going to lie. I got a bit lazy while I was at Tech.

"But it's no big deal. I needed the exercise."

Opening game

WHO: Georgia State vs. Shorter

WHEN: Sept. 2, 7:30 p.m.

WHERE: Georgia Dome


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