STATESBORO, Ga. — Jeff Monken, talking by phone Tuesday moments after making one of the biggest decisions of his life, called his choice to take the head football coaching position at Army, “one I agonized over because I love Georgia Southern.”
Monken leaves Georgia Southern and inherits a program that has had just one winning season since 1996.
He will be introduced officially as the Black Knights’ 37th head coach during a news conference at West Point at 11 a.m. Monday.
Monken’s leadership abilities, triple-option background and unique passion for the academies made an impression.
“There was tremendous interest in the position nationally and we felt there were several very qualified candidates, but throughout the process Jeff separated himself from the others,” said Army athletic director Boo Corrigan in a news release. “His passion, energy and strong experience in turning around a program immediately helped him rise to the top of our list.”
The Army coaching job opened Dec. 15 after Rich Ellerson was fired. The Black Knights concluded their season losing to Navy 34-7 – their 12th consecutive loss to the Midshipmen – and finishing with a 3-9 season.
“When a four-star general looks you in the eye and says you can make a difference, it’s hard to say no,” Monken joked Tuesday.
But there was no joking about the difficulty to leave Georgia Southern, where he first worked for five years as an assistant coach under Paul Johnson. He helped the Eagles win two national championships (1999, 2000) before getting his first head coaching job in 2010.
Monken left with a bang, ending the regular season with a 26-20 victory over Florida, the Eagles’ first win over a Football Bowl Subdivision school.
“It was terribly difficult (decision), Georgia Southern is a special place,” Monken said. Potential candidates for the Georgia Southern position are former Georgia Tech and Buffalo Bills assistant Giff Smith (a former All-America defensive end for Georgia Southern 1987-1990), Vanderbilt co-defensive coordinator Brent Pry, current offensive coordinator Brent Davis and quarterbacks coach Mitch Ware.
“Just because he’s moving on doesn’t mean he isn’t an Eagle,” Eagles running back Robert Brown said of Monken.
“He transformed us and that’s what will always be remembered, the discipline and respect he brought here.”
Brown was among Monken’s first recruits for the 2010 season. Monken took over a program that was 21-23 during the previous four years. After the 2009 season, coach Chris Hatcher was fired.
Monken immediately re-installed the triple-option offense that had worked so well for the school in the past. He was an assistant when Johnson turned around programs at Navy and Georgia Tech as well.
In Monken’s first season, Georgia Southern jumped from five wins to 10, including a key regular-season win over No. 1 Appalachian State, before making a run to the FCS semifinals.
The Eagles won Southern Conference championships the next two seasons and in 2011, he was the league’s coach of the year.
In the 2012 semifinals, Georgia Southern led defending champion North Dakota State in Fargo, N.D., with about three minutes remaining before losing.
This season, despite a multitude of injuries, Monken and his staff kept the team together and culminated the season with the victory at Florida for one of college football’s biggest upsets of the year.
The job was just too good to pass up, said Monken, who applied for the same position in 2008.
“The magnitude of what happens on that campus is something special,” Monken said. “It’s a place like no other. That makes the position of leadership something important. There’s a sense of responsibility that goes past being a football coach.”
Tuesday, even the leader of Eagle Nation seemed to understand.
“We weren’t in a position to compete with the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity Army presented (to Monken) at this time,” GSU president Brooks Keel said. “Give us five years and we’ll be there.”