STATESBORO, Ga. — Georgia Southern’s new athletics director Tom Kleinlein knows about tough sells. As a deputy athletic director at Kent State, he was in charge of raising money for a football program that hadn’t won in 32 years.
His first call was to an Ohio State booster, who had season tickets to Buckeye games and sat courtside at OSU basketball games.
But the man played football at Kent State.
“It took the ability to explain where we were trying to go and what we were trying to do,” Kleinlein said. “Once he understood, he started investing in our program. We developed a great relationship. He’s now at (Kent State) games, now sits on athletic boards. He’s changed his culture.”
To a big extent, Kleinlein will be asked to change the culture surrounding Georgia Southern’s athletics.
But that’s what he signed up for after beating out a field of more than 50 candidates. Kleinlein was announced to GSU coaches and boosters Monday night at the Nessmith-Lane Conference Center on campus.
Kleinlein, 42, takes over for Sam Baker who resigned in July after 17 years as the Eagles AD.
GSU used Parker Executive Search — an Alanta-based firm to conduct a national search for qualified candidates. School president Brooks Keel said the field was narrowed to eight candidates who were interviewed last week.
The final two — Kleinlein and North Carolina executive senior associate athletic director Chris Kingston — were interviewed Monday and the final decision was made later in the afternoon.
“Tom has a passion that’s palpable,” Keel said. “He articulates incredibly well, and he has an experience base that can build our vision.”
Kleinlein comes with a strong resume in athletics at several different levels. He was a four-year letterman as an offensive lineman at Wake Forest and coached high school football in North Carolina.
He spent 4 1/2 years at Wake Forest as an academic counselor before being named the Demon Deacons assistant director for football operations in 2002.
He took a similar position at Rutgers, then moved up to associate athletic director for football at Arizona State.
In 2010, Kleinlein went to Kent State as a deputy athletic director. He was part of an implementation team for a 10-year, $42.5 million athletic facility master plan for the Golden Flashes.
Georgia Southern currently has a $37-million endeavor to upgrade its 14 athletics programs.
“First thing you have to do is get out and get in front of people,” Kleinlein said. “A lot of raising money is developing relationships, but it’s also educating people in what we’re trying to do and why we’re trying to get there.”
Monday, optimism was apparent.
“(Kleinlein) is energetic, very experienced and passionate,” GSU men’s basketball coach Charlton Young said. “He’s from the school of hard knocks. Rutgers was a tough job that they rebuilt. Kent State was a tough job that they rebuilt. I think he sees we’re a gold mine and he can draw on those experiences to take us to the next level.”
Football coach Jeff Monken, who rushed from the practice fields to attend the press conference, was equally complimentary.
“(Kleinlein) has a football background and for us it’s nice to know we have a guy that knows our angle and where we’re coming from,” Monken said. “I think he’s going to be great for our university — to grow our department, help every sport and help this university.”