There was much rejoicing and glad-handing from the powers that be in Statesboro that Georgia Southern was movin’ on up in the on-going collegiate realignment carousel.
But not every Eagle eye sees the grass any greener in the Sun Belt Conference.
Pat Douglas – Georgia Southern’s “original runt” when the school reinstituted its football program in 1982 – isn’t so sure that his alma mater did the right thing in trading the “championship” for the “bowl” in college football’s Division I heirarchy.
“It hasn’t sunk in,” said Douglas, the former Aquinas star who was the only senior among 98 freshman on Erk Russell’s start-up team that quickly became a Division I-AA powerhouse with a record six national championships. “I haven’t been plugged-in real well as to why we’re doing this. I’ve got a hunch it’s why most people are moving around conferences these days – money. I just hate to think of ruining those longtime rivalries (in the Southern Conference). ... That’s good competition and it’s not like we’ve outgrown that conference. I just don’t know that Western Kentucky or Louisiana-Monroe or whoever is going to be that much better competition than what we’re playing now.”
Douglas’ hunch is correct. Georgia Southern sees moving up as an opportunity to present the school as a bigger player in the collegiate landscape by being the small fry in the BIG pond instead of the biggest fish in the I-AA pool.
“Our student-athletes deserve the opportunity to compete and perform on a national stage, and all of our academic people deserve to perform on a national stage as well,” said school president Brooks A. Keel. “This move helps us market the university and get the word out beyond the reaches of Statesboro and our region.”
“In 10 years, I see us competing for championships within the Sun Belt Conference,” said Tom Kleinlein, the director of athletics. “I see us being a nationally-recognized institution for athletics and academics because of the exposure this move will have given us.”
Show of hands, please, if you consider South Alabama or Western Kentucky as “nationally recognized” on par with Alabama or Kentucky due to their long-standing Sun Belt affiliations. Anyone?
Regardless, Georgia Southern joined Southern Conference rival Appalachian State in leaping to the Sun Belt this week. The league also added Western Athletic Conference orphans Idaho and New Mexico State as football-only members. With 12 football members, league commissioner Karl Benson expressed interest in creating two divisions and having an annual conference championship game.
Georgia Southern and Appalachian State are likely to be fixed in the East Division with conference members Georgia State, Troy, South Alabama and Western Kentucky. The WAC newcomers will likely join Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, Arkansas State and Texas State (with non-football members Arkansas-Little Rock and Texas-Arlington filling the slots in basketball season).
Georgia Southern opted to step up after 65 percent of current students voted to pay $75 a semester to support the move to a new level (the parents who pay had no say).
Those fees will be applied to a 6,300-seat addition to 18,000-seat Paulson Stadium and a new end zone football operations center.
Do administrators really believe those extra seats will be filled by fans more eager to see Troy and WKU than they were to see rivals Furman and Wofford?
Perhaps on Thursday or Friday nights to get on ESPNU?
“I just wonder do you get that much more notoriety or exposure playing on a Thursday night against a team that nobody around here knows anything about than you would playing for and perhaps winning the national championship in what I still call I-AA?” Douglas said.
Last December, Georgia Southern played host in the afternoon to Central Arkansas in a quarterfinal playoff game on the same day Georgia faced Alabama in the Southeastern Conference championship in Atlanta. Only 8,888 fans showed up at Paulson for the playoff game.
“We filled up about half of the dad-gum stadium and it was embarrassing,” said Douglas.
“I don’t know if in this close proximity of Athens and Georgia Tech in Atlanta ... you just kind of wonder when are you going to oversaturate it?”
Douglas’ son, Denis, is currently a sophomore at Georgia Southern and was among the 35 percent who did not vote in favor of the fee and moving up in classification. His older brother, John, played football for Georgia Southern and his younger brother, Brendan, will join the roster at Georgia next season, but Denis is just a football fan.
“I hope it works out,” he said. “I love the Southern Conference and it’s all about tradition. Something new to me doesn’t sound that good to me. But all the students were really pumped up about it.”
The football tradition Georgia Southern gives up is competing for a national championship. Six times the Eagles have won the title. Each of the past two seasons under coach Jeff Monken they’ve reached the national semifinals.
The Sun Belt currently has two automatic bowl tie-ins – the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl played the week before Christmas and the GoDaddy.com Bowl in Mobile, Ala., played in January in the vicinity of the BCS Championship game. Last year it placed a record four teams in bowls with at-large invites to the Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl in Detroit and the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana.
While Georgia Southern will be eligible for the Sun Belt title in 2014, it won’t be bowl-eligible until the 2015 season. The Eagles will play their already established Southern Conference schedule this season but without any eligibility for the conference championship or the playoffs.
“I always liked competing for a national championship instead of not a very good bowl,” said Denis Douglas.
Now fans can aspire to attend a pre-Christmas trip to New Orleans and maybe an extra money game per year on the road against an SEC or ACC school looking to pad its non-conference slate with a “D-1” willing to travel.
“I love that school and love Statesboro and Coach Monken has done a tremendous job,” said Pat Douglas of the program he helped start.
“Shoot, I’m rooting them on all the way. We’ll continue to be on the bandwagon and support them 100 percent. I just kind of scratch my head.”
He’s not alone. We can only hope Georgia Southern did the right thing.