This is an exciting time for Georgia Southern football.
Not only are the 13th-ranked Eagles conducting a search for their third head coach in the past six months, but mighty Marshall, the top-ranked Division I-AA team in the country, visits Statesboro today. What's more, this marks the final scheduled meeting between the Eagles and the mean green powerhouse from Huntington, W.Va.
After tormenting the Southern Conference through the first half of the '90s, Marshall makes the jump to Division I-A for the 1997 football season. With four appearances in the I-AA national championship game in the past five years, including a title in 1992, Marshall will move into the Mid-American Conference.
This is great news for all Southern Conference rivals, but most particularly for Georgia Southern. The Eagles have lost their last three meetings with Marshall by a combined score of 84-23.
They also have watched in frustration as Marshall annually swept into Georgia and spirited Peach State recruits away to the hills of West Virginia. Eleven Georgia products will be in Thundering Herd uniforms for today's 3:30 p.m. game at Paulson Stadium.
"We were able to market that program," says former Marshall coach Jim Donnan, now in his first season at Georgia. "We got our games on SportSouth and had a TV package that covered 17 states. That enabled us to come in the South and recruit players. We used to hit Atlanta hard."
Two Division I-A transfers, former Florida backup quarterback Eric Kresser and ex-Florida State wide receiver recruit Randy Moss, lead Marshall's attack. In Division I-A, both players would have had to sit out a season instead of being immediately eligible a level lower.
Donnan left Oklahoma after the 1989 season for the Marshall job. In his six seasons in Huntington, the Thundering Herd raised unprecedented funds. A $31 million stadium and a $5 million facilities building stand as testament to the efforts of Donnan and former Marshall athletic director Lee Moon, now at Wyoming.
Those successes also prompted Marshall to make the jump to the MAC, where it will swap rivals like Furman, Georgia Southern and Tennessee-Chattanooga for Miami of Ohio, Toledo and Bowling Green.
"I think it's a mistake," Donnan says. "The reason they're doing it is because they thought there would be scholarship cutbacks (at I-AA). You're tops where you are. Now they're going to lose the Southern recruiting base. I think it's going to be good for Georgia Southern. There's going to be more Georgia players available for them to get."
ERK RUSSELL listens patiently as someone explains Donnan's theory, but he just shakes his bald head as the logic tumbles past. The legendary coach, the father of Georgia Southern football, doesn't agree.
"I didn't realize Marshall has been beating Georgia Southern in Atlanta," says the 70-year-old Russell, who retired in 1989 after winning three I-AA national championships. "But if it has, I really think moving up to Division I-A might help Marshall beat them even worse."
But wouldn't Marshall now be setting its sights on a higher caliber recruit, someone with a little more size, a little more speed, a little more polish? Someone who can keep up with the pace of Division I-A play, where the pace, according to interim Eagles coach Frank Ellwood, is "a step and a half faster"?
"I don't think there's a heck of a lot of difference" between the Southern Conference and the MAC, Russell says. "Marshall may strive for better players, and I'm sure they'll enlarge their recruiting scope. But they're not going to beat Georgia or South Carolina or anybody like that for players."
Sam Baker isn't sure what to make of Marshall's departure in terms of recruiting. But the first-year athletic director at Georgia Southern does see one obvious benefit in the move. The Eagles no longer must take a back seat to Marshall where national prominence is concerned.
"They go from being No. 1 to being just another member of the Mid-American Conference," says Baker, who previously worked at Vanderbilt, Oregon, William & Mary and the College Football Association. "I don't know if they gain anything by going to the Mid-American except the ability to schedule money games on the road. But I know this: They lose the ability to play for a national championship."
That was a big drawing card for the Herd.
Derrick Reeves, a junior defensive tackle from Butler High, remembers serving as recruiting host for Andre O'Neal, a linebacker from Decatur, Ga. O'Neal, who was also recruited heavily by Marshall, liked what he saw on the Statesboro campus and talked at length with Reeves about his decision.
"He really didn't want to go that far away," Reeves says. "But I could kind of tell he wasn't coming to Georgia Southern. He said, `Anybody going to a national championship game every year, you'd want to be there.'°"
O'Neal is now a freshman at Marshall.
PERHAPS NOT since Russell kick-started the program in 1981 have the possibilities been so plentiful for Georgia Southern football.
In the next few weeks, the seven-member search committee will begin to narrow its list of coaching candidates. Interviews could begin by the end of October, and Baker hopes a new coach will be in place by Dec. 1.
Early speculation places Ray Goff at the top of the heap. The deposed Georgia coach is sitting out this season and collecting a seven-figure settlement as part of his November 1995 firing. But he has made it clear that he would like to coach again.
"Ray Goff gets mentioned all the time," Russell says. "Everybody in Statesboro has heard that rumor. On the committee, you'll hear somebody say, `I wonder if old Ray Goff would like to coach again. I heard he'd really like to.' And somebody else will say, `Naw, that won't happen.' But you never know. He hasn't said anything to me about it."
Baker refuses to call Goff the front-runner.
"I'm sure Ray will get due consideration," he says. "The committee will review Ray like all the coaches."
Whoever the next Georgia Southern coach is, he might be able to recruit his home state with a degree of freedom not seen since the pre-Donnan years.
"I hope that's true," Baker says. "The new coaching staff will focus on the state of Georgia very hard. That's the way this program was built. We built an identity with local kids and gave them a chance to stay closer to home and have their families come to watch them.
"We're the only I-AA program in the state. Georgia, Georgia Tech and to a lesser extent Florida State will come through and recruit premier players. But there's a whole group of players out there that can come to Georgia Southern, get a good education and compete for a I-AA championship."
Starting this winter, that's one pitch Marshall recruiters won't be able to use.