SAVANNAH, Ga. - Elon coach Paul Hamilton loves coming back to the Coastal Empire for friends, food and the atmosphere.
But he sees one downside.
"The problem when you come back is those blue jerseys," Hamilton said of his team's matchup with blue-clad Georgia Southern in Paulson Stadium.
Today's 1 p.m. clash might not change the way he looks at his homecoming of sorts. The third-ranked Eagles (3-1, 2-0 Southern Conference) lead Division I-AA in rushing (391 yards a game) and points (55.3 per game).
Elon enters with a 1-2 record. The Phoenix won just two games during their first year in the Southern Conference last season.
"We're trying to build and get better," Hamilton said. "We are getting better."
So what better place to build and get better than the Coastal Empire? Hamilton began his coaching career at Glynn Academy in 1981. He taught in the middle school and worked as an assistant to David McKnight on the high school's varsity team.
After one year, Hamilton moved up to the college game. He spent one season as an assistant at The Citadel, five years at East Tennessee State, two at Wofford before joining Fisher DeBerry for seven years as a quarterbacks coach at the Air Force Academy.
Hamilton left Air Force in 1997 to become head coach at East Tennessee. When the Buccaneers' program folded last season, Hamilton landed in Elon, a private school just north of Greensboro, N.C.
"Paul was a credit to everything down here," said Frank Inman, the former athletics director of high schools in Glynn County. "Nobody was surprised to see him go straight up the ladder, although how quickly he did it was amazing. Elon is blessed to get someone like that."
Can Hamilton help the Phoenix rise from the depths of the Southern Conference standings? He began the rebuilding process with a youthful nucleus, led by his son Kye, a true freshman quarterback.
And no doubt his knowledge of option offenses can only help prepare the team against Georgia Southern's triple-option attack. Hamilton's ETSU squad beat the top-ranked Eagles 19-16 in 2001 in Johnson City.
"He knows us, and we know him," said GSU coach Mike Sewak. "We've been battling with him for a long time, starting when we were at Hawaii and he was at Air Force.
"I'm sure he's kept his ties with the Air Force Academy, and we talk to them too. If you're an option coach, you'll swap information. I'm sure some of our information has come down to him."
Understanding what GSU is doing and finding troops to stop it might be two different things, however. Hamilton's East Tennessee State teams lost by 21 (47-26 in 1998), 35 (42-7 in 2000) and 33 (40-7 in 2002) in their past three games at Paulson Stadium.
And the Eagles want to continue ruining Hamilton's returns to the Coastal Empire. They have overpowered their past three opponents by a combined score of 193-34.
"The thing that concerns me is their athleticism," Hamilton said. "You have to be impressed with the quality of their athletes. (GSU) is ranked high, but I'm not sure they shouldn't be ranked in I-A. They're the real deal."