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What next for Eagle Nation?
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It has been another stunning turn of events for what was once the envy of all I-AA football programs. The question now is, is the next turn for the worse?

Just moments after taping the final coach’s television show for the year — and not long after the end of the season finale against The Citadel — Georgia Southern head coach Chris Hatcher was met by athletics director Sam Baker and GSU vice president for business Dr. Ron Core at the bottom of the steps in the Bishop Fieldhouse. They were there to tell the third-year coach he would not be there for a fourth year. Not long after, Baker summoned an impromptu news conference to detail the reasons behind the quick dismissal of Hatcher.

While Baker lambasted Hatcher’s recruiting, it was keeping, not getting, those players here that appeared to be the problem. His heralded signing class of 2008 — 37 strong, including early enrollees — had only 18 players on the roster to start the season, though another one was sitting out the season because of academic problems.

When Hatcher — who had great success at Division II Valdosta State — took the job, he said his offensive philosophy wasn’t too far removed from the option offense that had made Georgia Southern the premier program in FCS. Instead of pitching it sideways, they were going to pitch it forwards. Without a legitimate deep strike threat, the Eagles passing game struggled throughout the season. Hatcher knew this year’s team had some limitations.

But with no downfield passing game to speak of, the Eagles relied heavily on wide receiver screens — much to the growing consternation and frustration of a great deal of the fan base. Despite attempting 62 more passes and completing 76 more passes than its opponents, GSU had 250 fewer passing yards. Georgia Southern quarterbacks averaged 4.9 yards per pass attempt and were sacked twice as much as opposing quarterbacks.

The Eagles had no single play from scrimmage for more than 50 yards this season and averaged 4 yards per play.

Baker also said it didn’t appear that next year was going to be an improvement on this year, which ended at 5-6 with a win over The Citadel. Yet there are indications that his assessment may be off the target. Of the 112 players on the preseason roster, 83 were either freshmen or sophomores.

Next year’s Eagles team was expected to have Leander Barney and Chris Teal back in the fold, giving them a needed — a badly needed — infusion of speed into the offense. Jamere Valentine, who turned in a terrific freshman season, led the Eagles in receiving. The addition of Barney and Teal, and the late-season emergence of Jonathan Bryant, might have given the Eagles just the boost to the offense they need.

Georgia Southern’s offense struggled after four very promising players were booted off the team. Dr. Bruce Grube, the soon-to-retire school president, interjected himself into the news conference on Hatcher’s dismissal to make note of the 18 exceptions Hatcher was granted to get into GSU — and added only seven of those players remained in school.

Carson Hill also was out this season, and his anticipated return at cornerback would give Georgia Southern two very good players, along with LaRon Scott, at those spots. The linebacking corps is deep, and Brent Russell has all the makings of being one of GSU’s great defensive linemen.

After two coaching changes in about 13 months, after the struggles with the academic progress rate, after the personnel losses on offense, the 2009 Eagles were destined to miss the playoffs for a fourth straight season. They came close — like a few feet wide of the uprights — in Hatcher’s first year, when he abandoned his usual gameplan in order to give a singular and unique talent in Jayson Foster and the offense a chance to shine.

What if Hatcher had stuck to his original plan all along? Would the offense and program be farther along? Was there a deleterious effect in the long term for the short-term gain?

In meeting with the media Saturday night to discuss the university’s decision, Baker said they didn’t want the program to be seen as a turnstile for coaches.

It’s too late. The next coach will be the fourth one in four years. A program that once played for a national championship eight times in 15 seasons is now so far removed from that, it’s like 1980 overall again — and the administrators and power brokers at Georgia Southern need to realize just how great the gulf they’ve created is.

For Eagles fans, looking at this year’s 5-6 record for the next few years may be a relief instead of a disappointment.