When the Georgia Southern Eagles played their first season in the Southern Conference in 1993, they were on top of the world.
After Georgia Southern reinstated its football program as a football independent, playing its first season in 1982 after having last played a game in 1941, head coach Erk Russell was brought in to build a program. He didn’t waste any time building a dynasty. In the program’s first three seasons, Russell compiled a 21-11-1 record, and the rest was history.
Over the next five seasons, Russell went 62-9, appeared in four NCAA Division I-AA national championship games and capped it all off in 1989 with a 15-0 season and his third national title.
Russell’s successor, Tim Stowers, went on to win the 1990 national championship, but the program’s last two seasons as an independent were 7-4 campaigns, with the Eagles missing the I-AA playoffs for the first time since their first year in I-AA.
Then, in 1993, Georgia Southern found a home in the SoCon.
The Eagles quickly made their mark on the league. They won the conference title that first season during a 7-1 SoCon campaign — a 13-3 loss to Marshall being the lone league blemish — and finished the season with a 10-3 record and a loss to Youngstown State in the quarterfinals.
Stowers and the Eagles missed the playoffs again in 1994, and after falling to Montana in a 45-0 quarterfinals matchup in 1995, Stowers was dismissed.
He was replaced by interim coach Frank Ellwood, who went 4-7 in 1996 marking the first losing season in the 15-year history of the program’s modern era. That year, Marshall went 15-0, won the national title and departed to become an NCAA Division I-A program.
That was when Paul Johnson — who worked as a defensive line coach and eventually offensive coordinator under Russell — returned to Statesboro for his first head coaching opportunity.
The Eagles had missed the playoffs in three of the five seasons prior to Johnson’s hire. Marshall had two SoCon titles and a 39-5 record in the same span. But there was never any doubt in the minds of Johnson’s staff that the Eagles would once again dominate Division I-AA. Being a member of a league that, for the last three years, had been dominated by Marshall and Appalachian State, didn’t change anything.
“I don’t think we ever considered that,” said first-year GSU coach Jeff Monken, who was an assistant under Johnson at GSU, Navy and Georgia Tech from 1997-2009. “Coach Johnson’s intentions were that we were going to win a national championship. I think we all came here with the idea that we were going to win a national championship. There was no other option other than we were going to win a national championship. We recruited that way, we coached that way and those were the expectations — that we were going to win and we were going to win the whole thing.
“There wasn’t any question in my mind when I took the job with him here, and I drove down here in a U-Haul, that we were going to win a national championship under his watch.”
Still, inheriting a GSU team that had just suffered the program’s first losing season had its challenges.
“There was a lot of uncertainty,” Monken said about the spring of 1997 after Johnson and his staff took over. “I think the guys on the team really just kind of got away from the team. They were really loose, and we just weren’t sure what we were going to get out of them.”
The Eagles won their second SoCon championship in 1997 and repeated in a 14-1 1998 season, the only loss that season coming in the national title game against UMass.
They then won the program’s unprecedented fifth and sixth national titles in 1999 and 2000 against Youngstown State and Montana.
Johnson lost only 10 times in his five years as GSU’s head coach.
“It was probably more surprising that we got there that quick,” Monken said about the staff’s success in the title game. “I didn’t know that we could get it going and get to that game that quickly, but it wasn’t surprising that we were in that game. That was the expectation here. That’s what people here in Statesboro and Georgia Southern fans have become accustomed to and expect. That’s Georgia Southern. You’ve got to win the whole thing, so we came here with that in mind.”
By 2001, Georgia Southern had racked up six national titles under three different head coaches with four different quarterbacks calling the plays.
It won at least a share of the SoCon title every year Johnson was at the helm, which shot the fans’ expectations through the roof. Six conference championships and two national titles since the program became a SoCon member, the Eagles now were expected to win SoCon titles and compete for the national championship every year.
“You hope so,” said GSU director of athletics Sam Baker of the program’s expectations. “We went through a run there when Paul Johnson took over that we were in the playoffs every year. We went through a period before that where we were in, out, in, and then all of a sudden it became expected that we were going to be in it — not only in it, but win it. That’s the goal we certainly, as Georgia Southern, want to be — one of the premier programs in the country.”
Johnson’s last season in 2001 saw his fifth SoCon title and the program’s sixth, and ended with a loss to Furman in the semifinals of the playoffs. It was the first GSU playoff loss at home.
Johnson, who then left for Navy and brought much of his offensive staff, including Monken, with him, was replaced by then-offensive coordinator Mike Sewak.
Sewak won the SoCon in 2002 and 2004 and narrowly missed the national championship game his first season, falling to Western Kentucky in the
Sewak missed the playoffs after a 7-4 campaign in 2003 and won the last of the program’s eight SoCon titles in 2004, but did not win another playoff game, suffering first-round losses to New Hampshire and Texas State in 2004 and 2005.
After the 8-4 season of 2005 and the 50-35 playoff loss to Texas State in which the Eagles blew a 19-point lead in the third quarter, Sewak’s contract was not renewed. Baker alluded to Sewak’s inability to reach the program’s lofty expectations as reason for his release.
“Right or wrong, this is a program built on success,” Baker said at a Nov. 29, 2005, press conference after Sewak and his staff were dismissed. “I think when you join the program here you understand that. Georgia Southern is one of the programs in the country that has high expectations.
Those expectations, over the last several years, have not been met.”
Baker also stated at the press conference, “When (Johnson) was here we were feared, and I’m not so sure we are back at that stature. I think most coaches are willing to take that challenge. I want to rebuild this program to where it is one of the elite programs in I-AA.”
Until that point, Georgia Southern had only hired coaches familiar with the spread-option offense installed by Russell and Johnson when the program was reinstated.
This time, the decision to go away from that offense was made, and on Dec. 9, 2005, Brian VanGorder was hired to install the pro-style offense that would change the course of Georgia Southern football and usher in the longest playoff- and league-championship drought of the modern era.