It’s been four years since Georgia Southern has been in the NCAA Football Championship Series playoffs. It’s been seven years since the Eagles’ last playoff victory.
But GSU Athletics Director Sam Baker believes coach Chris Hatcher has the program back on the right track, he told the Effingham Rotary Club.
Hatcher will enter his third season as Eagles head coach when GSU kicks off 2009’s campaign Sept. 5 against Albany (N.Y.). Baker pointed out that the Eagles played 33 freshmen in 2008’s 6-5 campaign in which they also played four overtime games.
“Coach Hatcher’s doing a great job,” he said at the Effingham Rotary Club’s weekly meeting Thursday. “He’s got some talent.”
The young Eagles team showed its resiliency last year against Western Carolina, Baker noted, as they rallied from a 31-3 deficit in the fourth quarter to eventually prevail in overtime.
“It takes time to learn how to win,” Baker said. “It’s easy to lose. It’s hard to win.”
And Baker wants to get as many fans as possible into Paulson Stadium, which will celebrate its 25th year this season. The Eagles averaged 18,168 fans for home games last year, and the 20,851 who saw Georgia Southern’s showdown with then three-time defending national champion Appalachian State became the stadium’s 10th-largest crowd.
Georgia Southern’s average attendance dipped to 14,979 in 2001 and was only 15,612 in 2006. But in Hatcher’s first year, the Eagles averaged 18,925 fans per home game, the highest total since the program was restarted.
“There’s a certain energy when you have a full stadium,” Baker said. “My mission is to get people to come out and enjoy a college football game. Paulson Stadium is a great venue to watch a college football game. I want to invite people to come be part of one of the crown jewels of this region.”
Baker is out on the recruiting trail of his own to try to drum up support for the athletic programs.
“I realized I hadn’t been out. I had gotten bogged down in the office,” he said. “I felt like it was time I needed to get out there.”
Georgia Southern has 360 student-athletes in 14 varsity sports. That means Baker and the athletic program have to find support for the scholarships in those sports.
“I’ve got a job I enjoy getting up and going to work every day because I have an impact on the lives of young men and women who are able to play a sport they love to go get their education,” he said. “It’s been a fun time.”
Georgia Southern announced in November 2007 it would undertake a feasibility study to explore moving its football program from FCS to Football Bowl Subdivision. FCS teams can offer 63 scholarships; FBS teams have a maximum of 85 scholarships available.
“The study will be in our hands shortly,” Baker said. “We’ll just have to assess what’s in there and where we’re at and what the community is willing to do. We’ll have to make a business decision. It’s one of those decisions that’s going to take broad-based discussions in the university.”
The Eagles have won six FCS — previously known as I-AA — national championships, all coming in a span of 15 years from 1985-2000.
“There’s a lot of programs that started around the same time as Georgia Southern that have not had the success Georgia Southern has had,” Baker said.