After six national titles in 30 years of Football Championship Subdivision/Division I-AA play, the Georgia Southern Eagles are about to embark on a new path — and the schedule in their inaugural Football Bowl Subdivision campaign has a handful of obstacles.
Georgia Southern announced earlier this year it was accepting a bid to join the FBS-level Sun Belt Conference, leaving the FCS Southern Conference after 20 years. The Eagles also announced their non-conference schedule for 2014, their first year of FBS competition, and it includes road trips to Georgia Tech, North Carolina State and Navy.
The road to FBS level, though, has to be paved with money, and GSU is trying to raise the money for its move up.
"We’ve seen an increase in donors since we made the announcement," said athletics director Tom Kleinlein.
Kleinlein and other Georgia Southern officials also are out on the road trying to explain why the move was made and what it means. While some fans embraced the move, others haven’t.
"There was a group that didn’t know what it meant and was scared that it was going to affect our traditions," Kleinlein said. "Then there was another group that was excited, our student body and the people who had been coming to our games.
"And there was a group that thought we were going to be moving up and going to beat Georgia tomorrow."
Kleinlein, hired last year to replace Sam Baker, who retired after 17 years on the job, said the group that was dubious of the move had to be convinced going to FBS wasn’t going to detract from Southern’s traditions. Those who supported the move had to be told that the rapid success of GSU’s entry into I-AA — back-to-back national championships in the first three years — may not be repeated.
"The first group I had to educate that the move up was not going to take away from our traditions," he said. "It was only going to help our traditions and help our history by moving our program forward and getting our football program out there on the national scene.
"Now, I had to explain to the other group that it was going to take time for us to build this thing," Kleinlein continued. "We’re not going to go from where we are today to looking like Georgia tomorrow. That’s not going to happen. I don’t know that we’re ever going to look like Georgia. But we’re going to look a lot better and a lot bigger than we are now."
Kleinlein, who was deputy AD at Kent State before coming to Georgia Southern last November, said he wanted to be more of an external person as the GSU AD.
"We have to grow beyond Statesboro," he said. "We have to incorporate Savannah, we have to incorporate Atlanta, we have to incorporate Jacksonville."
Georgia Southern is in the middle of its Soaring to Victory capital campaign, with a target of $36.6 million. It will fund such improvements as the $10 million football operations center, complete with coaches offices, meeting rooms and a strength training center overlooking the playing field, to be built at Paulson Stadium.
A "Champion the Champions — Double the Donor Base" drive is expected to bring in $1.5 million to back the athletic department’s operations. That money will help cover additional travel, recruiting and staffing.
Moving to the FBS means adding 22 more scholarships to the football program. With additional football scholarships, GSU has to add more women’s scholarship sports — or reduce the number of men’s scholarships offered — to reach its federally-mandated Title IX balance.
The feasibility study said Georgia Southern could compete athletically at the FBS level. Competing financially at the level, however, could be more difficult. GSU doesn’t have the alumni, fan or donor base of its new peers and also doesn’t have the pool of corporate sponsorships to tap for additional income.
The feasibility study also said Georgia Southern’s likeliest FBS destintion would be the Sun Belt, which has signed a television deal with ESPN. The network will show Sun Belt games on ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU.
Yet the study also said other FCS institutions — Central Florida, South Florida, Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee State, for example — have made the leap with some success.
Georgia Southern announced in April it was adding women’s rifle as a sport, and the first tryouts were held earlier this month. The scholarship limit for that sport is 3.6. There are 34 NCAA schools that field rifle teams, and Georgia Southern will be using the Shooting Sports Education Center it is building in conjunction with the city of Statesboro.
Adding air rifle alone won’t bring the Eagles to Title IX balance, so the school is exploring adding another women’s sport to its complement of 16 intercollegiate athletic programs.
"We definitely have to make some adjustments in terms of Title IX," Kleinlein said. "Women’s rifle will not be the only sport we add so we’re equitable to both men and women."
Georgia Southern has looked at adding sand volleyball and women’s golf. The school has its own golf complex for its highly-competitive men’s program.
"It would be a natural fit for our area, and that would be one we have a chance to be successful in," Kleinlein said. "We have a great facility."
The cost of joining FBS goes beyond the exit fee paid to the SoCon and the entrance fee for the Sun Belt — 22 additional football scholarships, and the requisite additional women’s sports scholarships also will drive up Southern’s expenses. So too will the extra travel for Sun Belt conference games and the expansions and improvements needed for the move up in play.
The feasibility study conducted four years ago concluded GSU’s athletics department budget would have to grow by 40 percent — from $9 million a year to $14 million annually — to make the jump to FBS.
But the games against Georgia Tech — moved up from 2015 — N.C. State and Navy are expected to help the Eagles’ bottom line. As a FCS school, Southern stood to gain smaller checks when playing FBS schools. Those payouts are expected to triple with the move to the Sun Belt.
Georgia Southern had been scheduled to play LSU in 2014 but that game has been pushed back.
"When we make our football schedule, we schedule two guarantee games a year," Kleinlein said. "We can start doing that and we know moving forward how to build a budget around that. We got paid $300,000 this year to play the University of Georgia. In 2014, we have three FBS opponents and an FCS opponent and it will net us $1.9 million."
Students also voted in two new fees — a $75 per semester charge to fund the move to FBS and a $25 per semester fee to back expansion of Paulson Stadium. The stadium expansion will add 6,300 seats to Paulson Stadium and add a deck.
Kleinlein and other GSU officials have been canvassing the state, speaking to alumni groups to both push the FBS move and push for financial support.
"I think that’s going real well," Kleinlein said.
In the effort to push the FBS move, Kleinlein wants to evoke the initiative that re-started Georgia Southern football. He wants a FBS version of the "Dirty Dozen," a group that banded together to get the financial ball rolling in 1981.
"We’re talking to groups of people, and we’ve labeled this group the Transition 20," Kleinlein said "We’re looking for 20 guys who can help us transition from where we are at FCS to the FBS level."
When he announced Southern had accepted the invitation from the Sun Belt, joining Southern Conference foe Appalachian State, Kleinlein worried how to honor the "Dirty Dozen."
"Now, 10 years from now, when it takes us to a championship, I want to figure out how I’m going to honor that group of 20, those 20 guys or 20 corporations or 20 groups of people that are going to step up and help us financially," he said.
Georgia Southern’s football team will compete at the FCS level for 2013 but will ineligible for the playoffs. It also will be ineligible for the postseason in 2014 as it transitions from FCS to FBS.
The 2009 feasibility study also had a reclassification study from the NCAA, which pointed that revenues increase by moving up but so do expenses and at a rate to offset any rise in revenues. The reclassification study also said that moving up is a "financial drain to the athletics department."
Kleinlein and GSU president Brooks Keel have gone out on a speaking tour to discuss what the move means "and how it benefits not only our athletic programs but also our faculty, our students, our surrounding communities," Kleinlein said.
The new AD said they are winning over fans who have been reluctant to embrace the move to the Sun Belt.
"We’re starting to get people to understand why the move was made," he said, "and I think a lot of the questions and a lot of the hesitancy is starting to go away."