With Georgia Southern University in the midst of a fundraising campaign to upgrade Paulson Stadium, Eagle fans have no shortage of opinions on whether the football program should move up as well — from the Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Michael Ward, an assistant football coach at Effingham County High School, has the added perspective of being a former GSU player. Ward was a linebacker for the Eagles for four years, including the 1999 and 2000 FCS (known then as Division I-AA) national championship seasons.
"I played I-AA football. There’s a level of pride there, but I always wanted more," Ward said. "It was more fun to play against Georgia, in front of 100,000 people, than it was to win national championships."
Although the Eagles lost to Georgia 29-7 in Ward’s sophomore season, he described playing in Sanford Stadium as "awesome" and his "best experience in sports." Ward envisions future Eagles experiencing that thrill on a regular basis if Georgia Southern moves up to the FBS.
"Not next year – I don’t think we have the facilities, the talent or the money yet to be ready," Ward said. "But, for Georgia Southern to reach its potential, I think we need to move up."
Ward was one of several local fans who attended last week’s Effingham County Eagle Club gathering. Many shared his view of supporting a jump to the FBS, but only if it is made at the right time, into the conference that is the best fit for GSU athletics and — most importantly — with the necessary amount of fundraising.
"I would love to see it, but it’s going to take a heck of a financial commitment from the college and from boosters," said Lamar Allen, a Georgia Southern graduate and donor to the GSU Athletic Foundation.
"I’m very supportive of the move. I think it would be a positive thing for the university," said Michael King, a Georgia Southern alumnus, donor and football season ticket holder.
"I think the biggest question is where they end up, what conference, will tell us a lot of things and how competitive they can be to begin with," King continued "But I think we need to do it or we’ll get left behind by some of the other schools, like Appalachian State. I think it’s a good time to make that move."
Football season ticket holder Tom Bolen suggested that "maybe five to 10 years" would be a realistic timetable for Georgia Southern football to move to the NCAA’s highest classification.
Bolen, the father of former South Effingham and Georgia Southern kicker Patrick Bolen, sees Georgia Southern’s move to the FBS as "inevitable." He thinks the NCAA will eventually eliminate the FBS and FCS designations for Division I programs.
"I think we’re making the right moves to get ready. We’re taking our time, not trying to force it like Middle Tennessee State did, for example," Bolen said. "And I think Georgia State is going be in the same boat."
Georgia State recently accepted an invitation to join the Sun Belt Conference and step up to playing FBS football in 2013. Georgia State has fielded a football team for only two seasons, winning nine of 22 games while often playing in front of crowds about 60,000 less than capacity in the 71,000-seat Georgia Dome.
Bolen said he saw a similarly small crowd when he took his son on a recruiting trip to Middle Tennessee State in 2003, just four years after the Blue Raiders played their first season in Division I-A.
"They’ve got a 32,000-seat stadium that had to be built because they went to Division I-A, and they only had 5,000 people there," he said. "Patrick said, ‘Why would I go here?’"
Middle Tennessee is already a member of the Sun Belt Conference — along with several other schools that played Georgia Southern in their I-AA days, including Arkansas State, Troy, Western Kentucky and Louisiana-Monroe (formerly Northeast Louisiana). The Sun Belt could be a potential FBS home for GSU, along with Conference USA or the Mid-American Conference.
Any FBS scenario would mean the end of Southern Conference rivalries with the likes of Furman, Appalachian State, Wofford and The Citadel.
"I think we’ll end up making new rivals wherever we go," King said. "It’s a quality program."
Georgia Southern President Brooks Keel has stated that the Eagles will play in the highest classification, and head coach Jeff Monken has described his program as a "viable candidate to move to the FBS."
Athletic director Sam Baker updated the Effingham County Eagle Club on the expansion of Paulson Stadium, which includes building a football operations center and a second deck with an additional 6,000 seats. So far, GSU has $5.4 million in donations and pledges of the $10 million it needs for the proposed 57,000-square-foot football center.
"A lot of people said we were not going to be able to raise $10 million because it’s the largest private fundraising effort for a facility in Georgia Southern’s history," Baker said. "Right now in pledges and gifts it’s $5.4 million. We have proposals out, and, if we get a few of those, we’re going to be in great shape. It’s all because people are excited about the football program and what Coach Monken is doing with the program."
Georgia Southern will also need money each year for more football scholarships than it currently allots. FBS teams can offer a maximum of 85 scholarships, compared to 63 for FCS members.
"They’re going to have to get more than a one-year commitment from donors if they’re going to do this — unless they have a pot of money that I don’t know about, and nobody else knows about," Allen said. "I worry they’ll get into something and they don’t have the money to do it. Then what are you going to do?"