With a rich football history including six Division I-AA national titles and a Southern Conference history including eight league titles and two national championships, Georgia Southern came to a crossroads in 2006.
For the first time in the program’s modern era, the Eagles changed their offensive philosophy.
The change was made after a stunning playoff loss in 2005 in which Mike Sewak’s Eagles saw a 19-point, third-quarter lead quickly turn into a 50-35 loss to Texas State. Sewak’s contract was not renewed, and Brian VanGorder — at the time the linebackers coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars and previously the defensive coordinator for the Georgia Bulldogs — was hired and made the change from the option-based running offense to a more common, pro-style offense.
VanGorder’s history with the Southeastern Conference and the NFL made him a popular choice as Sewak’s replacement, but the change did not go as smoothly as anticipated.
The Eagles, who hadn’t lost more than three home games during any prior season in the modern era, lost five of seven on the 2006 home slate and finished with a 3-8 record, a new season low for GSU.
VanGorder resigned less than two months after the conclusion of the season and eventually returned to the NFL, opting to coach Atlanta’s linebackers. He is now the defensive coordinator.
Georgia Southern moved quickly, finding another coach in Chris Hatcher, whose high-octane passing offense and success at the Division II level — he won a national title at Valdosta State and left with a career record of 76-12 — made him another highly-anticipated hire.
Hatcher moved Jayson Foster — who started at quarterback as a sophomore in 2005 and was moved to wide receiver in 2006 — back to quarterback.
Foster had a record-setting season his senior year, winning the Walter Payton Award as the most outstanding player in the Football Championship Subdivision and had the Eagles in good shape nine games into the 2007 season.
Georgia Southern went 7-2 in the first nine games and both losses were SoCon games that ended in overtime. A 24-22 loss to Furman with the program’s ninth SoCon title on the line ended in a missed field goal, and a 42-34 loss to Colorado State the following week eliminated GSU’s hope of a playoff bid.
Two of the seven wins came on the road against No. 5 Appalachian State — which started the season with a win over Michigan and ended it with
its third-straight national title — and against No. 10 Wofford.
Foster graduated at the end of the season, and the Eagles began a slow decline, finishing 6-5 in 2008 and 5-6 in 2009.
Hatcher was released immediately after a 13-7 win over The Citadel ended the 2009 season.
Jeff Monken, who was on Paul Johnson’s staff at GSU, Navy and Georgia Tech from 1997-2009, was hired to bring back the option offense and lead the Eagles into 2010.
Monken believes that the program’s history can only help the current team improve.
“There’s more people that care,” he said. “The expectations are there, but there’s a standard set for our players. They walk the hallways of (the Parrish Center) every day. They see the championship trophies, they see the All-American pictures and they see the records. There’s a standard that’s been set. I think our players, they want to be good.… Everybody wants that. Knowing that there’s been success here, hopefully that puts less doubt in their mind that it can be done. It can be done, but it’s going to be up to them.
“It’s certainly easier than taking a program that hasn’t ever done it, where there is no tradition of winning, and trying to take it to the top.”
“We just didn’t feel like next year was going to be any different than this year,” said GSU director of athletics Sam Baker following the announcement of Hatcher’s dismissal on Nov. 21, 2009. “We just felt like now was the time to do it — go ahead and make the change and start anew — working to get our program back to being one of the premier programs in FCS football.”