STATESBORO—Georgia Southern University is not moving up to the Football Bowl Subdivision or leaving the Southern Conference to join another conference anytime soon.
GSU athletics director Sam Baker said the university has had discussions with only one conference - the Sun Belt Conference. Sun Belt officials said they are content with 12 members (10 of which play football) after recently adding Georgia State, Texas State and Texas-Arlington.
"We’ve had no conversations (with other FBS conferences)," Baker said. "We reached out just to see what the temperature was in the Sun Belt."
The Sun Belt Conference is losing Denver this summer to the Western Athletic Conference. Next summer, North Texas and Florida International will leave for Conference USA.
Baker said he got in touch with Sun Belt Commissioner Karl Benson to see what insights he may have on the future of the Sun Belt. Baker said the conference was comfortable at 12 schools and with 10 playing football.
"They just said that right now they’re at the number (of schools) that they’re interested in," Baker explained, "and certainly they would keep us in mind as they would a lot of different institutions."
From a geographical and financial standpoint, Baker noted, Sun Belt membership might work for Georgia Southern.
"I think it still remains that people want to have a competitive program," he said. "And it still comes down to how you’re going to finance it. If you increase your football scholarships to 85 (up from 63 in the Football Championship Subdivision), we’re going to have to increase our women’s scholarships in a proportionate number because of Title IX. It’s going to be a major economic move. It’s just not football — it’s an entire athletic program."
The Sun Belt Conference appeared to be GSU’s best option at the FBS level, much better than the Western Athletic Conference. Membership in the WAC is seen as a huge financial undertaking because of the travel involved.
Baker said GSU will not join the WAC, even if an invitation is extended, because it is not economically viable for the Eagles.
"The WAC has got some issues," Baker said. "Right now they’ve only got two football programs and I believe five schools overall in the conference after this year. … They’ve been at the brink of being dissolved a few years ago and they came back from the abyss, but I don’t know this time if they can make that."
And GSU can forget about joining Conference USA, at least at this time.
"If you look at the schools that went into Conference USA, they came out of large media markets," Baker said. "I think everybody in the country is where they’re going to be at this moment. I don’t think there’s any conversations going on anywhere about new conferences."
The Colonial Athletic Association, an FCS conference, has extended invitations to SoCon members Davidson and College of Charleston. Baker said Georgia Southern has no interest in joining the CAA.
"We’re in the Southern Conference," he said. "If we’re FCS, this is the conference we’re going to be in."
The CAA lost Georgia State to the Sun Belt Conference, Virginia Commonwealth to the Atlantic 10 Conference and Old Dominion to Conference USA.
"There’s been an invitation from the Colonial to Davidson and Charleston," Baker said. "We’ve not heard, as conference members, where that may lead. It would be hard to tell. I think they both benefit by being in our conference."
Funding must increase
GSU President Brooks Keel in April said the Eagles plan to leave the FCS and the SoCon at some point. Dr. Keel said he believes the national media exposure GSU would attract by playing football in the FBS, especially games televised by ESPN, would help GSU "move from a regional university to a national university."
Last July, GSU’s Athletic Foundation began a "Soaring to Victory" campaign, an eight-year, five-phase, $36.6 million initiative designed to ensure future athletics success.
Keel said $10 million in signed pledges must be secured before the construction of a 57,000-square-foot Football Operations Center in the east end zone of Paulson Stadium can begin. It is the marquee project of Phase I in the five phases of the "Soaring to Victory" campaign.
The five phases are Phase I: "Stabilizing the Program" ($15.5 million); Phase II: "Enhancing the Student-Athlete Experience" ($2.85 million); Phase III: "Upgrading Athletic Facilities" ($7.5 million); Phase IV: "Improving the Fan Experience" ($10.5 million) and Phase V: "Expanding the Technology Infrastructure ($275,000).
In April, GSU Athletic Foundation President John Mulherin said $5.1 million in cash and signed pledges had been generated.
The amount has increased to $5.9 million, Mulherin said Thursday.
"We’ve always said we’re going to do what we have to do to have football at a meaningful level here at Georgia Southern," Baker said. "And we will do everything we need to do to try to do that. But it’s going to mean, if you read the feasibility study, a major influx of money to make it all work. We work very hard right now to live within the budget to make it all work with the budget that we currently have, which is a little over $11 million."