It’s been five years since the Georgia Southern Eagles earned a berth in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. In that time, they’ve endured two losing seasons — after having just one in the first 20 years of the program’s rebirth.
Now, it’s Jeff Monken’s task to turn GSU’s fortunes around. The former Eagles assistant — Monken was the slotbacks coach as the Eagles’ fabled triple option attack won back-to-back national championships in 1999 and 2000 — was given such an unenviable task for his first head coaching job.
Monken took the job Nov. 29, eight days after the Eagles completed a 5-6 season and Chris Hatcher was dismissed following three seasons. It didn’t take long for GSU to call Monken.
“I was thrilled. I was thrilled with the opportunity,” Monken said. “I can remember the phone conversation and how fast my heart was beating. To be the head coach at a program like Georgia Southern is something special.”
Monken spent 20 years as an assistant before getting his first head coaching assignment. The son of a coach, 12 members of Monken’s family also are in coaching.
“I’m living the dream,” he said. “It’s something I’ve always aspired to do. I’m fortunate for this opportunity and grateful and humbled they offered me the opportunity. I’m making the most of it. I’m enjoying it.”
But Monken readily admits there is a large task ahead of him and his staff. The Eagles recently completed spring practice, installing an offense that was new to the players.
After the Eagles lost to Texas State 50-35 in the first round of the 2005 playoffs, a coaching change ensued and with it, the triple option offense was sidelined.
Over the last four seasons, the Eagles offense has scored a combined 1,192 points. In the last two seasons of the triple option before Brian VanGorder replaced Mike Sewak, the Eagles scored 1,020 points. Eagles fans have told Monken just how happy they are to welcome back the program’s signature offense.
“I think our fans really take ownership in that being our offense,” Monken said. “A lot of people have expressed those feelings, ‘we’re really glad to have the option back.’ I know that lasts as long as we’re winning.”
The return to the spread option is the third offense for the Eagles since 2005. None of the current Eagles have any experience in the offense, and they also enter the 2010 season without 2009’s leading passer and leading rusher.
The Eagles will have an experienced quarterback this summer, when Jaybo Shaw’s transfer goes into effect. Shaw, a spread option quarterback in high school, played for two years at Georgia Tech, where Monken was slotbacks coach before returning to Statesboro.
As a result, the coaching staff didn’t put in the entire offense during spring practice, cutting that off midway through the third week. They focused on their base plays, namely the inside veer and a handful of other option plays, and the play action passes off those.
Monken envisions getting the rest of the offense prior to the Sept. 4 opener against Savannah State.
It’s also the third different defense in the last five years for the Eagles, who are moving from a 3-3-5 to a traditional 4-3. It’s been a lot for his players to absorb in a short time.
“They’ve put forth good effort,” Monken said. “Not good enough of yet, in terms of the speed we practice with. That’s our job as coaches to get that effort better. But I think in time we’ll get there. They’re very willing. We’ll see how able.”
Eagles fans are anxious to win again — it’s been 10 years since the last of Georgia Southern’s six national titles. Monken isn’t looking for a quick fix to restore the Eagles’ past glory.
“I know we’re charged with bringing a winner to Georgia Southern,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot of effort. It’s going to take a lot of time. We’re going to remain patient. I’m enjoying the experience and I hope to continue to enjoy it. I’m enjoying the excitement and being undefeated right now. Hopefully we’ll bring an offense and a defense and a football team period that Eagles fans will be proud to call theirs.”