In looking to return its storied football program back to its former lofty perch, the Georgia Southern Eagles are returning to the system that made them six-time national champions.
Former assistant coach Jeff Monken was handed the keys to the program Monday afternoon, and his return to Statesboro will mean a return to the vaunted option offense.
“People associate Georgia Southern with national championships, with winning football and option football,” he said.
Monken replaces Chris Hatcher, who was let go shortly after the Eagles finished the 2009 campaign against The Citadel on Nov. 14. Hatcher was head coach for three years, compiling an 18-15 record.
In deciding to fire Hatcher, Georgia Southern athletics director Sam Baker said the school wanted to get back to its roots of option football. Since abandoning the option following Mike Sewak’s dismissal in 2005, the Eagles are 21-23 with no playoff appearances. With the option, they won six then-NCAA I-AA national championships from 1985-2000 and were national runners-up twice.
Monken has worked with current Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson for the last 13 years, including stops at GSU, Navy and Tech. Johnson led the Eagles to their last two national titles and was offensive coordinator for Southern’s first two championship teams.
“He was ready and prepared to be a head coach,” Baker said of Monken. “He’s more than ready to be a head coach.”
Monken started as a graduate assistant under Johnson in Hawaii in 1989 and has been with him since Johnson returned to Georgia Southern in 1996. Aside from the offense he’s been coaching over the last dozen years, Monken doesn’t expect many other changes from how the program operated during the Johnson regime.
“I think it’s a great formula,” he said. “In 13 years, he’s gotten us 12 rings on our fingers. “I have Coach Johnson to thank for my career,” he said. “If he didn’t have faith in me, I wouldn’t be standing in front of you and I wouldn’t be able to experience the things I have in coaching. Coach Johnson is one of the best coaches in America. Everything that guy touches turns to gold. I’m grateful to him.”
Though he’s wanted to be a head coach, leaving Johnson’s side was not an easy decision. Monken will continue to coach Georgia Tech through the Orange Bowl, which will be played Jan. 5 against Iowa.
“When you have that decision to make, it’s hard. It’s not easy to leave,” he said. “It’s a chance for me to do something that not many people get a chance to do. And selfishly, I want to be a part of that, too.”
Monken will hit the recruiting trail and has a list of contacts developed from his time on the Tech staff. Though the offense he’s expected to install is a departure from the Eagles’ current scheme, he wants to see how and where the players fit into his plans.
“I’m counting on the kids we’ve got now to be our football team for next year,” he said.
Coaching is in Monken’s bloodline. His dad was a high school head coach in Illinois and four of his brothers were head coaches. There are now seven second-generation coaches in the family.
Monken’s hire also is being greeted warmly by former players.
“He’ll go 15-0 his first year,” said Mike Ward, who played on two national championship teams and is currently an assistant coach at Effingham County High School. “I hate that they fired Hatcher; I hate the way it happened. But this is a good hire.”
Ward played linebacker at Georgia Southern but was recruited by Monken, who has been a slotbacks coach under Johnson. To this day, Ward said, his mother and his sister recall the former Eagles assistant fondly.
“My mom still loves him,” he said. “He’s got a great character. He’s good dude.”
Monken and his wife Beth, a former special education teacher in Effingham County, have two daughters, Isabelle and Amelia.
He also praised his predecessors at Georgia Southern, including Hatcher, and the fact he will be the fourth head coach in six years wasn’t lost on him.
“I understand what the expectations are here,” Monken said. “I was here for five great seasons. But here, there are more people who care whether you win or lose than there are at a lot of other places.
“Therefore, you’re charged with this flagpole not having any more room. We’re going to do our best to see if they need to put up another flagpole out here.”