Robby Wells says he likes a challenge. He’s got one, all right.
Wells was named head coach of the Savannah State University football team on Dec. 22, 2007, taking over one of the most maligned and moribund football programs in Division I. The Tigers have not had a winning season since 1998. They haven’t won more than two games in a season since 1999, and they went 1-9 in 2007.
“We’re doing the same thing Georgia State is doing,” Wells said, noting the Atlanta university’s plans to start a football program. “We’re doing it from scratch.”
Problem is, Georgia State doesn’t plan to put its first team on the field for another two years. Savannah State’s been playing football since 1915. They are 7-47 since moving up to Division I in 2002.
Last year, the Tigers averaged just 8 points and 189 yards a game. They were shut out twice, including a 66-0 loss to Gardner-Webb.
“We’ve told the kids we’ve got to make a 180-degree turnaround,” Wells said. “In order to have a drastic turnaround, we have made drastic changes as far as holding the kids accountable.
“It’s really gone better than I thought it would.”
Because of class conflicts, getting all the players on the field at the same time for practice proved problematic in spring. So Wells and his staff decided to hold practices at 5:30 a.m.
He also was able to add a full-time strength coach, something the athletic programs didn’t have before.
Before coming to SSU, Wells was the defensive coordinator at Benedict College for a year and spent three years as defensive coordinator at South Carolina State. He was also a graduate assistant under Lou Holtz at South Carolina.
Wells, who played on Furman’s 1988 Division I-AA national championship team, tapped into that pipeline to fill his coaching staff.
“We’ve got five guys who have won national championships, and we’ve got three guys who played in the NFL,” he said.
The Tigers had only 38 players complete spring practice, but they are expected to bring back 10 starters on defense. Wells’ staff also hit the recruiting trail hard, even luring two players from Hawaii to Savannah.
“We’ve done a great job putting the staff in and getting recruits in,” Wells said. “We signed 25 kids in-state. I’ve got a great coaching staff that can go out and sell this thing.”
Part of his pitch to potential recruits, some of whom turned down bigger programs to come to Savannah State, according to Wells, is would they rather just be a part of history or be someone who makes history.
But the road to respectability will mean a lot of time away from Ted Wright Stadium. The Tigers, a Football Championship Subdivision independent, will play their first two games of the 2008 season at home. They will have only two home games for the rest of the 12-game season.
In the future, Wells would like to divvy up his schedule, with about half of the teams coming from fellow Football Championship Subdivision teams and the rest coming from other levels.
“We could go eight or nine games at home, as long as we do it the right way,” he said.
Wells, in his first collegiate head coaching job, doesn’t plan on having Savannah State continue to wallow as the nation’s doormat.
“We’re determined to get the job done,” he said.