Are You Ready For Some Football?

Both Georgia State and Kennesaw State are considering new football programs – GSU has recruited Dan Reeves to lead its effort. Students, alumni, administrators and fans are enthusiastic, but in the end, it will all come down to money.

Dan Reeves has one of the best resumes in pro football history: sixth winningest head coach of all time, nine Super Bowl appearances as a player or coach. And once, he led the Atlanta Falcons to a playoff victory in Green Bay, becoming the first visiting coach to beat the Packers on Lambeau Field during the postseason, a feat that conjured far-fetched images of victims crushing the lions in ancient Rome.

But that was only the National Football League. Last April, Reeves was recruited by Georgia State University to do something really impressive – stir up passion and cash as point man in the Atlanta school’s endeavor to start a college football program.

“There’s no question that football at Georgia State would be received with open arms, that it would be great for the university and the city,” says Reeves, hired as a consultant for the school’s football study. “And there’s no question that we could be successful – there isn’t a better hotbed for football players in the country. We’re in a great recruiting area.

“But there is an awful lot that has to take place to make it happen.”

And all of it is about raising money. So in May, Reeves was drawing up a fund-raising playbook, gauging the interest of students, alumni and business leaders. Meetings were set, banquets planned, checks written and accepted – a couple of anonymous donors stepped up early to pledge some $150,000, leaving the university about $7.5 million short of the estimated start-up cost for its football program.

Reeves’ job is to figure out if Georgia State should punt or go for it. But GSU President Carl Patton will make the final call, answering a question he’s been asked since arriving on campus 15 years ago.

“It happened the first time I met with students,” says Patton, who holds regular “Panther Roundtable” dinners with students. “The first question at the first roundtable was, ‘When are we gonna start football?’”

Students, alumni and people whose only connection with the concept of higher learning is football kept asking. So last year GSU enlisted C.H. Johnson Consulting to conduct a football feasibility study. Completed in November at a cost of $65,000, the study breaks down the costs of starting and maintaining a football program, identifying likely funding sources (student fees, alumni donors, sponsors), facility options, as well as proposing a timeline for phasing in football (and new women’s sports to help GSU meet its Title IX gender equity requirements).

“Basically, we gave them leeway to dream big,” says Mary McElroy, GSU’s director of athletics. “Now we’ve got to go out and find the money to make it happen.”

And Georgia State is not alone. In June, Kennesaw State University released a feasibility study of its own, conducted by Turner & Associates.

“Our sports already are Division I, and we want to make sure that we are Division I in every sense,” says KSU President Dan Papp. “Football is part of the study, but we’re looking at the future of all of our intercollegiate sports programs, and how to fund them.

“There’s a wide perception that Kennesaw State needs to raise its visibility, and that athletics is a key way to do that. The feasibility [study] tells us that there is funding available for additional support of our existing sports programs, and that a lot of people think there is funding out there for football.”

The study identified more than $110 million in potential gifts from a variety of individual and corporate sources, and indicated that KSU is ready to begin an athletics capital campaign – a feasibility committee agreed, and plans for a $15 – 25 million campaign are moving ahead quickly.

Papp, who has barely been on the job for a year, insists that KSU’s efforts focus on all sports; but it seems that everyone wants to talk football.

“I’ve made 100-plus speeches and presentations for Kennesaw State, and every time during the question and answer session, with one exception, I’ve heard the [football] question,” says Papp, who was a defensive back at Dartmouth in the Ivy League, and later a quarterback for the semipro Florida Suns.

The one exception, he says, was during a presentation for a professional women’s group. “But afterward,” Papp says, “four or five ladies approached me and asked, ‘When are you gonna start football?’”

KSU’s Athletic Director Dave Waples has waited for an answer to that question for 20 years.

“I’ve always wanted a football program here,” says Waples, who helped start one at Valdosta State in 1981.

Since then, VSU has developed one of the top programs in NCAA Division II football, winning a national title in 2004 and multiple conference championships. West Georgia introduced its program around the same time and also has fielded winning, title-contending teams in Division II.

Several years ago, Mercer University in Macon looked into the possibility of starting a nonscholarship football program.

“We decided to put it on the back burner,” says Mercer Athletic Director Bobby Pope. “It was such a huge startup expense, and if you add football, you don’t want it to be a drain on your other sports.”

Even so, Pope says Mercer, now with a new president, probably will look again into the possibility of adding football. Meanwhile, he’ll keep his eyes on what happens in Metro Atlanta. GSU and KSU are considering programs at the Football Championship Subdivision level (formerly NCAA Division I-AA). Georgia, Georgia Tech, Auburn, etc., play in the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A).

“We need to think of where we’ll be 30 years from now,” Waples says. “I believe by that time we’ll have a football team at Kennesaw State, and that we’ll be competing at the highest level, against the Georgias and Georgia Techs. And if we aren’t thinking that way, we are missing out.”

Game Plans

GSU’s leadership believes football will rally a student population that hasn’t quite warmed up to the school’s other sports. GSU teams drew only $26,562 in total gate receipts for all sports in 2005. The school’s flagship sport, men’s basketball, averaged fewer than 1,200 a game in home attendance.

Even during the years that Lefty Driesell was coaching men’s basketball, and the Panthers were winning big games, reaching the NCAA Tournament, the team didn’t draw particularly well.

“Let’s face it, we haven’t had a good record of turning out large numbers of people,” says GSU’s VP for External Affairs, Tom Lewis, instrumental in recruiting both Driesell and Reeves. “When we were winning in basketball, ranked among the top 30 teams in the nation, we had a mediocre turnout at best. Being an urban commuter school, when our students and faculty leave for the day, they usually do not want to drive back downtown.”

GSU (with 26,000 students) and KSU (almost 20,000), the second and third largest institutions in the University System, both are commuter schools, with a small number of students living on campus (approximately 2,500 at GSU; 2,000 at KSU).

So, what makes GSU think football will fare any better with its students, who must agree to a proposed increase in their athletic fees (from $284 a year to $485, phased in over several years) for football to fly?

Well, there’s the survey. C.H. Johnson sent questionnaires to GSU students, faculty and alumni. About 64 percent of the students surveyed said they’d be willing to pay a higher fee to have a football team, and be more likely to attend games. Some 4,087 of the 26,000 students who received surveys took part.

Patton says students would have to agree to the increase. This is important because student support can make or break college sports programs, most of which could not exist without student athletic fees. Earlier this year, East Tennessee State was trying to revive its football program after several years in mothballs; but students there voted against an athletics fee increase, so the subject of football was put away.

In an ongoing effort to transform their campuses, both KSU and GSU are expanding student housing. GSU is expecting 7,500 of 36,000 students to be living on campus by 2015.

“Do the math,” says Patton, who imagines a traditional college campus atmosphere in the heart of downtown Atlanta. “You play fewer home football games, five or maybe six, unlike basketball. And all of those students living on campus will be looking for something to do before the basketball season gets going.”

That’s another thing. Georgia State has tried to increase interest in sports, especially basketball, by hiring big-name coaches. There was Driesell, whose hiring brought instant recognition, if not live audiences. The basketball team fell on hard times after Driesell’s retirement in 2003. But in March, McElroy announced the hiring of Rod Barnes, who won the Naismith Coach of the Year Award a few years ago at Ole Miss, so there are great expectations again on the basketball court.

“Up until 12 or so years ago, we just didn’t put any emphasis on our sports programs,” explains GSU’s Lewis. “I think that was one of the gross injustices we could have done to our students and alumni.”

Based on the feasibility study survey results, students, alumni and faculty all support the idea of football. The likely scenario is that GSU will play its home football games in the Georgia Dome – a per-game rental fee in the $40,000 range is more realistic than a multimillion-dollar stadium, McElroy says.

But GSU’s football future also depends on practice facilities (probably at the Panthersville recreation complex, a few miles from campus), an increase in staff and the addition of three women’s sports (lacrosse, field hockey and rowing were proposed in the feasibility study).

The earliest a team would be able to take the field, McElroy suggests, is 2010. By then, it is projected that football alone will account for more than $3.1 million of what is expected to be a $14.8 million athletics budget (up from the current $8.8 million).

“Is there a demand and love for football in Atlanta and Georgia? Definitely,” says Tony Barnhart, the nationally-syndicated Atlanta Journal-Constitution college football writer. “Georgia State doesn’t have to worry about where it will play – the Dome, within walking distance. They’ll play in a state that is loaded with great high school players who can’t all sign with Georgia, Georgia Tech and Georgia Southern. A lot of players who might otherwise leave the state will have another option to stay close to home.

“Once they make the initial investment and field a team, though, what kinds of crowds will they draw? That’s a big question. But if they want a model of how to do it right, that’s easy. The model is Georgia Southern.”

In Erk’s Shadow

Georgia State’s feasibility study dissected football programs in GSU’s conference, the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA). It also looked at one of Georgia’s last new college football programs, Georgia Southern, where a beloved bald man who put the “head” in head coach built an empire.

“Nobody did it better than Erk Russell,” says Dan Reeves, who played high school football in Americus before going off to star at South Carolina. “Georgia Southern will be feeling his impact for years to come.”

Within three years of his 1981 hiring, Russell, who died in September 2006, had the Eagles fighting for national titles in Division I-AA, in a brand new stadium. It seems almost laughable today that it took only $250,000 for Georgia Southern to start its program. Russell’s first recruiting budget was a paltry $2,000 – Georgia State’s recruiting budget in 2010, according to the feasibility study, would be $70,000.

But then, it’s been 25 years and Georgia State is in the heart of a very competitive market. A Panther football team would be competing for sports dollars against Georgia Tech and, to an extent, Georgia, as well as Atlanta’s major league pro teams.

Nonetheless, Atlanta Sports Council president Gary Stokan thinks there is plenty of room for additional college football in Metro Atlanta.

“There’s no better marketing tool for a university than a successfully run athletic program,” says Stokan, who has worked to make Metro Atlanta a recognized sports capital. He has motives beyond football. Kennesaw State would need a stadium if it starts a football program.

“I told Kennesaw State that if they were interested in building a facility that will seat 20,000 to 25,000, we’d like to talk about using that for a potential Major League Soccer [MLS] franchise,” says Stokan, who already has outlined to MLS commissioner Don Garber the reasons why Georgia presents a good growth opportunity for the league – local corporate sponsors, a top 10 TV market, the ongoing population growth (a large percentage of which is Hispanic, traditionally a huge soccer market).

Of course, any new college football program would be after the same trove of local corporate sponsors. Reeves is on the job, working the room for Georgia State. There reportedly already is some significant sponsorship interest. Plus, the school claims to have more alumni in CEO and top executive posts than any other Georgia institution.

Fourth and Long

Mary McElroy is a pioneer in her field, an African-American woman running an NCAA Division I athletics program. Hired by Georgia State in June 2005, she was a two-sport athlete at the U.S. Naval Academy (basketball and softball) who came across town to GSU following a stint as the senior women’s administrator in the Georgia Tech athletic department.

“I’ve spent my career around football programs. I’m a fan. I don’t apologize for that,” she says. “But I’m fine with or without football here. If it’s beneficial to the university, then I hope it’s something we’ll pursue. But I didn’t have to bring football to Georgia State – the idea was already well entrenched when I was hired. The first question I was asked was about football.”

Patton will ultimately answer the question, and sooner rather than later. “We’ll do it this year. We’re not gonna drag this out.”

For a guy who claims to be passionately neutral about football, Patton is confident that it can work at GSU. “It’s clear, I think, that we can raise money. We have people giving gifts now who have never given us a dime.”

Patton also looks at football as a business proposition, odd considering most football programs and athletic departments do not make money, per se. Without student athletic fees and donations, they would be bleeding green. That’s why it’s important for Reeves to stay on the offensive if GSU seriously wants to do this.

Down in Statesboro, 25 years ago, Russell brought instant credibility to the Georgia Southern program. GSU’s hiring of Reeves engenders the same sense of confidence going forward.

“That was a wise move,” Barnhart says. “Reeves brings credibility, and puts a recognizable face on the program. Everybody knows and respects him.”

Reeves, 63, was unceremoniously fired by the Falcons with three games left in the 2003 season; he has said he is interested in returning to coaching again, and coaching at the college level would be a new challenge.

“It’s not something I’m ready to commit to yet, but I’m not ruling it out,” says Reeves, who was first approached about the GSU consultant gig by Lewis in an Atlanta barber shop.

“I told him, ‘We need to have coffee.’ Didn’t mention anything about athletics at first,” Lewis says. “Later, I told him that we wanted to start a football program and he was the man to get us going in the right direction. So right now he’s a consultant.

“But if we do start football – and the prospects look really good – then Dan Reeves will have whatever role he wants.”

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