On Friday night, the Georgia Southern football team will conduct a practice in Savannah, on the soccer fields of Armstrong State University. The athletic department plans to host a “Fan Fest” around the practice starting at 6 pm complete with autographs and “inflatables.” It is the first opportunity the university has to brand the itself to its newly acquired entity.
The school is using its greatest marketing asset, the football team, to make the Armstrong campus feel like equal partners in this consolidation. It is the first week of classes at Georgia Southern and Armstrong State this week. Perfect time to put on a show for students and Savannah-based fans. A good first step toward sewing up the two campuses.
“Once this organizational chart gets passed, the next thing is ‘how do we utilize the facilities and combine the two campuses with the facilities that we have?'” Kleinlein said.
The University isn’t quite sure yet how this Frankenstein of an institution will look. They are still waiting on the Board of Regents to give them an organizational chart on how to use Armstrong’s athletic facilities. The plan so far is to hold a fair share of athletic events on the Savannah campus to ease the transition.
Importance of Savannah
Due to low-cost of living, decent weather, being a beautiful historic city near a beach with an international airport, and having the rapidly expanding Port of Savannah; the Savannah metro area has boomed during the last two decades. Tie it together with neighboring Statesboro, Ft. Stewart, and Hilton Head, its population is approaching 600,000 and still rising.
The deepening of Savannah Harbor is underway. This project is estimated to have an $84 billion economic impact on Georgia’s economy. The Savannah port has been growing exponentially It’s one of Georgia’s main trade arteries with the rest of the world. Since 2000, Hilton Head’s population grew by 20%, Chatham by 25%, 33% in Bulloch, and 55% in Effingham and Bryan counties. The area is booming and the timing of the Board of Regents’ decision to merge Armstrong and Southern could not have come at a better time.
The economic impact that the area’s higher education institutions have on the region cannot be understated:
“The Savannah College of Art and Design puts the dollar figure on its regional impact at $386 million in economic output for fiscal year 2012.
“SCAD’s impact is larger than that of either Savannah State University or Armstrong Atlantic State University. The impact of those institutions was reported as $148 million and $214 million respectively earlier this year. Statesboro-based Georgia Southern University boasts a $524 million impact. Unlike the private SCAD, all three of those universities are publicly funded.“
With the addition of Armstrong State to Georgia Southern, the economic impact on the region could easily eclipse $1 billion per year shortly. Acquiring a school with a budget of over $100 million with 7,000 students, in the middle of the closest major media market, is a huge deal. It doesn’t take an expert to figure out how this deal would benefit Georgia Southern.
Budget has climbed
The budget has climbed from $18 million to $30 million since 2014. 2014 was the athletic program’s first year in the Sun Belt Conference and the football programs first at the FBS level. New student fees, higher ticket sales and price points, more donations, and new revenue streams have helped boost a budget that has long languished near the bottom of even the Southern Conference.
A quick estimate of an extra 7,000 students paying the $129 Georgia Southern University athletic fee once a semester theoretically would yield an additional $1.8 million in revenue per year. Enrollment would officially jump from around 20,000 students up to more than 27,000 students.
This is a huge administrative undertaking, but at the same time, the BOR has been through eight other consolidations in the past decade. Frankly, it also paves the way for potential takeovers down the road of struggling schools all over southeast Georgia such as Coastal Georgia, East Georgia State, and South Georgia State could be next. Waycross College and South Georgia College* merged into South Georgia State College in 2013.
*(Quick side note; South Georgia College was founded in 1906 as 11th District A&M, the same year Georgia Southern was founded as 1st District A&M)
Consolidation Planned Out
Georgia Southern University has not approached consolidation haphazardly. It has sought input from the community at-large. The CIC is a blend of both Georgia Southern and Armstrong State employees, as well as one Savannah State representative. For a President that only recently came on the job, this endeavor will largely define Dr. Jaimie Herbert’s legacy. A man who only recently took over the job last July. To his credit, he is pacing himself but at the same time making important decisions.
- Naming of Campuses in Savannah and Hinesville: The Georgia Southern University campus located in Savannah will be formally named the Armstrong Campus; the Georgia Southern campus located in Hinesville will be formally named the Liberty Campus.
- Naming of Current Buildings: All named structures currently existing on the Armstrong campus will retain their historic names.
- Transfer Status for Student-Athletes: Student athletes will be immediately issued open transfer status by Armstrong’s athletic administration, with the exception of softball, whose playing season is currently in progress. When softball season has concluded, the participating student-athletes will immediately be issued an open transfer status by Armstrong’s athletic administration. This will ensure that student-athletes do not lose any eligibility.
- Athletics Scholarships: All athletics-related scholarships for affected student-athletes will be honored, provided students are making satisfactory academic progress. This plan will allow student-athletes who are affected by the consolidation to continue their education without bearing an additional financial burden.
Once consolidation takes effect in January, the Armstrong Campus leader will report directly to Georgia Southern President Jaimie Hebert and have oversight of Armstrong’s Liberty Center in Hinesville. The senior organizational structure calls for five vice presidents. Currently, both universities have four, including their provost. Other than the campus leader for Armstrong, those positions will not likely be in Savannah.
To its credit, whether forced to or not by circumstance, Georgia Southern has done a decent job at extending the olive branch to the disillusioned Armstrong State campus. The basketball gym will be named Armstrong Alumni Arena. The reigning 2016-17 Under Armour Division II Athletic Director of the Year Lisa Sweany joined the Georgia Southern Athletic Department as deputy AD after running Armstrong State’s office for the past six years.
Transportation to and from campus will be provided for Savannah based students by the university for selected football, baseball, and basketball games. 10 other staff members were brought over from the Armstrong State athletic department, this includes:
- Kim Dean – new GS softball coach
- Sean McCaffery – new GS women’s tennis coach
- Michael Butler – new director of school’s Golf Performance Center
- Jenna Wylie – assistant women’s golf coach
- Brian English – director of baseball operations
- Harold Watson – director of strategic marketing
- Chad Jackson – media relations for men’s soccer, women’s basketball, softball, and swim & dive teams
- Jennifer Rushton – associate director of student athlete services
These additions are not token hires either though. Sean McCaffery went 91-6 at ASU with two DII national championships. He was also 70-16 as the men’s coach at the same time. Kim Dean’s staff was named the 2017 NFCA Division II Southeast Region Coaching Staff of the Year after leading ASU’s softball team to the semifinals of the tournament. Additional resources include the Armstrong athletic facilities such as the spiffy new tennis courts and select Armstrong State athletes such as Corey Tillery and Paula Boixader.
It remains to be seen if these olive branches will be enough to appease the Armstrong campus. faculty, and alumni. Hosting a football practice and Fan Fest on the first week of classes is pulling out the big guns early. The Coastal Georgia Challenge is another such attempt. While upperclassmen on campus might still hold bitter feelings. The incoming freshmen are more impressionable. Perhaps they could be persuaded to join Eagle nation with autographs and free t-shirts. We shall see. It’s just the first step.