Something is rotten on the banks of Beautiful Eagle Creek. No, it’s not the drainage system, the once mighty Georgia Southern Eagles lost to FCS New Hampshire 22-12, and it wasn’t even as close as the score suggests.
The Eagles were down 22-0 at halftime, if anything UNH took their foot off the gas pedal in the 2nd half. The Wildcats completely dominated the Eagles from whistle to whistle. Moving the ball at will and getting several 3-and-outs. The Eagles are now 0-2 and dead last in the country in offense heading into a bye.
It was ugly. As ugly a loss as I’ve seen since the 2006’s loss to Central Connecticut State, the day after Erk Russell had passed away. It was Brian Van Gorder’s first home game at Paulson Stadium. I still remember the preplanned fireworks exploding in the distance as I walked away from the stadium that night, making the bitter pill harder to swallow. But this loss was on a larger stage, FBS.
Sure, the circumstances surrounding the game were unusual because of the storm. But Georgia Southern wasn’t the only team on the field that day that had to change plans because of Irma. This game was lost way before the ball was snapped. One team was well coached, the other one was not and that was completely apparent.
For the 2nd time in Georgia Southern history, the New Hampshire Wildcats were the proverbial canary in the coal mine. A loss to UNH is an indication that something is eroding at the core of the once proud program. Back in 2004, the first time Georgia Southern faced New Hampshire, the Eagles were upset in the first round of the FCS playoffs.
It was the first time Georgia Southern had lost a first round playoff game. GS football was a program that was making its 15th playoff appearance after winning a record six titles at that level. A loss to the Wildcats, who in 2004, were making their first trip back to the playoffs since 1994, was a sign that something was wrong.
At the time, the loss was shocking, yet shrugged off as a fluke. An unfortunate upset in the cold rain of late November. A result caused by turnovers that seem to get produced from the combination of triple option football and precipitation.
But a year later, it looked like foreshadowing when the Eagles choked away another first round playoff game to Texas State. The Eagles were up 35-16 in the 3rd quarter and ended up losing to the Bobcats 50-35. The usually gentille, jovial Eagle fan base morphed into a bloodthirsty mob over the course of only one-quarter of football.
A Return to The Dark Ages
The period in western Europe between the fall of the Roman Empire and the high Middle Ages, c.500–1100 AD, during which Germanic tribes swept through Europe and North Africa, often attacking and destroying towns and settlements. It was judged to have been a time of relative unenlightenment, though scholarship was kept alive in the monasteries and learning was encouraged at the courts of Charlemagne and Alfred the Great.
If there were an analogy, I could give you for what happened after Mike Sewak was fired it would be something akin to the Dark Ages. It was the Fall of Rome, Sewak was from the Erk Russell/Paul Johnson coaching tree. When Mike Sewak had fired Erk Russell’s son Rusty as defensive coordinator after the ’03 season, it permanently damaged Sewak’s relationship with the Eagle legend.
A burned bridge that could have helped him keep his job after the ’05 Texas State loss. It marked an end of an age of enlightenment for Georgia Southern football and ushered in the Dark Ages.
Mike Sewak was and still is a good coach. But two consecutive first round playoff losses, on top of low Academic Progress Rate (APR) scores, created a whirlwind of madness that pushed a good coach out too early. The Texas State collapse was epic in its ineptitude.
The defense just collapsed down the stretch and the Jayson Foster/Jermaine Austin led team quickly saw their lead evaporate over the course of the 4th quarter. The final score of 50-35 was just so shocking and the collapse so sudden, that the Eagle fan base did not quite know how to process the failure. We got rid of a good coach, and have spent the past 13 years trying to recapture the mojo.
What followed is what often happens when a football team tries to change its identity. Brian Van Gorder was hired and promptly decided to get rid of every tradition the program had, including the triple option offense (in a flexbone formation) that had gone out of favor everywhere else in college football but holds a special place in the hearts of most Eagle fans.
His name is currently used as a curse word in certain parts of southern Georgia. He came in, went 3-8 (the ’05 team finished 8-4, do the math) and promptly left in the middle of the night (pulled a Bobby Petrino before it was cool). It felt like we were a victim of a drive-by.
Chris Hatcher came in after Van Gorder left. Hatcher is a good coach (currently at Samford) and talks a good game. But he came from the famed Hal Mumme-Valdosta State coaching tree (produced Mike Leach, Dana Holgorsen, Neal Brown, Art Briles, etc.) and is a disciple of the air raid offense.
The exact opposite of the triple option attack that had become part of the program’s identity. As much a part of the identity as numbers on the side of the helmets and yellow school buses.
Long story short, 2006 to the present day has been a tale of Georgia Southern straying away from its identity with botched coaching hires. Despite a brief glorious interlude with Jeff Monken and Willie Fritz (we’ll call them Charlemagne and Alfred the Great to complete the analogy), Georgia Southern has struggled as a program to maintain success.
While their eternal rival and constant measuring stick Appalachian State has adapted and thrived at the FBS level, Georgia Southern can’t seem to get out of its own way. Where do we go from here?
The Eagle fan base, while not as large as a P5 nor even established as some older G5 programs, might be pound-for-pound the most rabid in college football. Now, if you are reading this from Boise, Idaho or Fresno, California or anywhere outside the state of Georgia, you might call me crazy.
You might not be familiar with how seriously our fans take it. It is SEC level expectations in a small-to-medium size package. Georgia Southern’s Facebook fan page and Twitter community are large and vocal. The main fan site GSUfans.com was not a particularly pleasant place to be this past weekend. But one does not need to go far to see how apoplectic most Eagles fans are after the loss to UNH.
Believe me. This is reaction not uncommon among the Eagle fan base. Ever since I arrived on campus in the fall of 2004, I have witnessed five different coaching changes. This is par for the course, normal even. Tyson Summers has only coached 14 games.
Most schools, especially in the G5, would give a coach a full 2nd season, and probably a 3rd to figure it out. But Georgia Southern is 6-11 ever since that 2015 OT loss at UGA. The Eagles made Dan Wolken’s misery index this week. The program is in a tailspin.
But Georgia Southern does not see itself as just another G5 program. Eagle fans believe their destiny is preordained by the Georgia Southern holy trinity of Erk Russell, Adrian Peterson, and Paul Johnson. Every time we stray away from our identity, it seems the Eagle football gods get angry (we’re a superstitious bunch).
I’m going to be swift and blunt in my assessment. I do not think the Georgia Southern fan base is wrong to be angry about what has gone on. Many people, including myself, doubted the Tyson Summers hire from the start. Tyson Summers seems like a good man, he has a great family, and he was a promising young coordinator.
But the bottom line is Athletic Director Tom Kleinlein made the wrong hire, and that is entirely apparent. Jamey Chadwell, Mike Houston, or even interim head coach at the time Dell McGee, now UGA RB coach, would have been more obvious hires. Tyson Summers came out of the blue, so to speak.
Since its rebirth in 1981, the Georgia Southern football program has been the most valuable marketing asset the school has. Erk Russell gave the school a national identity, although at the I-AA/FCS level, for the first time. Beautiful Eagle Creek, the yellow school buses, the numbers on the side of the helmet, GATA, Hail Southern, and a dozen other traditions were his creations.
It must not fail. It cannot fail. If the football program fails, then we lose ground in the state, in the conference, and in the G5. An already ultra-competitive recruiting ground of Georgia becomes an uphill climb once the program is perceived as a train wreck. Kleinlein failed at this responsibility, if he does not fix his mistake soon, he will be next on the chopping block, plain and simple.
It is a bye week. In two weeks the Eagles travel up to Bloomington, Indiana to face Indiana. A game that looked promising at the start of the year, now looks like a potential curb-stomping of one of the worst Eagle teams I have ever seen.
I witnessed the 2006-09 Dark Ages first hand. I’ve seen my share of bad Eagle football. A bye week is theoretically the best time to make a move if it were to happen at all. Make Cook the interim and see what you can salvage out of this season and next year’s recruiting class. Another bye week follows the Indiana game ahead of the conference opener vs. Arkansas State on October 4.
Hurricane Irma is currently barrelling through Georgia at the moment. I’m typing this article in the Atlanta area, and my window is whistling under the weight of 65 mph winds, and I’m getting off easy compared to the folks in Florida.
There are larger issues at hand. I grew up in Bradenton, Florida and am combing the news for reports of damage down there. Statesboro is completely within Irma’s path. President Jaimie Hebert’s first responsibility is to ensure the safety of the university, students, staff, and faculty.
Once the storm blows through town however, Dr. Hebert will have another storm to deal with. He got a taste of the furor at the end of last season when Summers nearly got canned. For an athletic department that supposedly ran a surplus, and has a record-high $30 million budget, the $900,000 buyout is going to have to be swallowed. Something is rotten on Beautiful Eagle Creek and it needs to be cleaned up before lasting damage is made.