Kennesaw, Georgia has a limited national cache. It was the sight of General William T. Sherman’s last frontal assault of the Civil War after losing 3,000 Union soldiers attacking the Confederate fortifications at the top of Kennesaw Mountain. The old MLB commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis never actually lived in there (yeah it’s spelled that way). It is also known for its weird city-wide mandatory gun-ownership ordinance. Even less people have heard of Kennesaw State outside the state of Georgia, but that is rapidly changing.
Kennesaw is a carbon copy of just about any number of suburban/exurban communities that ring the city of Atlanta. These communities usually center around a Kroger, a Publix, and a Chick-Fil-A. It is a full 45-minute drive to Atlanta on a good traffic day in northern Cobb County (there are no good traffic days in Atlanta) where the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains begin. Not a terrible spot on a college campus.
That setting makes for an ideal location for a college campus. And what sets it apart from its most direct rival in the Atlanta area: Georgia State. While Georgia State has become a behemoth collection of several campuses both inside and outside the perimeter, Kennesaw is closer to the classic college town setting. For some inexplicable reason, Georgia State will host Kennesaw State to kick-off the 2018 season. Given KSU’s momentum and GSU’s recent struggles in home openers, I wouldn’t be that surprised at an Owl upset over the Panthers.
After a relatively comfy schedule, the Owls finish up their season with a game against Jacksonville State at SunTrust Park, the Atlanta Braves stadium. It will be the first ever college football game played at SunTrust Park. That’s a high profile FCS matchup in a sexy, new park in the same media market as GSU. If they could start the season by beating Georgia State in the old Turner Field, and finish it with a win at new SunTrust Park, before starting their playoff run, that’s going to put them on the FBS expansion radar for good.
Unwittingly or not, this season could determine the trajectory for the whole University for years to come.
Who knows? Maybe within a decade, KSU is in the Sun Belt or Conference USA. It is located outside the most important college football media market there is, Atlanta. Fellow Big South Conference mates Coastal Carolina and Liberty already bolted for greener pastures. A school with 35,000 students seems a bit large for FCS no matter how you cut it. How did Kennesaw State get here?
The last decade has been of remarkable for Kennesaw State University. If you are a stakeholder in the University at any level, whether it be alumni, student, parent, or employee there must be a tremendous amount of pride felt at how the institution has climbed. If KSU were a stock, their rise would be akin to Apple stock before they came out with the iPhone in 2007. It’s rise the past decade has been remarkable.
Present enrollment is at 35,000, 3rd largest in the state after UGA and Georgia State
2017, Kennesaw State football team wins their first Big South Conference crown, makes it to the Quarterfinals of FCS Playoffs in third year of existence.
2016, KSU was upgraded to a doctoral research institution with R3 status by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Learning.
2015, University System of Georgia announced that Kennesaw State University would merge with nearby Southern Polytechnic State University. KSU established the Southern Polytechnic College of Engineering and Engineering Technology.
2013 – 2015, The Board of Regents approves plans for KSU to field a football program. The school started the football program with the 2015 season as a member of the Big South Conference.
2005 – 2010, the Owls began the four-year transition to Division I. KSU became full DI at the beginning of the 2009–10 season.
Within 14 years, KSU became DI, added a football team, added an engineering school, and became a Doctoral Research University. That is break-neck speed for the institution that was founded in 1963. It’s setting just outside a huge media market could be enticing to the Sun Belt or Conference USA if they ever decide to expand. The question is where does Kennesaw State go from here? What is its ceiling?
The growth has been nothing short of staggering. In the state of Georgia, there has always been sort of hierarchy of public in-state colleges with UGA and Georgia Tech at the top and Georgia Southern and Georgia State on the 2nd tier. When I graduated high school in 2004, Kennesaw State was an afterthought. Today, they are now comfortably on that 2nd level with Southern and State and growing.
When Kennesaw state was first looking into adding a football team in 2009, they hired UGA legend Vince Dooley as a chair member for the exploratory committee. Not a bad guy to help you put together a football program. I can’t help but think he had Erk Russell’s experience at Georgia Southern in mind when he helped them choose a Paul Johnson disciple: Brian Bohannon.
The Woodstock native Bohannon did a masterful job creating a program out of thin air and turning it into a team that was eight points away from the FCS semifinals in its third year of existence. His triple option offense, borrowed from 15 years coaching under Paul Johnson, is an excellent system for teams with limited resources. Service academies, schools with stringent academic requirements, and start-ups fit that bill.
The Owls are a shoe-in to repeat as Big South champs and are expected to make a return the FCS quarterfinals, if not further.
Kennesaw State has their stadium, Fifth Third Stadium, that seats 8,300 people and can be easily expanded. That’s where SunTrust Park comes in. SunTrust Park is only a few exits down from both the Kennesaw and Marietta campuses, and could conceivably house KSU football temporarily while Fifth Third gets renovated. The game against Jacksonville State might as well be a dry-run for bigger plans down the road.
This isn’t to say that everything has been smooth sailing for KSU. Their President Sam Olens resigned in December after a tumultuous tenure at the helm. Olens ran into protests from the moment he took over due to his affiliation with the Republican Party in Georgia and the lack of transparency during the selection process. When a group of football cheerleaders knelt during the national anthem at a football game, he ordered to have the cheerleaders removed until after kickoff. This decision led to a fresh series of campus protests that eventually led him to resign.
But the Olens tenure is a small blimp on an otherwise northward trajectory for Kennesaw State University. It will continue to grow and may reach north of 40,000 students in the next decade. That’s a lot of students, that’s a lot of economic power. Keep an eye on the Owls, if you haven’t heard of them by now, you will soon.