A New Era of Georgia Southern Athletics

The Coronavirus nationwide quarantine could not have come at a more inopportune time for Georgia Southern athletics. Before the shut down began, the University named Jared Benko its new athletic director. The hire got nearly unanimous approval from Eagle Nation. Benko checks every box I (and many others) was looking for in a new AD. He’s young, he’s from Georgia, he has over a decade’s worth of experience at several SEC schools, and his specialty is money. Coming up with a better candidate in a lab would have been difficult. Benko’s first day on the job is April 1st, but he might need to wait even longer to get started. 

The Men’s Basketball team beat arch-rival Georgia State in Atlanta for the second time in two weeks and booked their tickets to New Orleans for the Sun Belt Conference semifinals. They were two wins away from their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1992. Unfortunately, we will have to wait another year.

The Baseball team swept the season series from the Georgia Bulldogs for the first time since 2015, raising their RPI to 29th in the country. Longtime Eagle skipper Rodney Hennon had just racked up career wins 800 and 801 with help from a stellar pitching staff. Now the season is on pause, no word on when or if it will resume.

The Football team had just started their spring practice. Unquestionably, optimism abounded about the progress that is possible in year three of the Lunsford era, particularly on offense. Eagle Nation has been abuzz ever since former offensive coordinator Doug Ruse rejoined the staff as tight ends coach. The Blue-White game and annual EFAA auction scheduled for April 3rd is a question mark. So is the opportunity for Jared Benko to meet more of the fanbase during his first week on the job.

Additionally, Kindle Vildor and Tyler Bass just completed successful stints at the NFL Combine. Other seniors were able to go through drills on Pro Day on Friday, but it remains to be seen if the NFL Draft will go on as planned. 

The Men’s Golf had just finished 1st at the Colleton River Collegiate tournament. The team shot -15, seven strokes ahead of 2nd place Iowa State (-8) and 18 strokes ahead of Notre Dame, the 12th ranked team in the country. Carter Collins’ boys were getting ready to host the 41st annual Schenkel Invitational March 13-15. Unfortunately, that was one of the first causalities of the quarantine. 

Kim Dean’s softball team started their conference slate, taking 2 of 3 from ULM. Men’s and women’s tennis were also having solid seasons. 

The Benko Era

All of this will have to wait until our nation gets a hold of this pandemic. As of today, the tentative startup date is April 1st. Who knows what this virus could look like in two weeks? If the best-case scenario plays out, Eagle baseball could start back April 1st with a trip to Knoxville to face the Tennessee Volunteers. Worst case scenario, we won’t see another game played until the Fall, or even longer. 

Undoubtedly, this is an inauspicious start to the Jared Benko era. But eventually, the Covid-19 scare will go away, and normalcy will return. When it does, there is no doubt that Benko has his work cut out for him. Georgia Southern has the 7th ranked athletic budget in the Sun Belt Conference, 60% of which comes from student fees. Getting that number into the top tier of the Sun Belt has to be a top concern. 

Outside of women’s rifle, no other sport has won a conference title since Men’s Soccer regular-season title in 2016. Football hasn’t won one since 2014; it’s first year in the Sun Belt. This has to change.

The Armstrong State merger has been largely unpopular among all stakeholders. What sports go where? Figuring out how to build bridges between Statesboro and Savannah in athletic will be among his most important responsibilities. So will expanding the Georgia Southern brand in other nearby metros of Atlanta, Jacksonville, Charleston, Macon, and Augusta.

The donor rate among Eagle alumni remains anemic. Expanding the donor base and developing more corporate partnerships will be among his most significant challenges. Can he get the corporations with Georgia Southern ties like Chick-Fil-A, Arby’s, Zaxby’s, Parker’s, and Gulfstream to open their wallets?

Facilities. Talk to any member of the message board mafia, and they’ll give you the following shopping list: a new arena, a renovated press box/home side, and an indoor practice facility; in no particular order. Additionally, beer and wine sales at sporting events have been a hot topic as of late. What’s his vision on that front?

Will his relative youth be an asset when it comes to innovation?

Georgia Southern’s potential is unlimited. Jared Benko will have to navigate all of these issues in the years to come. The search committee did a tremendous job of finding a candidate with his combination of experience and youth. An injection of fresh blood and ideas was needed, and I think that’s what we got. The right man can build this athletic department into a Boise State on the banks of the Ogeechee. All it takes is the vision, money, and hard work. On paper, it looks like Jared Benko should be able to provide Georgia Southern with all three. Time will tell. 

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