While the whole world remains in a virtual holding pattern due to the coronavirus outbreak, the Georgia Southern news cycle keeps churning. New Athletic Director Jared Benko has been on the job for a little over two weeks and has already made his first coaching hire. On March 29th, Texas Tech assistant coach Brian Burg was named the new head coach of Georgia Southern men’s basketball. The process Benko went through to hire Burg during these weird times was somewhat of a national story.
Brian Burg spent the last four seasons on Chris Beard’s staff at Texas Tech, the 2019 national runner-up. Before Texas Tech, Burg coached at North Carolina Central, Campbell, and Sun Belt Conference mate Little Rock during their historic 2015-16 campaign. He is known as an excellent recruiter and a hard-worker around college basketball circles. For all intents and purposes, Burg looks like an A+ hire.
Unfortunately, Brian Burg has his work cut out for him. Along with losing Ike Smith, Isaiah Crawley, Simeon Carter, David-Lee Jones, and Trey Dawkins to graduation, the basketball team also lost Quan Jackson, Calvin Wishart, and Trevion Lamar to the transfer portal. That is eight of the top ten minutes contributors gone. On top of all that, Caleb Byrd, Mark Byington’s top-rated signee for next season decommitted and recommitted to UNC-Charlotte.
Guard Elijah McCadden and wing David Viti Jr. are the only players returning that saw the court in any meaningful way last season. They, along with UAB transfer G Zack Bryant form the foundation of the team’s starting lineup until Burg signs some reinforcements. This might prove difficult considering recruiting now has to be done via Zoom or FaceTime. Something to keep an eye on.
It goes without saying that these are challenging times for college athletics. Athletic departments around the country have had to make hard financial decisions regarding their programs. Cincinnati had to discontinue its Men’s Soccer program. Old Dominion has to make drastic cuts to keep its athletic department afloat. The G5 conference commissioners have asked the NCAA to relax their requirements to compete in Division I for four years. USA Today estimated that P5 schools could lose an estimated $78 million in revenue PER SCHOOL in 2020 if no football is played in the fall. One can only imagine what that means for the G5.
While proposals for a shortened season or even football being pushed back to the spring of 2021 get bandied about, Jared Benko has to operate as if all systems go (for now). Benko was kind enough to host a Facebook Live Q&A session where he answered questions from stakeholders.According to Benko, Georgia Southern will receive $800,000 less than they usually would from the NCAA and Sun Belt due to the canceling of the NCAA Tournament and spring sports. $800K is not as bad as some programs but still a substantial amount. But considering football and men’s basketball are by far the largest revenue generators for Georgia Southern’s athletic budget, the worst is yet to come. There’s no telling what the impact might be if college football can’t be played in the Fall.
Besides the impact of Covid-19, Benko covered several interesting topics. Here’s a run-down.
The top two priorities currently are a convocation center and building an indoor practice facility. It goes without saying that the future of Hanner Fieldhouse has been a subject of much debate among Eagle Nation. Despite undergoing several renovations in the last few years, Hanner remains undersized. With a student body north of 27,000 students across three campuses, a gym with 4,000 seats is simply not adequate for hosting graduations and notable events. Whether this means Hanner will undergo a massive renovation or a whole new facility is built remains to be seen.
As far as an indoor practice facility goes, Benko is 100% on board with the idea. The football team lost several practices last season due to bad weather, which puts them at a competitive disadvantage. It sounds like there’s a real chance we can see this dream come to fruition.
Benko was asked a question about his plans on hosting sports in the city of Savannah going forward. He pointed towards the new arena being built there as an opportunity to host ‘unique events.’ In September, Savannah city leaders broke ground on a new $165 million arena on in the Canal District. The facility should take about two years to complete. Once complete, it allows the basketball programs the opportunity to potentially host tournaments in the city.
Georgia Southern’s relationship with the city of Savannah is more critical than ever before. The Armstrong State merger in 2018 has been a controversial and challenging endeavor for the University. Figuring out how to maximize Georgia Southern’s primary market will be a challenge for Benko.
Men’s and Women’s Soccer games have been played on the Armstrong campus. Football has hosted preseason practices down there. The baseball team scheduled games at Grayson Stadium this season and last. Picking the brains of the Savannah Banana marketing department might not be the worst idea in the world.
P5 in Paulson
Hosting a P5 team in Paulson is a hot topic among the fanbase, Benko knows this. It is a challenge though. He has experience scheduling at previous jobs and knows how hard it is. He did not rule out the possibility of signing a 2-for-1 agreement in the future.
Georgia State Rivalry Series
Not married to it. The rivalry series (which Georgia Southern won this year) is among the most unpopular initiatives that Tom Kleinlein undertook. If he somehow scrapped it, it would buy him a fair amount of political capital with the fanbase.
A healthcare/first responder day is in the works for the football season, whenever we get there. There will be a big push to get alumni back to campus for events. He said the key is engaging students while they are on campus before they graduate. The acknowledges that the best way to increase attendance and contributions is to put a winning product on the field.
The luxury that Jared Benko has now during the lockdown is that he has plenty of time to plan how he will approach all of these challenges. Who knows what the future will look like post-corona, but it sounds like the right man is at the helm to lead us through these uncharted waters.