Georgia State University seems to have everything going for it: the second-largest enrollment of any state college, a campus that is revitalizing downtown Atlanta with all the new buildings going up, and a sterling reputation as one of the University System’s four research institutions (a status it shares with UGA, Georgia Tech and the Medical College of Georgia).
Even with all the academic acclaim, one thing Georgia State never had was that staple of Southern college life: a football team.
Football is not everybody’s cup of tea, of course, and the sport is often criticized for emphasizing big-money values over the academic achievements expected of undergraduates. Even so, the excitement of "football Saturday" adds a richness to the college experience for many students and provides a sentimental bond that strengthens the support of a school’s alumni.
That is the case at Georgia State, where the decision was made two years ago to begin a football program in the hope it would provide that missing ingredient for students and alumni. The Panthers will soon join the ranks of long-established programs at UGA and Tech, as well as football teams at smaller schools like Georgia Southern and Valdosta State.
The man at the center of this big adventure is head coach Bill Curry, who is building a football program from ground zero at a school long known as a "commuter college" for nontraditional students.
Curry has the credentials that seem ideal for this important position: an All-American center at Georgia Tech, a 10-year veteran of the NFL who played for such coaches as Vince Lombardi and Don Shula, and a former coach at Tech, Alabama and Kentucky.
He hadn’t coached since 1996 when he was offered the job at Georgia State last year, but Curry almost immediately accepted the chance to get back into the life he loved. He will be one month away from his 68th birthday when Georgia State kicks off its first official season in September 2010, but Curry says he’d much rather do this than slide into retirement.
"What matters is what’s in your heart," he said. "In my heart of hearts there was something that lingered, a longing for a huddle — a group of young men that I would have the privilege of mentoring, using the campus, the classroom and the huddle. Those are my things that I love."
A football program, Curry agrees, is an important part of Georgia State’s transition from a concrete campus serving part-time students to a more traditional college environment.
Where applications from prospective freshman students increased by 6 percent at Georgia Tech this year and 8 percent at the University of Georgia, they were up 21 percent at Georgia State, he said.
"I don’t have the illusion football’s the only reason, but part of the reason is that kids want to go live on a campus that has a football team," Curry said. "In the South, you want to go to your team’s football games on Saturday. So instead of having zero students living on campus, now we have over 3,000 and it’ll soon be 5,000 and it’s just going to keep right on skyrocketing."
Curry and his assistant coaches are running that initial group of players, a mixture of scholarship athletes, transfers and walk-ons, through their first months of practice at such venues as a Boys & Girls Club field near the GSU campus. The schedule next year will range from smaller schools like Shorter and Savannah State to a season-ending blockbuster against the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Curry has often been asked why he would send a first-year team out to get clobbered by a national championship contender like Alabama. The game will bring badly needed money (about $400,000) and media exposure to the new program, he contends.
When the game is over, Curry said he will tell his players: "Now men, we learned a lot today. The next time we play a great football team, we’re going to do better. And the time after that we’re going to do better than that, and we’re going to keep on playing great football teams until we can compete with them, and one day we’ll begin to beat them."
It’s a hard way to start a college football program, but Curry is eager to take on that challenge.
Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact’s Georgia Report, an Internet news service that covers government and politics in Georgia. His column appears Wednesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com.