I've been a Georgia Southern Eagle fan since birth. My father graduated from then-Georgia Southern College in 1974, and I grew up alongside the resurrected football program that restarted in 1981. Georgia Southern burst onto the FCS scene in 1984 after two years of playing club football. The head coach was legendary UGA Defensive Coordinator Erk Russell. Erk was famous for his Junkyard Dawgs defense and had just won a national championship at UGA when he took the Georgia Southern job. He wanted a challenge, and building his own program from scratch was definitely a challenge.
As an Auburn alum I have always joked that the Eagles were the Alabama of FCS. The fans expect a championship and nothing less. We have a coach we consider legendary and who is revered in everything we do. Shoot, Georgia Southern even looks like Alabama, only in blue rather than Crimson. This was more from financial necessity than tribute - that uniform was cheap. Erk used to joke that Georgia Southern never cheats, because "cheating costs money and we don't have any." He also refused to put players' names on jerseys because "we need to sell programs."
What he built was a juggernaut that rolled through FCS football over the course of the next three decades. Georgia Southern won the FCS championship in 1985 - only their second year playing NCAA football - and then repeated again the next year. This was due in no small part to GSU legend, CFL Hall of Famer, and current Georgia Southern Associate AD Tracy Ham. Tracy is one of only two Eagles to have his number retired.
In 1987 they made the playoffs on the legs of freshman QB Raymond Gross, only to be knocked out in the quarterfinals by Appalachian State in a game that is known as the Ice Bowl at Georgia Southern due to the freezing temperatures. This was the first meeting between the two teams since 1939 (Georgia Southern had discontinued their program in 1941), and marked the renewal of what would become one of Georgia Southern's biggest rivalries. A rivalry I am very happy will continue in the Sun Belt. Georgia Southern made it back to the championship in 1988 only to lose to hated rival Furman, but again repeated in back-to-back years with championships in 1989 and 1990.
1990 marked a new era as Tim Stowers, previously the offensive coordinator, took over as head coach. Erk Russell retired after 1989 and walked off into the sunset a legend in Statesboro. He's Georgia Southern's Bear Bryant. There is a bust of Erk on the field that players "head butt" before the games as players used to actually do with Erk, and a statue of him outside the stadium. Tim Stowers had some success at Georgia Southern, but the bar was already set too high. It was championships or bust for the Georgia Southern fan base. Stowers left after the 1995 season never having been able to recreate the success of his first season. An interim coach took the Eagles through 1996 until fan-favorite Paul Johnson returned to the ‘Boro.
Paul Johnson was one of Erk's first assistant coaches and one of the chief architects of the "Hambone" offense that grew into the triple-option style PJ is known for today. He immediately brought the program back to prominence and led the Eagles to an undefeated season in 1998 all the way up to a rain-soaked turnover fest in the championship game loss against UMass. However, he returned to the championship game the next two years to win in 1999 (destroying Jim Tressel's Youngstown State Penguins) and 2000 before losing in the semifinals at home in 2001 (the first playoff loss at home Georgia Southern had ever experienced) and leaving to take over at Navy.
Mike Sewak was very successful at winning games and having a high powered offense, but never could get the Eagles deep into the playoffs after his first season as head coach. As mentioned earlier, Georgia Southern fans expect championships. Sewak was fired after the 2005 loss to Texas State in the first round of the FCS playoffs.
2006 never happened. I was deployed and didn't watch a bit of it and you will never convince me that it actually happened. And I will forever curse He Who Must Not Be Named for what he did to Georgia Southern as a program and the way he treated the town of Statesboro and the Georgia Southern fans. Even when he was at Auburn for one year as Defensive Coordinator I could not stand the man and yelled "Go Georgia Southern, coach!" to him at Tiger Walk.
Highly successful Valdosta State head coach Chris Hatcher was brought in to lead the Eagles in 2007. He scrapped the attempt at a pro-style offense that He Who Must Not Be Named tried to instill the year before and set about with his air raid offense, or "The Hatch Attack." In his first season he was successful with a read-option style offense under amazing QB and Walter Payton Award winner Jayson Foster (the only player in NCAA history with TDs of 80+ yards by running, throwing, kickoff, and punt returning) utilizing Jayson's natural talents as a runner, but he was never able to take the Eagles to the playoffs before his firing at the end of the 2009 season.
After failing miserably with a pro-style offense and never reaching much success with the air-raid, fans were begging for a return to the triple option. For once much-maligned AD Sam Baker delivered. He brought in Jeff Monken, the running backs coach under Paul Johnson at Georgia Tech who had been with PJ since his days as head coach of Georgia Southern. Monken's first team over-achieved and reached the semi-finals, and would do so in Monken's first three years as head coach, losing to eventual champion North Dakota State in Fargo the last two years.
Injuries hampered Georgia Southern during the 2013 season. The team was hit so hard that QB Jerick McKinnon spent much of the season at running back or A-back while freshmen Kevin Ellison took the reins. Georgia Southern was ineligible for the 2013 playoffs under transition rules anyway, but still ended the season in grand fashion with a 26-20 victory over Florida. Shortly after the season's end, Jeff Monken left Statesboro to take over at Army. Willie Fritz, the head coach of Sam Houston State, was brought in to replace him and lead the Eagles in their first season of FBS football.
Erk Russell said his goal was for Georgia Southern to play at the highest level of football. New Athletic Director Tom Kleinlein and university president Dr. Keel have worked relentlessly since arriving to ensure that this dream was realized. Until that final game as an FCS team, Georgia Southern had never defeated an FBS foe. I have to believe Erk - as the last four-sport letterman at Auburn and long-time UGA DC - was smiling down from Heaven while smoking a big cigar as his Eagles notched that first FBS victory.
As you can see, Georgia Southern is a team with a winning tradition. I realize FCS Championships mean nothing at the FBS level, as does Georgia Southern's history as an FCS juggernaut. But that's not going to stop Georgia Southern fans from expecting the best right off the bat. Forgive us if we're a little brash, we're just used to winning. And we intend to keep doing it at the next level, too.
To put it in Erk's own words:
I'm gonna say it one more time. We are Georgia Southern. Our colors are blue and white. We call ourselves the Bald Eagles. We call our offense the Georgia Power Company, and that's a terrific name for an offense. Our snap count is "rate, hike". We practice on the banks of Beautiful Eagle Creek and that's in Statesboro, Georgia--the gnat capital of America. Our weekends begin on Thursday. The co-eds outnumber the men 3 to 2, they're all good looking and they're all rich. And folks, you just can't beat that, and you just can't beat Georgia Southern. And you ain't seen nothin yet!
HAIL SOUTHERN! GET AFTER THEIR ASSES!