Georgia State held a news conference Monday.
Or maybe it was more like a pep rally.
There was pre-recorded, whip-up-the-crowd music blaring through arena speakers. There were cheerleaders and a mascot named Pounce and a pep band in the bleachers and maybe 100 folks, many in the employ of the university, who stood up and applauded as if on cue.
Just as well. Because the job facing Trent Miles as Georgia State’s second football coach isn’t merely to win games, it’s to make sure more than just friends and family of the running back and the long-snapper are aware that a game is even being played.
All new programs lose games. They lack athletes, tradition and an identity. The most troubling aspect of the fledgling Panthers is not that their win totals were only 6, 3 and 1 in the first three seasons. It’s that their attendance dropped from just OK to off-the-radar during that same span. The announced averaged during this season’s 1-10 season was 12,312. The actual number of bodies in seats were closer to between 5,000 to 8,000 (that’s being generous), and many left at halftime.
Given that enthusiasm for a college football team drained so quickly, it’s appropriate to wonder if starting the program, given the costs involved, ever was a good idea. Remember, this is a concrete, commuter campus that rarely even has supported basketball well.
Athletic director Cheryl Levick nodded in agreement when asked about the declining fan and student support, then commented: “This is a critical hire. [Miles] has to come in and turn this program around in terms of establishing a winning tradition, in terms of getting the students in the stands, and the fans cheering. So he’s got a job on the field and off the field, and he knows that.”
There’s no turning back now. Not with millions of dollars already invested in startup costs, a new practice facility and the seemingly premature leap from the Colonial Athletic Association to FBS and the Sun Belt. Georgia State officials have no choice but to embrace the build-it-and-they will come philosophy. They don’t want to think of the alternative.
Levick again: “We have to produce a winning, exciting product on the field. If we do that, the students will be back in the stands.”
Enter Miles. He has been in worse situations. He came from Indiana State. His predecessor went 1-32 in three seasons. Miles was told, “Fix it or we’re shutting it down.”
No, seriously. The school was going to shutter the football program.
Miles didn’t do any better in his first two seasons: 1-22. But he was viewed as Lazarus-like for going 19-14 over the next three.
He’ll have to raise the dead again. He wanted this job so badly after Bill Curry’s retirement that he sent Levick a bound 42-page plan on how he would fix every aspect of the program. He knows what he’s getting into.
“I’m not a head football coach — I’m a CEO of a football department,” he said. “That’s just the way it is. I’ve got to fund raise. I’ve got to raise attendance. I’ve got to recruit, put together a staff, educate young men.”
Referencing fans leaving games early, he added: “We have to give people something to be interested in. We have to get them to buy in and take ownership and stock in the team. When you do that, it’s hard to get up and walk out.”
He’ll bring in a new staff. Don’t be surprised if one of the assistants is former Falcons wide receiver Terance Mathis, a long-time friend since their days together at New Mexico (Mathis was a senior and Miles a graduate assistant in 1989). Mathis is an assistant at Savannah State but the future of that coaching staff is tenuous. It’s not just a coincidence that Mathis attended Monday’s news conference.
“I think he’ll do great,” Mathis said of Miles. “He’s not a high-profile name where people say, ‘Oh, I know him, he’ll win.’ But he’s a coach who has won and does it right way. I’ve seen him recruit. We’ve been after the same kids before. He’s come to Atlanta and taken kids out of our laps.”
Win games. Build a program. Grow the fan base. It’s the same mission statement as three years ago. It doesn’t look any easier now than it did then.
By Jeff Schultz