STATESBORO, Ga. -- A suspicious number of passing plays. Play action. Option. Even shotgun. This is not tradition at Georgia Southern.
The folks standing around at spring practice tell a great anecdote, except they all tell it wrong.
During the Eagles' undefeated inaugural run through Sun Belt play, the senior-heavy offensive line would meet with its running backs before each game.
"You're getting 150 yards today!" they'd tell running back Matt Brieda, according to the onlookers, such was their confidence in new head coach Willie Fritz's run-first spread option.
"No, no. The offensive line would say to me, 'You're going to rush for 150 yards,'" said Brieda. "Like, you have to rush for that many yards. The line would give me and the other backs a number to reach, and If I didn't get it, I'd have to answer to them."
"And man, you didn't want to let the offensive line down. That's tradition."
You might not've known Georgia Southern until the Eagles beat Florida in November 2013, but Statesboro lives to tell you about tradition. In 1982, GS hired Georgia defensive coordinator Erk Russell to build a modern program with virtually no budget. Uniforms were expensive, so tradition became athletic tape striped down blue helmets with no logos.
Southern was a teacher's college sunk hours south of the Georgia gnat line (Mike Leach explains Georgia gnats here) in the sparsely populated coastal pines. With no team-building rituals, Russell renamed a drainage ditch between two practice fields Beautiful Eagle Creek, bottling its "magic water" in a milk jug to pour on opponent fields for luck. For home games, the team rode in yellow school buses, on loan from the county.
Erk formed tradition out of embarrassment. But the tradition that made Georgia Southern is the triple option of Paul Johnson, the Eagles' offensive coordinator in the mid-1980s and head coach about a decade later. He's now the head coach at Georgia Tech.
"Because it worked, and still works. Because no matter what defense you'd face, you could fix things. You could win," former Georgia Southern head coach Jeff Monken said.
And it worked really quickly, as Monken explains:
Southern played three games in '81, against a group of police officers from Jacksonville, the Fort Benning Doughboys, and the Florida State JV squad -- '82 was their first full schedule. In 1985, the first year they ran Coach Johnson's offense, they won a national championship. Then they won it again in 1986.
You'd have to argue those established schools they played, who'd been playing football for years, should've had the advantage. Nobody proves the worth of an offense more than Coach Johnson.
Overnight, winning was tradition.
RB Ezayi Youyoute and bust of original head coach Erk Russell. Todd Bennett, Getty
In 29 years of FCS play, Georgia Southern won 10 conference titles and six national championships, the most of any program in I-AA/FCS history. Humble beginnings might've been why GS dressed like the Crimson Tide, but the triple option is why it won like them. In their last FCS game, Monken's Eagles beat the Gators in Gainesville, 26-20, without completing a pass.
"I came up here from a high school in Florida that won championships, and the only thing I knew when Georgia Southern recruited me was they won. That's what got me here, that they expected to win," senior safety Matt Dobson said. "Expectations might have changed now, but people around here still only expect you to win one time a week."
"People know who we are now because of Florida, but that wasn't even a great season for us. We'd lost four conference games going into that last game in Gainesville."
The move to FBS
For years, Georgia Southern watched FCS programs step up only to become FBS doormats. Meanwhile, Georgia's population bloomed, increasing the density of state talent. But unlike lesser-populated Alabama, Mississippi or Louisiana, Georgia long had only two FBS programs.
Florida wasn't supposed to be Southern's transition. GS hired athletic director Tom Kleinlein, a former Wake Forest offensive lineman and industry veteran (Rutgers, Arizona State, Kent State), in 2012 to build a five-year plan toward FBS functionality. Then Florida Atlantic and Florida International jumped from the Sun Belt to Conference USA. Without being close to ready, Kleinlein knew the FBS would be calling.
"We walked into the Sun Belt building the ship as we went, which is challenging because of the external and internal cultural changes," Kleinlein said. "There’s a lot of 'What the hell is that AD doing? Why all of a sudden is that parking space I used to pay $100 for now a $1,200 donation?' There’s a lot of external education required. A lot of calming the fire, so to speak."
GS built a $10 million, state-of-the-art football operations center on a grassy knoll in one end zone of Paulson Stadium.
"There was a group of people that didn’t say, 'Hey great new facility,' they were mad that the hill their kids and grandkids played on was gone. So how do we keep that tradition alive? We put a stretch of field turf in front of the facility and called it the Field of Dreams. Our players use it to workout during the week, and on Saturday, it's where kids can go play. Except now I've got to find a way to fund it, so we go secure corporate sponsorship for the Field of Dreams. That's the best example of being a modern AD. It's never simple."
Weeks after the Florida win, Monken announced he was leaving for Army, following Johnson into service academy coaching. Johnson became the Eagles' head coach after two years as offensive coordinator at Navy, where he returned as head coach in 2002.
"I fully expected to be the coach at Southern for that first season in the FBS. It was a matter of an opportunity here at Army, honestly," Monken said.
"That's when everyone's hair caught fire," Kleinlein said. "Southern is going to the FBS, the Russell-Johnson tree is frayed, and there's a new AD. Does he really get it?"
What Southern feared most was a repeat of the man referred to throughout Statesboro as "That Coach," Brian VanGorder. The current Notre Dame defensive coordinator was GS' head coach in 2006. He dumped tradition -- the triple-option, the buses, etc. -- in favor of appealing to top recruits.
The move infuriated Johnson, who wanted his Navy program to schedule Southern so he "could beat 'That Coach's' ass," as the story goes.
"Oh yeah, it really sounded sexy when someone came in and said they were going to throw the ball all over the field, until they didn’t win any playoff games and started losing five, six times a season," Johnson said. "Then it wasn’t so much fun."
Kleinlien landed on Sam Houston State's Willie Fritz, a career FCS and junior college coach looking to make his jump to FBS at the age of 54.
"I had a background that maybe fit this place. During the interview, they started telling me Georgia Southern traditions, about the school buses, and I told 'em, 'Hey, I like school buses. I drove the bus to three junior college national championship games. I asked them if they wanted me to drive the bus. I've got a Class C license," Fritz said, opening his wallet.
Sam Houston twice made the FCS title game under Fritz, whose variation on the spread option allowed for lopsided rushing or passing totals. Entering FBS play with a triple-option roster, Fritz adjusted to a zone-blocking scheme and carefully introduced passing concepts out of play action.
In the fast-paced Sun Belt, Southern's physical counterpunch went unmatched.
"I transferred here from FIU, so I'd seen all those teams in the conference. I told guys on the team that I thought we'd be pretty good against all those spread passing teams, better than what people predicted. But I didn’t know we’d come in like this," quarterback Fabian Upshaw said.
Who wants the Eagles now?
GS swept the Sun Belt and lost late on the road against NC State and Georgia Tech. If not for the NCAA's rule against first-year FBS teams making the postseason, the Eagles were a handful of plays away from a challenging for a spot in the New Year's Six bowl rotation, which went to Boise State.
Post-Florida GS is an in-demand opponent for top-tier FBS programs looking for one-off wins. They hand GS a paycheck near $1 million and they (likely) get a quality non-conference win for the Playoff committee. But try getting a team to Statesboro.
"It absolutely helped the mission of this university and this program, but from a scheduling perspective, Florida hurt us," Kleinlein said. "I’d love for people to call me and schedule our school. No one wants to right now."
"I’ve got a list of teams with openings. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve emailed ‘em, called ‘em and heard, 'Oh well, we’ve got some things in the works.' That’s funny. I’m talking to Dave Brown at ESPN, who controls scheduling, and he doesn’t have you as having a game scheduled."
"I got all the Oklahomas and Clemsons and LSUs I can shake a stick at. It’s that second tier; it’s the Mountain West or C-USA school. I listen to ADs talk about being strapped for money. I say great, let me play you home-and-home. Don't pay us anything, and we'll bring at least 5,000 fans. Nope. They want no part of it."
"And I don't want to hear about the triple option. We run a one-back spread now, like half the country."
Dale Zanine, USA Today
Fritz's system is a departure from the traditional triple option, yet still managed to lead FBS in rushing yards per game, 379.9, and per carry, 7.11. His first-year Sun Belt offense ranked around the country's upper third in several advanced stats.
And all that passing on the practice field? Some of it's to season a secondary replacing multiple starters, but Fritz is unafraid of building a more balanced attack. He wants at least 50 more passing yards per game, to balance defensive looks.
"It all depends on what kind of talent we have. We throw the ball more in practice than people would expect. Sure, some day we might be 50-50. If we have the right personnel, we might be 60-40 pass. I do believe in a physical run game, but let's get the box packed. Let's get man coverage on the outside and beat those guys for huge gains.
"Winning's a great tradition, no matter how you do it."