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Savannah State and the ultimate rebuild

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A decade and a half after a misguided, mistimed jump to Division I, an ambitious school is still trying to put the pieces together for success.

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Football coaches are a confident sort, but Erik Raeburn seems more optimistic than most. He accepted the Savannah State head coaching job in March, agreeing to take on one of the hardest jobs in college football, in a completely new area of the country for him. But he sees potential and he feels he's uniquely qualified.

"I think this is a great situation. Obviously it's an excellent school, so when we bring recruits and their parents to campus, they can feel like, if my son comes here, when football's over he's going to be able to use his education to get a good job. And the location is excellent. Savannah's one of the most beautiful cities I've been to! We're eight to 10 miles from the beach and eight miles from downtown, where there's constantly festivals and concerts. And there's a ton of opportunities for guys to do internships while they're working on their education.

"And our location from the standpoint of recruiting ... there are so many good high school football players in this area. If you drew a 2.5-hour radius around our campus, there are a million guys that are excellent football players. And we can give in-state tuition to students from Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and South Carolina because they border us. The recruiting base here is pretty fantastic."

All of these things are subjectively true. But they've been true for the previous guys taking on this job, too.

Not including interims, Savannah State has had 11 head coaches since Bill Davis left in 1992. Only one has made it more than two years: Earnest Wilson, Raeburn's predecessor, who saw the writing on the wall after three years and two victories. Wilson left for Division II Elizabeth City State in February.

It is a cycle SSU has been unable to escape for two decades: Losing creates turnover and instability, which creates more losing, which creates more turnover and instability. And in search for financial stability, the program has only lost by more and more.

Raeburn is a product of Larry Kehres' Mount Union machine -- he played for Union from 1987-90, early in Kehres' run at the Division III powerhouse, then served under Kehres for six seasons before setting out on his own. Raeburn won shares of three conference titles in eight years at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, twice taking the Kohawks to the Division III playoffs.

In 2008, he took over Wabash in Crawfordsville, Ind. In another eight-year term, he this time scored five playoff bids. In 2011, the Little Giants lost 20-8 to his alma mater in the quarterfinals; in 2015, they fell to St. Thomas (Minn.) in the same round.

That a head coach with 135 wins to his record would take on maybe the sport's biggest rebuild seems almost counterintuitive. But the opportunities to jump from Division III to FCS are minimal. And like any confident coach, Raeburn sees promise.

"Wabash is a selective private school, and it's all male. It's really challenging to find the right guys who can fit there. It caused me to improve my ability -- not just recruiting, but in evaluating. Hopefully that's going to help me here."

From the perspective of facilities and cash flow, SSU has been perpetually playing catch-up. Raeburn doesn't claim to care. "I'm sure if you went to Georgia, even they would complain about something. 'Alabama has a nicer such-and-such than we have.' It's easy to fall into that mindset -- we need this to be better or that to be better. But we have a huge space for a weight room, our stadium is beautiful, it was just renovated in 2011 or 2012. So the fact of the matter is, if our guys choose to work hard, they will develop."

The first step to succeeding in a job is believing you can succeed.

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Ambition was never a problem for Dr. Carlton Brown. When Brown was Savannah State's president from 1998 to 2006, SSU's enrollment increased significantly, and on-campus construction matched the growth. Under his direction, SSU built a university village, a freshman learning center, and a new basketball arena.

With the new basketball arena came a new level of athletic ambition, too. In 1999, he petitioned the NCAA to reclassify SSU from Division II to Division I.

Ambition can be a blessing or a curse. You can't achieve big things unless you aim for them. But if your big goals make you impatient -- if they make you skip some steps -- then you can stumble and fall a long way.

SSU attempted to move up to Division I without a feasibility study and without enough sports. The first attempt at reclassification failed because the school hadn't offered enough sports yet, but eventually SSU got in.

Technically speaking, since SSU is still in Division I, we cannot call this jump a failure. Until or unless SSU moves back down -- and there are no such plans in the works -- there is still time to succeed. But the past 15 years have been a struggle in just about every possible way. In their first four seasons of Division I basketball, the Tigers went 9-104. They have found up-and-down success in recent years under Horace Broadnax (in 2011-12, their first year in the MEAC, they went 21-12), but it took a while.

The football team, meanwhile, is still looking for traction, and the road has only gotten more slippery. In 16 seasons at the FCS level, SSU has won 23 games, and five of those came in one year (2008, against a schedule that featured only six Division I teams).

The last decade and a half have seen a constant search for money and stability. Without one, the other is hard to come by. And in recent years, the Tigers have taken on payout games they just weren't ready to take.

Since the start of the 2012 season, Savannah State has played 10 FBS opponents. The Tigers have been outscored by an average of 68-6, outgained by an average of 584-165. After losing by a combined 216-7 to Oklahoma State, Florida State, and Miami in 2012-13, the Tigers have stuck mostly to mid-major competition in FBS payout games; it has barely gone better. Georgia Southern beat SSU 83-9 in 2014, and Colorado State and Akron won by a combined 117-22 this past September.

The only bright side to SSU's difficulty with FBS opponents is that the Tigers aren't in FBS. How they fare against Georgia Southern doesn't matter nearly as much as how they fare against fellow MEAC opponents.

The dark cloud for that bright side: Over the last six seasons, SSU is 5-52 against everybody below FBS, too. In 2015, SSU upset Florida A&M and lost to everybody else. Average score in MEAC games last year: Opponents 40, SSU 17.

"There aren't a lot of people in the athletic department who were here when they moved up," Raeburn says, "but some of the people who have been here longer, their feeling was, the university wasn't totally prepared and didn't understand all the changes they needed to make to make that jump. The staffing, from an academic standpoint ... scholarships -- that's probably the biggest one ... they're funded at a much higher level now than they were at the jump."

Those dreadful payout games have certainly helped in that regard.

Knowing where to start in such a large rebuild is tough. When Raeburn first arrived, his first task was simply talking. "I'm starting to get to know our players. I don't feel I have an in-depth grasp of all their strengths and weaknesses, but I do feel like I have a better handle on it.

"In general, I think that whether you're talking about early in the season or in a coaching change, the defense is going to be further ahead than the offense. I don't know if it's just the timing element of the offense, or maybe it's that, if I'm out of position at safety, we still have a good play because the defensive end hit the quarterback. It's hard to have success on offense if you don't have nine, 10, or 11 guys doing exactly what they're supposed to do, when they're supposed to do it."

When Raeburn was named head coach on March 28, spring practices were already well underway throughout the country. How did that work out for SSU's spring practice?

It didn't. They haven't been able to have spring practice for a couple of years now.

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The SSU football program has faced APR-related penalties from the NCAA for four straight years and has missed spring practice for the last two. The Tigers' single-year APR score in 2014-15 was 918, 51 points higher than that of the previous year. That means penalties will continue, but they will get spring practices back.

The idea behind adopting the Academic Progress Rate in 2004 was simple: If the NCAA is going to brag about preparing student-athletes for life after sports, they had to find some way prove that schools were doing so. And to tie athletic performance to academic performance, they came up with a calculation that is both simple (with minimal inputs) and complicated (in its application).

Each scholarship athlete gets a point for staying in school and a point for being academically eligible. There are exceptions, but the goal is to come up with at least a 50 percent graduation rate. And the NCAA uses a rolling four-year average to determine your APR score. One particularly bad year will cost a program for a while in penalties ranging from warning letters to scholarship and practice restrictions to postseason bans to, eventually, suspended Division I status.

Like any academic standardization, APR risks rewarding arbitrary goalposts and not actual student progress. If you're simply trying to keep your students eligible, you're not necessarily progressing them toward their degree. That may fail to take into account the unique challenges that historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) like Savannah State face. Public HBCUs in particular have had an uphill battle for resources grow steeper in recent years, as federal lending has tightened and federal funding has been withheld by states, a drop in resources which were already scarce to begin with.

"I think many people only want to look at output of the universities. Nobody looks at the input at what they're starting with. They're taking kids who are largely Pell Grant recipients, largely first generation, largely kids who come in needing remedial courses, kids who come from public school systems that have failed them. I don't think it's fair to compare apples to oranges. ... I think HBCUs are a nurturing environment and their goal is to take all those diamonds in the rough and polish them. It's just a different role, scope and mission."

-- Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA)

That had a predictable effect in the early days of the APR. A large portion of APR penalties have fallen on the schools with perhaps the smallest support staff.

While the good news is that single-year APRs are improving rapidly among HBCUs, using a four-year average means schools are still struggling to get above water. In HBCU football alone, Alabama State, FAMU, Savannah State, and Tennessee State were ineligible for the postseason this past year.

Earnest Wilson was able to raise SSU's APR standing -- since bottoming out with a four-year average of 846 in the 2012-13 school year, it has at least rebounded to 866. Still, getting your head above water takes years, and when the Tigers begin fall camp in a few months, it will be the first time Raeburn has seen his team with pads on.

"The players are a little bit uneasy because they haven't had a chance to start learning our system yet. It'll be a challenge in the fall for sure. Everybody will be starting from scratch. But hopefully the older guys will feel that's exciting."

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"There's a couple of things that have to happen for you to be successful," Raeburn says. "First, your guys have to have an incredible work ethic. You can't miss workouts, miss class, those discipline issues. In the past, I think there's been too much of that. We've got to change the culture where guys demand of each other and hold each other accountable. If you're undisciplined off the field, you're going to be undisciplined on the field. You can't turn it on and off.

"From meeting with the players, I think a big percentage of them already understand that and have great work ethic. But there's a portion of the guys that have to make some changes in their commitment to football.

"Moving forward in recruiting, I'll be able to make my expectations clear to the guys I recruit, and the guys who aren't willing to work hard and take care of business, they won't choose to come here.

"You can change your attitude a lot easier than your location or your facilities. All of our problems are attitude related. You can change that."

On September 3, Erik Raeburn's first Savannah State team will take the field in Statesboro, having gotten far less practice than the normal Division I team, against a Georgia Southern squad that beat the Tigers by a combined 160-18 in 2013-14. The next week, they will head to Hattiesburg to take on a Southern Miss team led by former Alcorn State head coach Jay Hopson. After a bye/recuperation week, SSU begins its home slate against MEAC mate Bethune-Cookman, which went 9-2 last fall and beat SSU by 30.

This is a really difficult way to start a tenure. But hey, Bill Snyder went 1-10 in his first year of rebuilding Kansas State, right?

"All of our goals, no matter what school I've been at, we've never set a goal about winning. It's always more process-oriented -- goals based off of turnover margins, run defense, red zone efficiency, those type of things. Our goals and evaluations will stay the same here. And as we get to a point where we can reach those goals, the outcome on the field will improve."

Raeburn has won for most of his career. At Wabash, in unique recruiting circumstances, he won a lot. That he was simply willing to take on such a hard job made him the right man for the job. College football would be a lot more interesting if successful coaches left safe positions for hard ones.

Raeburn is organized, personable, and proven. We'll see if that's enough.