This is the second installment of a two-year project in which ESPN The Magazine will follow head coach Bill Curry as he invents Georgia State football. Check here for further dispatches from GSU.
It's Sept. 30, and head coach Bill Curry and six members of his staff are meeting in a conference room at the Georgia State football office. Outside in the waiting room, a digital clock as large and flat as a plasma TV ticks down the days (703), hours (six), minutes (seven) and seconds (23, 22, 21 … ) until the first Panthers team takes the Georgia Dome field. Inside, Curry is told that more than 200 season tickets have already been sold at $100 a seat; there's a debate over prospective recruits whose names crowd a dry-erase board; and there's anticipation as the group awaits a graphic designer to pitch logos for uniforms and apparel that may someday outsell those "Georgia State Football—Still Undefeated" T-shirts at the student bookstore.
GSU, a commuter school that its leaders would rather not call a commuter school anymore, began this football program partly to keep students on campus, partly to tap alumni donations, partly to expand its campus and, perhaps mostly, to be perceived as more relevant. "In the substantive regions of education, leadership, research and instruction, the presence of a football program does not make a school more relevant, or better at all," Curry says. "But in a media-driven culture that thrives on celebrity, that thrives on recognition, that literally derives its sustenance from a public presence, then football is incredibly important, especially in this part of the country."
Maybe so, but that alone doesn't pay the bills. Georgia State football has a $1.25 million budget, which will rise to $3 million a year by the first kickoff, in 2010. In a 2006 football feasibility study, GSU not only asked students if they'd be willing to pay extra every semester but also inquired how many of them went down the street to Georgia Tech games or over to Athens to experience the thrum of Georgia's football atmosphere. If GSU had a team, how many would be willing to come? "So many answered, 'Yes, I would come—because it would be my team,' " says Mary McElroy, athletic director at GSU. "It has been said that, yes, football would make us more relevant—that it'll put us on the map."
"I was skeptical," says senior Elijah Sarkesian, editor of the university's student newspaper, the Signal. "A lot of students weren't happy with that $85 increase. But just looking at the excitement that's been going on around campus, even in two months, and realizing how much the football team will increase our stature, I've decided it makes my degree more impressive. It might not have any initial impact, but I'm looking at down the road, five, 10, 20 years."
Thirteen years ago, South Florida started a football program from scratch too and held its first team meeting under a tree. Now the Bulls are a top-20 team. "Football is exposure for a university," says USF president Judy Genshaft. "It gives you a national presence. A football program is a front porch to the university. It opens up conversation so that I can start to tell you about the university, the resources and assets that it has."
In mid-August, before the digits began to click on the countdown clock, Curry was the guest speaker at the GSU freshman convocation. Wearing a robe and cap, he put on a pair of sunglasses to try to get his young audience's attention. "You're going to have a very rich experience at this marvelous institution," he said. "I'm very thrilled to be a freshman with you. And, we're going to have a football team."
The gym erupted.