There are three open jobs in the FBS, all for football reasons, and it’s not yet October. Georgia Southern, once an FCS powerhouse and now a middling Sun Belt program struggling for relevancy, fired Chad Lunsford on Sunday following a 28-20 loss to Louisiana to open conference play.
Lunsford’s resume would be heralded at a lot of other Sun Belt jobs: He was 28-21 overall in Statesboro, 17-14 in conference play, and he had three bowl bids, winning two. He never had a losing season as full-time head coach (he was 2-4 as an interim) until the Eagles’ 1-3 start this year. But the standards at Georgia Southern are higher, and the decline was noticeable: The Eagles finished 10-3 in 2018 but dropped to 7-6 and 8-5 the following two years. Georgia Southern spent years resisting a move up to FBS specifically because it didn’t want to sacrifice its winning ways as an FCS stalwart.
When Jeff Monken led the Eagles to an upset of Florida in their FBS transition year, the expectations among fans and boosters in Statesboro were crystalized: Georgia Southern could and should be the next Boise State or UCF, and at the very least keep pace with rival Appalachian State, which moved up to the FBS at the same time.
The problem with that expectation is that Georgia Southern’s budget doesn’t match its outsized aspirations, and the athletic program has had terrible, terrible management since joining the FBS and Sun Belt. A.D. Jared Benko arrived in 2020 after predecessor Tom Kleinlein left following the disastrous hire of Tyson Summers in 2017. Summers, the son of a Georgia high school coach (just like Kirby Smart), went 5-13 and was fired halfway through his second season, with Lunsford taking over as interim. Kleinlein removed the interim tag after Southern finished 2-4, a move that was questioned at the time.
Statesboro is quick to boast about its national titles, large crowds and idiosyncratic “traditions” born out of humble beginnings: yellow school buses to games, plain uniforms, and “Beautiful Eagle Creek,” a drainage ditch between practice fields. Georgia Southern’s reverence for its old ways is the stuff of college football greatness, but the program is in dire need of evolution and new thinking. The problem is that outside of the service academies, this might be the only place in college football where the fans and boosters demand the triple option or some iteration thereof.
Former head coach Willie Fritz found success running a variation of the triple out of the shotgun from 2014-15, but he grew frustrated with Georgia Southern’s adherence to tradition and left for Tulane. Two bad hires followed, and now Fritz looks like the winner of that argument. What’s especially damning for Georgia Southern is that Coastal Carolina head coach Jamey Chadwell was available, but questions about the A.D. scared him and other candidates away from a formerly proud program.
Of the three open FBS jobs at present (along with USC and UConn), Georgia Southern is the only one where you could assemble a logical candidate list immediately. USC’s potential pool of candidates is too big, its history with booster tampering too worrisome, and its search will likely involve the NFL. On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve been told that UConn’s FBS future is far too murky for most qualified candidates to engage with.
Georgia Southern could be a top-flight Sun Belt program and one of the best G5 jobs in America, certainly in terms of fan participation and tradition. These are the four candidates I would call first, in no particular order:
Jay Bateman, North Carolina defensive coordinator: Bateman has never coached at Georgia Southern and is not from Georgia, but he was Monken’s defensive coordinator at Army before going to Chapel Hill and has experience coaching opposite a traditional, under-center triple. Bateman’s West Point defenses helped turn the tide in the Navy rivalry. He understands how to maximize the advantage the option provides on both sides of the ball.
Alex Atkins, Florida State offensive line coach: Atkins was offensive line coach at Georgia Southern under Fritz and was assistant head coach at both Charlotte and Tulane. Atkins is one of the highest-paid offensive line coaches in the nation and a rising star more than capable of recruiting the state of Georgia and the South. Atkins’ OL background and versatility with multiple systems (he was also a play-caller at Charlotte) could help tweak the old Georgia Southern option.
Brent Davis, Army offensive coordinator: Davis has been an integral part of Monken’s turnaround at West Point, and he checks all the boxes for Georgia Southern: He’s a triple-option maestro, a Georgia native and a two-time assistant at Georgia Southern, most recently as Monken’s offensive coordinator. Davis knows the lay of the land and would be able to immediately recruit the state and region to a system that is in his wheelhouse.
Dell McGee, Georgia running backs coach: McGee was the interim head coach at Georgia Southern after Fritz left for Tulane and led the Eagles to their first FBS bowl win in school history. The former high school coach and Georgia native is a top-flight recruiter for one of the best programs in the nation, and he has SEC experience as a coach and player. Most people around Statesboro believe McGee would’ve been a much better choice to replace Fritz than Summers.
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– Steven Godfrey is a senior writer for Vox Media's Secret Base, and co-host of The Split Zone Duo podcast. Follow him on Twitter @38Godfrey