Ga. State starts new program in tough economy

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South Florida started its program in 1997, holding the first team meeting under a shade tree and meeting in trailers until some actual facilities could be built. Within a decade, the Bulls had risen to No. 2 in The Associated Press rankings. They are now members of the Big East Conference and have appeared in five straight bowl games.

Georgia State isn’t dreaming that big _ at least not yet, anyway.

The Panthers will play a hodgepodge of teams over the next two years (this year’s schedule begins with Shorter and ends with defending national champion Alabama) before moving into the Colonial Athletic Association, which competes in the division formerly known as I-AA.

Of course, everyone keeps asking: Will there ever be a day when Georgia State is competing at the same level as that school over in Athens (Southeastern Conference power Georgia) or the one right down the street (defending Atlantic Coast Conference champion Georgia Tech)?

“When we’re basically selling our full allotment of tickets in the Georgia Dome, then it’ll be time to start thinking about that,” Georgia State president Mark Becker said. “But right now, we’ve got to get a team on the field. We’ve got to build a competitive program at the I-AA level. If we do those things successfully, and the fan base fills in, then we can talk about those things. Now is not the time.”

The Panthers already have the makings of a competitive squad, thanks to several high-profile transfers. Joseph Gilbert, a starting offensive lineman at Georgia Tech the last two years, now plays for the Panthers. So does Star Jackson, a backup quarterback on Alabama’s national title team.

“It’s definitely going to be a change, but I’m excited about it,” Gilbert said. “We have a chance to start something new here. For however long Georgia State has a football program, we’re always going to be the first.”

For Gilbert, the decision to transfer stemmed largely from academics: He had already graduated from Georgia Tech but failed to get into the school’s graduate program. Georgia State offered him a chance to further his studies in accounting.

For Jackson, it all came down to playing time. He didn’t want to spend another year on the sideline watching Greg McElroy, who’s firmly established as Alabama’s quarterback on the heels of a perfect season. By transferring to a FCS school, Jackson didn’t have to sit out a year.

“Greg was doing a great job,” he said. “I just felt like I wanted to get on the field. I wanted to play right now.”

Curry has landed other transfers as well _ one from Auburn, another from Georgia Tech, others from more modest football schools _ many of them enticed by the idea of playing in a major city at a high-profile venue such as the Georgia Dome. That was the sort of built-in advantage the Panthers were counting on when they decided to start a football team.

“We are very enthused about our personnel,” said Curry, who coached at Georgia Tech, Alabama and Kentucky but hasn’t been on the sideline since 1996. “Some of them are guys we recruited from a lot of different places. And some of them just flat-out fell from the sky. We are so grateful for the transfers who came our way.”

What Georgia State will have to overcome is a general apathy that has always existed toward the school’s largely mediocre athletic program _ especially in a city with plenty of sports options, including four major league teams, three minor-league franchises and way-more-established Georgia and Georgia Tech.

For most of its history, this has been nothing more than a commuter school. It’s been a place that educated tens of thousands of students who did nothing more than drive in from the suburbs, attend classes and head right back home, leaving behind a soulless grouping of nondescript buildings that was derided as the “Concrete Campus.”

While the makeup of the school is shifting toward students who now live on or near campus in recently built dormitories, it’s still been a challenge to get them excited about their own teams. Just last season, the men’s basketball squad _ until now, the most prominent on campus _ averaged just 1,385 fans per game.

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