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Now or never

GSU's new football team is ready to make a name for itself

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Georgia State University's first-ever football players are anxiously waiting to stampede onto the field of the Georgia Dome for their first game against Shorter University on Sept. 2. But are they ready? After 60 practices last fall, 15 in the spring, and 29 this summer, head coach Bill Curry has done what he can to position the team to make a name for itself in Division I football. And while all the hype has some GSU students eagerly trading in their tongue-in-cheek "GSU football ... still undefeated" T-shirts for more authentic football gear, it remains to be seen if the student body will rally behind the team.

A lot is riding on Curry, but with 17 years of experience coaching college football, as well as an All-Pro career in the NFL — playing for the Green Bay Packers, Baltimore Colts (now the Indianapolis Colts), Houston Oilers (now the Tennessee Titans) and Los Angeles Rams (now the St. Louis Rams) — he has the resume to put the naysayers to rest. In addition to his extensive experience on the field, Curry also has impressive accolades off the field, including Coach of the Year awards in both the Southeastern and Atlantic Coast conferences. He's also a card-carrying member of three different athletic Halls of Fame. Curry has used that experience to recruit and build the GSU football team for two years, and come September, he's hoping the hard work pays off.

For the 2010 and 2011 football seasons, GSU will function as an independent, meaning the Panthers can play any team from another conference during the season but won't be eligible to play in the postseason. In 2012, the Panthers will play in the Colonial Athletic Association conference, like all other GSU sports, and will have the chance to earn a ticket to the NCAA tournament.

As the Panthers celebrate their inaugural football season, some students are less than enthused about the school's entré into the obsessive realm of college football. While GSU is the second largest university in Georgia with more than 30,000 students, it doesn't quite have the same student mentality as other, more football-centric colleges like UGA and Georgia Tech. Some students also resent the hikes in student fees — $85 per student — that go toward the program's annual operating costs, including scholarships, equipment, travel and personnel. But, ultimately, most students are taking it in stride. "It's kind of like paying taxes," says Sheena Roetman, editor in chief of GSU's student newspaper, the Signal. "It sucks, but it's for the greater good."

While the student body has helped raise some of the needed funds, alumni support has contributed greatly to the budding program, including a $1.5 million donation from Parker H. Petit, who received his MBA from Georgia State's J. Mack Robinson College of Business. Petit's donation is the largest ever made to GSU athletics.

Clocking in hours of practice on the field can only do so much, and come Sept. 2, Coach Curry and the Panthers will have to prove to critics and their peers that all the work has paid off. Once they step onto the field for their first game, fee increases, generous donations, and sponsorships won't matter. It will be the fans and the alumni in the stands that will truly make the school's football program a successful one. "Students stop me and say, 'Coach, I can't wait for the season to start,'" says Curry. "Now it's up to us to put a good product on the field and make them proud."

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