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Ga. State Starts New Program in Tough Economy

ATLANTA — In his previous head coaching jobs, there were plenty of things for Bill Curry to worry about.

Who’s going to play quarterback? How does the defense look? Will these Alabama fans ever fully accept me?

There were other issues that never crossed his mind.

Do we have enough helmets and chin straps? What are we going to use for a locker room? Where are we going to practice?

But those are just the sort of things Curry has fretted over in what will certainly be the final coaching job of his career and arguably the most daunting one yet.

In less than two weeks, Curry will lead the Georgia State Panthers onto the field for their very first game, the culmination of a two-year journey that exposed the exhilarating highs and excruciating lows of starting a college football program from scratch.

“It’s been a real adventure and I’ve loved every minute of the challenge,” the 67-year-old Curry said, pausing briefly and adding with a wry grin, “Well, almost every minute.”

OK, so he didn’t really love it when he learned that his first semblance of a team recruits and walk-ons who spent a formative year doing nothing but practicing and scrimmaging against themselves didn’t actually have a field.

So Curry and one of his assistants, George Pugh, hopped in a car and started riding around Atlanta, looking for any patch of grass and goalposts within a 40-minute radius of Georgia State’s downtown campus.

“We found a bunch of them. Then we had to find out who ran them,” Curry recalled. “There was an awful lot of time and effort spent on those kinds of things, and that’s just one example.”

It will all seem worth it on the night of Sept. 2, when the Panthers, an independent in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision, play their first game against Shorter, an NAIA school. From humble beginnings, they’ll run onto a relatively grand stage the 70,000-seat Georgia Dome, home field of the Atlanta Falcons, site of the Southeastern Conference championship game, venue for two Super Bowls and an Olympics.

“This is the reason why I came here,” said Mark Hogan, who was Georgia State’s very first player. “I didn’t come here to practice all year like we did last year, but that was part of it. That was preparation for this. It was well worth it. Now we’re here, and we’re about to play some real football.”

Georgia State is one of six institutions launching programs this year, a diverse group that runs the gamut from South Alabama, which plans to make a full transition to the top level of Division I in 2013, to Notre Dame, uh, College, a former women-only school in Ohio that will compete in NAIA.

Plenty of others are on the way. According to the National Football Foundation, another 11 schools plan to have football teams up and running by 2013, including the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

For their own roadmap, the Panthers may want to look toward the sunshine state.

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.

The football team will certainly surpass that, having sold more than 3,000 season tickets. Then again, that will look like a mere speck in the massive Georgia Dome, even with the Panthers only using the lower bowl.

Also, the Panthers couldn’t have picked a worse time to start a program. The economic downturn has made it much tougher to raise funds, which have lagged behind projections and forced the school to phase in the completion of its new football training complex.

While the football team moved onto a new practice field in the spring sandwiched next to railroad tracks and a MARTA rapid-transit line, epitomizing as much as anything the school’s urban setting, the adjoining facilities are still a work in progress. Only part of the building is set to open this season.

“The most unpleasant part has been the economy,” Curry said. “That’s affected everything we’ve tried to do, like it has affected everything in world. We certainly couldn’t wallow around in self pity because everyone else was suffering the same way.”

In the meantime, the Panthers have found ways to make it all work. The locker and weight rooms are located in the school’s basketball arena. Meetings are held in whatever classrooms happen to be available around campus.

For someone such as Gilbert, who was playing in the Orange Bowl seven months ago, it’s been quite a change.

“The biggest thing is the walking,” he said. “We have meetings in one building. The locker room is in another. We go eat in a building over there. That’s been a big adjustment, I’m not going to lie. I got a bit lazy while I was at Tech.

“But it’s no big deal. I needed the exercise.”

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