The Only Option: Eagles return to unconventional roots

By Dal Cannady - bio | email

STATESBORO, GA (WTOC) - Greatness has been out of reach for the Georgia Southern Eagles for nearly a decade. In December 2000, the football team won a second consecutive and sixth overall NCAA national championship. Since then, the Eagles reached the semifinals in 2002 and missed a conference title by a field goal in 2007. That is a tough era for the Eagles, who dominated the 1980s and 1990s. They ran over opponents with a variation of the wishbone known as the Triple Option. Critics called it unconventional and boring, even when it effectively marched up and down the field.

Dr. Pat Spurgeon was part of those early coaching staffs and remembers the playbook was not as much a secret weapon as a necessity.

"Remember, we didn't have scholarships the first couple of years because we didn't have money, among other reasons. We didn't have any scholarships, so we needed something that fit our material. We had a lot of 5-9, 5-10, 235 linemen. Sometimes they weighed 230, sometimes smaller than that," he recalled.

Those undersized players relied on technique not size and helped build traditions and expectations. Southern eventually suffered its first major drought from greatness. After the 2005 season and back-to-back early exits from the NCAA I-AA playoffs, university athletic director Sam Baker took down more than the team's original fieldhouse. He, along with school administrators, scrapped the coaching staff and the offense.

"We didn't feel like we could get anybody to properly coach the option as it comes from the PJ coaching tree. So we decided to go in a different direction," Baker explained.

They introduced two head coaches in two consecutive years to install the conventional "pro-style" plan that seemed to bring fans and excitement to other programs. But this generation of Eagles never seemed to soar.

"Those were some hard times and not a lot of fun," Baker noted. "We had a thought process we thought would work. Anytime you do something, there's a gamble. But a leader has to take some gambles sometimes."

With four years of even less success, the Eagles turn back to their roots. They fired Coach Chris Hatcher minutes after the last game of the 2009 season and announced a new coach. Jeff Monken was an assistant coach here and followed Paul Johnson to Navy then Georgia Tech. At both places, Johnson used the Triple Option to turn around wayward teams.

"There's that identify from the offense and I think that's what people are excited about. Because there wasn't that success, there is a hope that we're going to go back to what we know," Coach Monken explained.

Few believe the success will return overnight and the daunting challenge looks familiar to Spurgeon.

"In some respects, Georgia Southern faces the same challenge now we faced back then. It's going to take a while and there'll be a few rough spots," noted Spurgeon, the former kicking and scout coach fans and Coach Erk Russell called The Voice of Doom for his always ominous forecasts.

Monken, his boss and the fans hope they can find that success sooner rather than later.

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