Eagles’ Benko talks return plan, social distancing, & finances

Georgia Southern athletic director gives updates during COVID-19 pandemic

Eagles’ Benko talks return plan, social distancing, & finances
Georgia Southern says they must expect social distancing guidelines to still be in place this football season. (Source: WTOC)

STATESBORO, Ga. (WTOC) - Behind locked gates, Paulson Stadium sits empty Thursday.

Like every college athletics facility in the country, no activities are allowed to happen at the Georgia Southern football grounds.

But Eagles’ athletic director Jared Benko doesn’t believe that will be the case for very long.

The NCAA Division I Council voted Wednesday to allow voluntary on-campus athletic activities for football and basketball players beginning June 1. Benko says Georgia Southern is currently developing a plan to allow for Eagle athletes to return to campus.

“I think responsibly we’re going to have to look at a phased-in type plan," Benko says. “When you look at all the precautions and everything we’re going to look at taking, you’re going to have to scale people in and see what works and what doesn’t. You always have to be adaptable.”

As for Eagle football this fall, Benko fully plans for Southern to play. He says the plan is to host their September 12 season opener as scheduled.

But he admits the school must move forward with the expectation of social distancing guidelines still being in place when kickoff arrives. Benko says no plans are set in stone, and they will continue to follow CDC, Department of Public Health, and state of Georgia guidance.

Georgia Southern athletic director Jared Benko says the Eagles expect to play their football season this fall.
Georgia Southern athletic director Jared Benko says the Eagles expect to play their football season this fall. (Source: WTOC)

With a little less than four months from kickoff of the first home game, Benko says they will think a little differently if they must cut capacity at Paulson Stadium.

“Are there ways to disperse crowds and are there potential areas of the stadium we can start utilizing? We’re going to have to look at it creatively and say, ‘If we’re going to have social distancing measures in place, how does that adapt to our plan?’" Benko says. “There’s not a perfect solution, but I think all things are on the table.”

Benko says Southern plans to allow as many fans and students into the stadium as responsibly possible.

But if those social distancing guidelines are in place, the school will be forced to keep some fans on the outside looking in.

“We’re going to have people that want to attend every game. Our students are a huge part of that as well,” Benko says. “There is no magic formula other than with the proper guidelines, how many people can we responsibly let in the stadium. Then it’s by section and by premium area and what not, so it’s going to be in some ways a mathematical exercise too.”

As COVID-19 related financial worries become reality for a number of universities and colleges, many athletic programs have gotten the axe. Most of those cuts have come at Group of 5 schools like Georgia Southern.

Benko says there’s been no discussion on cutting any of the Eagles’ current programs. But budget cuts are coming to Georgia Southern like every public university in Georgia.

The Eagles’ athletic director says that’s something the department must prepare for.

“We’re going to have to get leaner. We’re going to make sure that we know where every dollar is going,” he says. And two, you have to generate revenue too. That can come from different elements."

But he acknowledges the Eagles’ current status would greatly change if there was no football this fall.

"it’s all conjecture at this point, but any scenario with football not taking place would have a drastic impact on colleges and universities that sponsor it,” he says.

Georgia Southern’s home football opener is set for September 12 when the Eagles host Campbell. Southern’s season opener is September 5 at Boise State.

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