There’s never a dull day for the athletic director of a Football Bowl Subdivision program.
Georgia Southern’s Tom Kleinlein is already juggling the logistics of it all, and the Eagles have yet to play a game as a member of the FBS.
The first task GSU encountered was putting together an eligible schedule for 2014.
When Georgia Southern was in the Football Championship Subdivision, Duquesne was scheduled to visit Paulson Stadium on Sept. 6, 2014. All of a sudden, that game was against the rules.
FBS programs are required to play five home games against Division-I competition. One of the requirements for bowl eligibility states that a visiting FCS school must offer at least 90 percent of the allowed 63 scholarships, a requirement Duquesne doesn’t meet.
Kleinlein had to do two things to get out of the contract for the game. He had to pay Duquesne $150,000 to buy out the contract, and he had to find the Dukes a new game.
So Kleinlein got creative with the solution. He called Coastal Carolina, and the Chanticleers agreed to pay $50,000 of the buyout -- GSU had to pay the other $100,000 -- and CCU scheduled the Dukes.
Kleinlein set up a game with Savannah State, which will cost $150,000.
“In essence, I got the game for $250,000,” Kleinlein said. “If I had just tried to pick up a different game I would have been looking at people that were asking $300,000 or $400,000 to come here. It allows us to get a home game on our schedule without breaking the bank. I was sitting here needing a game less than a year before we play it.”
There were other stipulations with SSU, too.
“It is for multiple games. They’ll come back for another game in 2016,” Kleinlein said. “The other side of that is that we’ve agreed to start playing some home-and-home games with them in other sports. It allows them to bring an ‘FBS product’ in other sports onto their campus and it allows us to play in Savannah for our fans.”
Georgia Southern was paid $550,000 to visit the Florida Gators on Nov. 23 -- not a bad paycheck for an FCS program. Especially when the FCS program wins.
“Money games” are necessary for the budgets of just about every mid-major FBS program, and Georgia Southern will be no exception. The Eagles will play eight Sun Belt Conference games each season, leaving four non-conference games. Kleinlein’s job is to make money for the program when scheduling those games, and also to set the Eagles up for success. He gets input from head football coach Jeff Monken and GSU President Brooks Keel.
“I have to balance economics with competitive advantage for our football team,” Kleinlein said. “I could sit down and say, ‘You know what? I’m going to use our football team to make the most money possible.’ That’s easy. Play three road games a year at $1 million apiece playing the top SEC teams. I could do that tomorrow.”
But it’s an awfully tall task to ask any program -- let alone an FBS startup -- to go on the road and beat three SEC teams in one season.
“Let’s say my goal is $1.5 million,” Kleinlein said. “How do I want to get there? Do I want to play a million-dollar game and a $500,000 game? Do I want to play two $750,000 games? If I’m playing two $750,000 games, those are against schools that are competitive, but not as competitive as a school that’s willing to pay $1 million.”
And of course, you want to win.
“You hit a home run when someone pays you $750,000 and you go beat them,” Kleinlein said.
Putting together an FBS schedule isn’t easy when you’re the new kid on the block, and many programs have schedules that were put together years in advance.
Kleinlein has to try and make Keel, Monken and the fans happy when scheduling.
“One of the biggest things I heard from our fans was limiting the travel distance,” Kleinlein said, “so we’ve got seven games in the state of Georgia next year.”
The Eagles will play four home Sun Belt games and one against SSU, and will play on the road at Georgia State and Georgia Tech.
Kleinlein also considers scheduling games farther away from home to increase GSU’s exposure. The Eagles will play road games at N.C. State and Navy.
“Are we regionally known in South Carolina and in Georgia? Probably so,” Kleinlein said. “Are we known as well in North Carolina? I don’t know. Maybe we want to play more games in North Carolina to help our brand there. Maybe we want to go Virginia or Alabama. That’s when I’ll sit down and take Dr. Keel’s direction on where we want to go to get the brand of the university out there.”
Then, of course, there’s home games. As an FBS program, the fans want to see the big names -- therefore the most expensive -- come to Paulson Stadium. GSU will host Western Michigan in 2015. It is the first home, non-conference FBS game the Eagles will play.
Creativity comes into play, too. Teams consider scheduling single games, home-and-homes and two-for-ones. The Western Michigan game comes with a return trip up there in 2016, and all these deals present other scheduling problems.
Programs also get creative with other sports.
“There’s a lot of creative deals out there. Some guys tie basketball in with it,” Kleinlein said. “When I was at Kent (State), we’d say, ‘OK, we’ll play over there in football, but you’ve got to come play us in basketball.”
Game times are also a consideration. Television often determines game times, but Kleinlein also uses market data.
“For example,” he said, “we’ve played games at 1 p.m., we’ve played games at 3, and we’ve played games at 6 this year. Now I have the data, and I’ve seen it with my own eyes -- we need to play games at 6 o’clock.”
Data drives a lot of Kleinlein’s decisions.
“Our staff gets tired of hearing it, but every decision we make is a data-driven decision,” he said. “Give me that data that supports that decision. Let’s not just make random decisions.”
Georgia Southern’s unique spread-option offense -- the same run by Navy and Georgia Tech -- also presents scheduling challenges.
“Georgia Tech won’t be afraid to play it. Navy won’t be afraid to play it, so there’s two right there,” Kleinlein said. “For whatever reason, people are afraid of it. I don’t know why that is, because we don’t sit there and say, ‘Oh, we don’t want to play this team because they run the spread.’”
Beating SEC teams also complicates things.
“Scheduling games is always a challenge,” Kleinlein said, “and the victory over Florida will just make future scheduling more interesting.
“Ask how many people want to play Alabama. Winning does that. Winning makes it harder to schedule.”
Georgia Southern allows students to access all home games in all sports as a part of their student fees, but with more than 21,000 students, a popular event could complicate things.
In 2013, Kleinlein implemented a system where students must pick up tickets in advance throughout the week on campus and at the stadium on game day.
Many were critical of the system, as students in the past only needed to show their ID at the gate.
“Any time you change something like that, there’s always going to be issues of people who don’t like it, and I get it,” Kleinlein said. “The reason why we did what we did is that it’s important to know how many kids are going to come to a game. In theory, if all 22,000 students showed up to a game, we’d have to let them in. We’ve got 22,000 seats, so if you start thinking in those terms, it’s very important to know who’s planning on coming to the game.”
And if GSU finds itself in a situation where a high percentage of students regularly start attending football games?
“If we got to a point where our students were showing up in numbers where we couldn’t handle them, the first thing we would look into doing is expanding the stadium (again),” he said.
It’s Kleinlein’s job to set GSU up for athletics success, but for Georgia Southern to get the television exposure it hopes for with the move to the FBS, everybody’s got to chip in. It isn’t just winning, it’s about looking good on TV, too.
“We control that. We control what’s on TV,” Kleinlein said. “Win-loss record is important, but they don’t want a product where, when you turn on the TV, there’s an empty stadium. That’s not what the conference wants and that’s not what ESPN wants. ESPN wants full stadiums. How we travel, how we sell our stadium out, that all affects their decisions down the road. We’ve done everything we can possibly do. We’ve had them come down and look at our stadium and make recommendations on what makes a TV game easier, and we’ll implement some of those things. But at the end of the day, it comes down to how we play and how many people come to our games.”