Amid social distancing, Georgia Southern hires a basketball coach

Brian Burg cuts down the nets as an assistant coach at Texas Tech in the 2019 NCAA tournament. (Photo courtesy Texas Tech/Norvelle Kennedy)

Brian Burg cuts down the nets as an assistant coach at Texas Tech in the 2019 NCAA tournament. (Photo courtesy Texas Tech/Norvelle Kennedy)

Even for his first job out of college –assistant coach at a junior college in Kansas – Brian Burg had a face-to-face meeting before he was hired.

So, late last week, as the Texas Tech assistant basketball coach and new Georgia Southern athletic director Jared Benko were closing in on agreement for Burg to become the Eagles’ new coach, an in-person conversation seemed a prerequisite, especially considering the two had never met.

The two considered hopping in their cars and meeting halfway, likely somewhere in Louisiana. But an unusual time asked for a change from standard protocol. Being mindful of social-distancing directives and not wanting to travel unnecessarily, Benko and Burg maintained their literal distance, connecting by phone for final interviews Saturday before Benko officially offered the job Sunday.

“With the coronavirus, it just wasn’t responsible, and I didn’t want to put him or myself in that position,” Benko said.

The coronavirus pandemic has caused disruptions across the sports landscape on scales large and small. In college basketball, one impact has been the near halt of the coaching carousel that normally spins steadily in March. For example, as of Wednesday, there had been no job changes among the power-conference schools after averaging 7.4 transitions over the past five years. The idiosyncrasies of Georgia Southern’s coaching search likely were among the challenges that athletic directors were preferring to avoid this spring.

“I can tell you it’s the first time I’ve offered a position to somebody without meeting him in person, and probably the last,” Benko said.

The 38-year-old Benko himself had no interest in overseeing a search, especially considering that he was a first-time athletic director and also that he hadn’t even officially started his job. On March 20, when Eagles coach Mark Byington informed Benko that he was leaving to take the James Madison job, Benko was in Starkville, Miss., on his last day in the office as deputy athletic director at Mississippi State.

Benko was hired by Georgia Southern on March 5 to replace Tom Kleinlein, who resigned in January to become deputy AD at Ole Miss. Benko’s plans were to take some time off with his family before officially starting in Statesboro on Wednesday. Instead, Benko, a Georgia grad who grew up in Watkinsville, had to find a coach.

The first stages of the search weren’t so different than a typical search. He hired a search firm, Atlanta-based Parker Executive Search. He put together a search committee – himself, senior associate AD Reggie Simpkins and faculty athletics representative Chris Geyerman – and gathered names of potential candidates from mentors and other industry sources. He said he talked to “10-plus people” on the phone from that list, mostly a mix of power-conference assistant coaches and head coaches at lower-tier Division I schools, and then whittled it to five.

Typically, interviews with the five would have been face-to-face meetings in a neutral location. Instead, the calls were done by video conference, with Benko logging on from his home in Starkville. As the home-bound masses can relate, Benko learned the value of the mute button with his sons, Hudson and Cooper, sharing his space.

“They’re boys,” Benko said. “You had to go up to the spare bedroom and make that an office a little bit.”

The circumstances created by the pandemic did help in one aspect. With the cessation of games and on-the-road recruiting, Benko had a much easier time getting in touch with athletic directors, coaches, media members and candidates’ former players for background checks.

“I think to some degree, it allowed me to move rather expeditiously in vetting people rather quickly,” Benko said.

The candidates wore suits for the video interviews, Benko said, including Burg.

“Don’t tell anyone,” Burg said. “I did have on tennis shoes.”

For his interview, Burg snuck into his office at Texas Tech’s United Supermarkets Arena. He sat at his desk. The backdrop was an image of Muhammad Ali, his favorite athlete.

“It was different because you’re not coming to campus, your interviews are through Zoom video conference calls, which is a little bit unique,” Burg said. “But it’s a great opportunity, where you still had interactions with individuals, and those conversations went great.”

After the search committee narrowed the field to two finalists – Burg and another assistant coach, Benko said – they went through another round of interviews by video conference. Despite the limitations, Burg was able to stand out with, among other things, the specificity of details of how he wanted to shape his program, from building a staff to scheduling to community service. His resume, which included helping four Division I schools win league championships and serving on Texas Tech’s first Final Four team last year, and reputation as a grinder spoke for themselves.

“You’re like, ‘This guy gets it. He’s been ready,’” Benko said of an interview held Friday. “That was the day where he, in my opinion, blew the lid off it.”

For his part, Burg said he saw the job as “a gold mine.” While known more for football, Georgia Southern went to two NCAA tournaments and two NIT’s between 1987 and 1992. More recently, Byington led the Eagles to 20-win seasons in each of the past three seasons and registered winning seasons in Sun Belt play four years in a row. Burg said he was won over by another video-conference interview, this one with school president Kyle Marrero.

“The more and more people I was able to communicate with, I knew this was a dream come true if I was afforded the opportunity to become their next head coach,” Burg said.

Benko had honed in on Burg by Friday evening. Benko had hoped to meet in person with his final candidate – “you want to meet them and look them in the eye and have a great dialogue,” he said – but recognized that health precautions needed to prevail. They instead wrapped it up with a couple of lengthy conversations on the phone Saturday sandwiched between another session with the whole search committee. Even talking remotely, Burg said he became more comfortable the more they talked.

“It was a little bit different because you’ve never met the person face-to-face, but I think we hit it off,” Burg said.

Burg called Georgia Southern “a hidden gem” and spoke of his aspiration for multiple NCAA tournament appearances.

“I’m excited because I think we landed one of the best coaches in the country,” Benko said.

Both met for the first time Wednesday, at Georgia Southern. Burg now has to get acquainted with his players, hire a staff and start recruiting, all processes that will also have to be done largely or entirely without in-person contact for the foreseeable future.

Said Burg, “It’s a unique time, but we’re going to get through it.”