Sixteen years after the germ of football was first planted, and just a few less study committees in the making, Kennesaw State finally will sprout its first FCS contusions Thursday night.
The meeting at East Tennessee State, on a high school field named for native son Steve Spurrier, will not rattle the windows of the college football establishment.
For the Owls, though, there can’t be a more significant date, athletically speaking. Rightly or wrongly, football does and always will convey a special imprimatur upon a university. It makes a campus just a bit cooler, just as cool as one can be in a helmet.
As university President Daniel Papp put it: “My perspective, if you’re going to be a major university in the American South, it’s pretty hard not to have football in one version or the other.”
A look at this seminal game through the eyes of the three people largely responsible for it:
It is not as though Papp arrived in 2006 with an burning desire to bring football to Kennesaw. It never was Mission One, he said.
Nor does he hold any grandiose schemes about taking Owls ball big-time, rushing from FCS into the grander FBS. In fact, he said, “As long as I’m president we will never move toward FBS.”
His predecessor at KSU commissioned a study on football feasibility nearly two decades ago, and at the time it was decided the idea was a non-starter.
After Papp became KSU’s president, the rumblings of football, like hunger pangs, stirred again. “Being open-minded I said, OK, let’s look at football, but let’s put in place a process where we can either say thumbs up or thumbs down or thumbs sideways at any given point.
“We took a very careful and measured approach to it.”
The idea could have died at any one of four junctures: an exploratory report; a student vote on raising activity fees; the search for corporate sponsorship; the verdict of the state Board of Regents.
Papp said he would have not mourned long had football failed along the way; he was not going to force-feed the idea. But it is good to note that the school president is not just a pointy-headed intellectual — he played football in high school and one year at Dartmouth before gravitating toward the violence of the rugby field. In nearly a quarter century at Georgia Tech, he constantly was bemused by a recurring pattern of some of his more important conferences: “We’d spend the first 15-20 minutes talking about Georgia Tech football and the last part of the meeting talking about the grant proposal.”
Of course, he will be at both the season and home opener. A modest president’s box awaits him at the Owls’ Fifth Third Bank Stadium (yeah, they got the corporate sponsorship) for the Edward Waters game Sept 12.
“I’ll be cheering loudly. I’ll probably be hoarse when I come back from Tennessee,” he said.
The athletic director
There is a tradition now when AD Vaughn Williams addresses his troops each month. All the new hires stand and sing the KSU fight song.
There wasn’t a fight song before football. Or a marching band. Or a co-ed cheerleading corps. Building a unified spirit is one of the program’s promises that most excites Williams.
“I could see football being a big component — not a be-all, end-all — but a help in a lot of different ways: (building) memories, traditions, all the things we’d have to a certain degree to push the university into the forefront,” Williams said.
A one-time UMass defensive back, Williams came to Kennesaw State from an associate AD position at UConn in 2011. Just in time to be thrown into the complex and sometimes messy football birthing process.
Williams was charged with hanging flesh on the vision. He was a point man for selling a program that didn’t have its first shoulder pad to a community just awakening to KSU’s potential and presence (enrollment: 33,000). Unearthing a corporate sponsor willing to invest in that excitement at the 12th hour was among the greatest ordeals.
“There were some sleepless nights. I felt that while football wasn’t why I came to Kennesaw, I wanted to help the university in any way possible,” Williams said.
Now that football is real, strike up the band, cue the cheerleaders and engage in the varied nonsense of game day just like all the other “big-time” schools. And if you see a tear running down the cheek of the athletic director, bear with him.
“This has been one of the hardest and most challenging things I’ve ever done in college athletics. I’m probably going to cry when I think about it,” he said.
“I’m happy for the university. I’m happy for the president. I’m happy that I was able to be a part of it. I can’t wait to see Brian (Bohannon) coach, to see him really dig in. It’s going to be a neat moment.”
Kennesaw State wanted a football coach who was a native son, someone who knew every furrow of Georgia’s fertile recruiting ground. And someone with the power of personality to push an unknown commodity.
Bohannon wanted a chance to strike out on his own, anxious to prove himself as a head coach.
The two parties scratched each other’s itch in the spring of 2013 when KSU hired Paul Johnson’s long-time assistant at Georgia Tech, Navy and Georgia Southern.
Bohannon didn’t have an office at first, temporarily settling in the bank building near campus. Didn’t have a team. His first game wouldn’t be for nearly 30 months. Kickoff seemed like a speck on the horizon.
The good part about being on the ground floor of a football program is that you have say in every detail. The coach took great interest in them all, down to the level of helmet design.
“For me, if I had a choice I’d put KS on everything. In my mind where we’re going as a program we want that KS to be just like the (Georgia) G and (Tech) GT as far as being recognized,” the one-time Bulldogs letterman said.
Of course, the long buildup to an actual game has been an exercise in patience, sometimes strained. Oh, those first practices. “They’re all new and it was exhausting for our staff because we had to teach every minute of the day.”
As the opener Thursday drew nearer, the coach’s game face took form.
“The big thing I want our kids to understand, when somebody talks about Kennesaw State football, there needs to be an identity that’s with that. Every Saturday (or Thursday) we go out we’re creating that identity. That may end in a win or a loss. It about how do we play the game. The effort we have, the toughness. Those are some of the characteristics that our team needs to have. Those are things we can attack and have realistic expectations on.”
Imagining what it will be like, running onto a field for that first game, Bohannon expects his internal tachometer to be all the way into the red.
“There will be a lot of emotion,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll have to give any pregame speeches. We’re going to try to stay as calm as we can. My eyes will probably be like this (as wide as saucers).
“Running out the first time, I’m going to have to regroup when I’m on the sidelines. And I’m going to tell our team, and myself, you’re going to enjoy … this. Run out there and soak it up, have a blast, get on the sideline and regroup. Because nothing would make it better than to find a way to put a ‘W’ at the end of our first couple of games.”
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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC