It was here, on a high school campus in the northeast corner of Tennessee, in a town renown during prohibition for bootlegging, gambling and the hush-hush residency of Al Capone, that Kennesaw State began its legally acceptable and Southern-embraced venture into football.
The Owls, a start-up, dismantled East Tennessee State, a restart, 56-16 on Thursday night.
They trailed 13-7 in the second quarter, then scored the next 49 points. They scored four touchdowns on short runs. They scored on a fumble recovery, an interception return, a long pass and a long run. They rushed for more than 400 yards.
They did all this at the home of the Science Hill High Hilltoppers, on a field named for famous alum Steve Spurrier, so let’s assume they just gained a following in Athens.
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One game in, and they’ve already checked almost every box.
When do the first college football playoff rankings come out?
This is how a first-year head coach at a first-year program dream opening night unfolds. It wasn’t long ago that Kennesaw State’s Brian Bohannon was teaching young players how to get on and off the bus and correcting the ones who put their pads on wrong.
“Obviously, we want to win every game, but we understand who we are and where we are right now,” Bohannon, the former long-time Paul Johnson understudy, said earlier in the week.
What are his expectations?
“I have no idea.”
Now he has some idea. Granted, East Tennessee State also was playing its first game after shelving the program in 2003. So this effectively was one newbie beating up on another newbie. But the visiting newbie appeared to have far fewer issues.
Bohannon was concerned about how the Owls would respond to early adversity.
Exhale: “We didn’t go out there and go haywire,” he said.
Start-up businesses can have hopes, just not expectations. Employees quit. Machinery doesn’t work. The kickoff returner gets turned around and the ball bounces off his helmet, as the athletic director and the booster-club president get that Scooby Doo look on their face and quietly say, “Rut-roh.”
There were no ball-off-the-helmet moments for the Owls. They were relatively slapstick-free, save a fumble and a botched point that led to 10 East Tennessee State points. They looked like a real football team, making real football plays. They blocked, they tackled, and we’ve learned in Atlanta not to take such things for granted.
KSU quarterback Trey White ran six yards for a touchdown early in the game. Running back Jae Bowen ran two yards for a TD after picking up White’s fumble near the goal line. Even defensive tackle Nick Perrotta rumbled and stumbled 19 yards for a score after an interception. They scored four more touchdowns in the second half, at which point some in Johnson City might’ve wondered why they resuscitated the program.
Thought bubble above the Kennesaw State campus: “Who’s next? Alabama? Somebody from the NFC East?”
Bohannon was hired in 2013. His office was in the basketball arena on campus, then moved to the third floor of a bank. The latest temporary football offices and weight room are housed in an industrial park, adjacent to loading docks, across the road from campus. Welcome to FCS.
“It’s not perfect, but I didn’t have any expectation of it being perfect to start with,” he said.
You don’t get perfect early. You get stories. You get kids who show up at open tryouts who look like they hadn’t left the couch or the buffet line in six months. (“You would’ve thought they had never played football before.”). You get players who didn’t know how to put on their pads.
Bohannon said more than 20 players have either quit or been told to leave. Three have quit in just the past two weeks.
“We weed them out pretty quick here,” he said.
He has had to talk to players how to get on the bus, off the bus, in the huddle, at the hotel, in a restaurant. The team even had a practice “road trip,” busing 20 minutes to Etowah High School.
Kennesaw State is doing this right. It has an on-campus stadium, which gives it a significant advantage over the start-up venture at Georgia State. They also plan on playing at the FCS level for the foreseeable future, making the economics of this venture workable without scheduling annual profitable dismemberings against Alabama, Tennessee and West Virginia (see: Georgia State).
“It’s been a long time coming, just to play the game,” Bohannon said, with an afterglow. “The work these kids have put in, the staff has put in for the last two and a half years, for them to have a positive night that we can build on, hugging each one after the game, that’s what it’s all about.”
This could work. Certainly, one game in, it’s a nice view.