Trent Miles presides over a college football program that played in a bowl game last season and didn’t fire its head coach, a combination that puts Georgia State ahead of both Georgia and Georgia Tech. But that doesn’t keep Miles from looking south out of his office window in a downtown warehouse district and thinking, “Get me over there.”
A mile away sits Turner Field. It almost certainly will be the home of Georgia State football in 2017, as soon as the Triple-A baseball team moves out. If all goes well, one can imagine the stadium, part of a $30 million purchase by the university and central to a downtown-redevelopment plan, also will house the football offices and practice facilities in the near future.
Eden for the “concrete campus” and its fledgling program?
This is a football program that in 2013 was ranked last in a field of 125 by a national publication, had a quarterback on the roster who had never taken a snap from under center before and included several players who looked like paralyzed wildebeests staring into headlights any time Miles drew plays on the whiteboard.
“We’re getting better,” Miles said. “We’re not where we want to be, but this has an opportunity to really explode. You saw Georgia State in its infant stages of football. Then it drastically went to FBS. We’re now starting to catch up to where we jumped to.”
Catching up is good. Catching up is the best Georgia State could hope for after a three-and-a-half-year stretch that saw it lose 39 of 43 games and start at 1-18 in the Sun Belt Conference — New Mexico State was feeling quite humiliated as the only losing opponent — until an unlikely four-game winning streak as the regular season closed propelled the Panthers to a bowl game.
Anybody who was still paying attention collectively went, “Huh?”
Miles said the regular-season-ending upset win at Georgia Southern “brought more attention to our program than any one event.”
Question: Did enough people notice?
That Georgia State is low on the radar isn’t a reflection on Miles. He’s a football coach, not a circus barker, although he’s done his share of that, too, like in 2o14 when he hosted Penn State coach James Franklin for a youth football camp, which infuriated SEC coaches long before Jim Harbaugh considered that his personal mission. Miles believes things have improved significantly in recruiting since he arrived in Atlanta three years ago from Indiana State. On the field, he has managed to build roster depth, even if this year’s season may again tip on the success of a transfer quarterback (Conner Manning, a graduate transfer from Utah, though he hasn’t officially been named as the starter).
But what’s out of Miles’ control is how well the program is supported. The Panthers haven’t drawn well in the Georgia Dome. Is that because of the Dome or simply because not enough people care about Georgia State football? Miles believes a Turner Field will effect change.
“When it’s all said and done, (the development) is going to be a game-changer for the whole university, not just football,” Miles said. “To have something that you can call your own, not something where the Falcons say, ‘You can’t go in there.’ For the university to have that land and the first thing you see when you come up from the airport will be (a sign reading) ‘Georgia State University’ is going to be great.”
As for the lack of student and fan support that has plagued the program from the outset, Miles said: “We’ve got to earn their support. I’m sure there was a time when Georgia started football in the late 1800s when everybody wasn’t supporting them either.”
(I can’t locate attendance records for Georgia’s first game against Mercer in 1892. But school historians say the university’s Glee Club paid $50 to have the rocks removed from the field so the match could be staged, so I’m assuming there were no fancy bleachers.)
This won’t be an easy season. Miles has to replace quarterback Nick Arbuckle, Sun Belt player of the year. The Panthers open at home against Ball State, then play three consecutive road games at Air Force, at Wisconsin (painful payday) and Sun Belt-favorite Appalachian State. But they’ve been through worse: 1-10, 0-12, 1-11.
They hope last year was a turning point. They also hope somebody will be watching.
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