AD may be the unlikely key to the successful delivery of the new school
On January 8, after months of wrangling and more than a little controversy, Augusta State University and Georgia Health Sciences University will finally, officially, combine to form Georgia Regents University.
Bringing two such distinct, storied and in some cases suspicious groups together is no small task, but Clint Bryant, ASU’s longtime athletic director and the new school’s first one, believes athletics can be the glue that holds it all together.
“No matter if you’re a doctor, a kid at the children’s hospital, a maintenance worker, a public safety officer, a professor, a student or a staff member — once you step on the court or the field, the only thing that makes a difference is that you’re all Jaguars,” Bryant said, sitting at a side table in his office, which is just a handful of steps away from overlooking the basketball court at Christenberry Fieldhouse. “That’s something we can all rally around. It doesn’t have anything to do with the name change or saving the A — it just makes good sense that we can come together for some common good.”
With cool jazz playing low in the background and framed mementos from his teams’ successful seasons hanging from the walls, Bryant spoke freely about everything from the region’s obsession with football to the unique ability college athletics has to engage students and unify a community.
“Athletics will be able to provide that glue and the create that oneness where, in our student section, you’ve got some kid that’s a resident at the medical school or is going to be a dentist and some kid that’s an English major or a sociology major, and the one thing they’ve got in common is that they’re all pulling for the Jags.”
Because of that visibility, he calls athletics the institution’s front porch.
“Athletics is not the most important part of a university just as the front porch is not the most important part of a house,” he said. “But it’s what everybody sees because of the visibility of athletics. There’s not a day that you don’t see something in the news about Augusta State athletics.”
That porch is about to get an extreme makeover courtesy of the merger with GHSU. For Bryant, the advantages were immediately clear.
“For us, we knew it could be positive,” he said. “Augusta State University and now Georgia Regents University can become a destination university, and that’s powerful for us, because we can do some things that we haven’t been able to do because of better finances.”
In Bryant’s world, the general student population determines a lot in terms of baseline funding.
“Heads in beds, I call it,” he said. “I need bodies, because bodies pay athletic fees. When there’s a spike in enrollment, that’s good for us, because that means I have more money to do things.”
The merger gives him a shot at 2,500 more students, which sweetens the pot. Not only that, but it gives him a much larger fan base.
“With close to 10,000 students and 10,000 employees, Jaguar Nation is 20,000 strong just within the university itself,” he said. “That’s something to be excited about.”
Not surprisingly, Bryant, who has been at ASU for 25 years, called the opportunity to craft the athletic program of a new university the chance of a lifetime, but it’s not his first.
After putting in seven years with Clemson’s basketball program, he left the Tigers in 1984 for the opportunity to bring back college basketball to the University of Miami, where it had been on a 15-year hiatus.
“That experience of building that program from scratch was a once in a lifetime experience,” he said. “I look at this in the same way. Very seldom do you get to create a new university.”
In fact, the whole thing has been something of a perfect storm for Bryant, who will not only enjoy the additional student athletic fees and the sudden advantage of being a burgeoning academic powerhouse, something he said cannot be underestimated when it comes to recruiting, but the timing of it all coincides with another once in a lifetime event — the explosive growth of the Atlanta area.
Experts say that by the year 2020, the 16 perimeter counties that make up the Metro Atlanta area will produce 100,000 high school graduates, which means that every institution in the nation will be in the general area competing for Atlanta’s best and brightest.
Georgia Regents University will be a two and a half hour ride east down I-20, he said, and its closest public peer, the University of Alabama-Birmingham, will be a two and a half hour ride west. GRU’s private peer, Emory, is in Atlanta, and out of the four universities that are considered Tier I research universities in the state, the other three are, for all intents and purposes, in metro Atlanta.
“We’re the only one that would be would be outside of metro Atlanta, and therefore I think it offers us a wide potential for a lot of things for students and growth,” he said. “And we, in athletics, will piggyback off of that.”
Because higher education is such a competitive field, offering a level of academics that will be on par with those offered at places like the University of Georgia or Georgia Tech certainly doesn’t hurt.
“So I looked at it from the very beginning as a win-win, not only for athletics, but for Augusta State as a whole,” he said.
He views his new role as that of an advisor to the new leadership team, helping them decide the best direction for athletics to go. Wherever it goes, he said it will be well thought out.
“I don’t want to be shooting from the hip,” he said. “I want to be sure there’s a plan. I guess it’s the old coach in me, but you don’t ever go into a game without a game plan.”
Consequently, the school has hired a consulting firm to put together a 10- or 15-year strategic plan that will look at several different areas, consider the school’s growth potential and come up with a list of what sports might be added.
The plan should be completed by February or March, but already Bryant is looking at adding rowing, swimming/diving, equestrian, soccer and lacrosse, primarily because those are the kinds of sports desired by the students the new school will attract.
In spite of the central role football plays in the perception of the college experience in the south, Bryant said it’s clear that the time is not right for football in Augusta.
“People think that you have to have the college football experience to have a valuable college experience,” he said. “But I say it just depends. If you can afford to play at that level, do it. But what happens is, a lot of people can’t afford to play at that level.”
And because football is so expensive to play — and nearly prohibitively expensive to start, considering the investment in infrastructure needed — those who can’t do it well are often doomed to languish.
Which is one of the reasons he said it might be instructive to look at a school like Virginia Commonwealth University, a university similar to the one the Augusta’s two schools are preparing to become.
“What they’ve basically said is — we’ll let Virginia and Virginia Tech play big-time football and William and Mary and James Madison and all the rest play small-time football, but we’re going to be a basketball power.”
Given ASU’s traditional basketball strength — the men made the NCAA Division II Elite Eight three years in a row and played for the national title in 2008 — such a move makes sense, as difficult as it might be to abandon the idea of Saturday tailgating.
“I won’t say that Georgia Regents University might not one day have football, but it’s so far down the line and so many things would have to come in line for that to work,” he said. “We live in the part of the country where it’s ACC or SEC — that’s what it is. And on Saturdays, people are going to run off to Athens or Clemson or Columbia or Tallahassee to watch big-time college football, and I just know it would be very difficult in Augusta to get it started. It’s so darned expensive, and if you can’t do it right, there’s no need to do it.”
Given the ambitions President Dr. Ricardo Azziz has for the new institution — he’ll be attending the NCAA national convention and will participate in a special presidential summit — it’s very likely that an athletic director somewhere down the road might decide it’s time Georgia Regents University has a football team.
“And it might be the right thing to do then,” Bryant said. “But I just know where we are now, and in the immediate future, it’s not the right thing to do. But we can still make an immediate positive impact by trying to be good at what we’re good at.”
Another significant issue Bryant will have to address is whether or not to move all sports to Division I.
Currently, ASU has a multi-classification, which means it can compete in both Division II and Division I sports. It competes in Division II in all sports with the exception of golf, where it competes against Division I schools.
Back in the 1986, ASU competed in Division I and was a founding member of the Big South Conference, but it left after six years to join Division II’s Peach Belt Conference because of its natural regional rivalries and the fact that it was considerably less expensive to play in Division II.
While Bryant said he was considering the move back to Division I, it’s not a move to take lightly, since the multi-classification allowance has been discontinued as of 2011. ASU was grandfathered in, but should GRU decide to move up, it will never be able to go back.
And then there’s the cost.
“I do know that you need a budget of between $8 million and $15 million to do it and do it right in Division I,” he said. “So we’d have to basically triple ourselves in revenue.”
While there’s no discounting the perception among students and parents that being a Division I school provides a superior college experience, Bryant said it’s often just that — perception. He pointed to many Division II schools that have successful programs and excellent student involvement.
Drury, who played ASU in one of their basketball runs, traveled with eight to 12 buses, he said, and the University of California-San Diego, whose women are in town this week competing in the Division II soccer championships, is a challenger for national titles in just about every sport it participates in.
“If we stay just where we are, we’re okay,” he said. “But what has happened in our part of the country is that Division I athletics has become a checklist, not just for athletes, but for students in general.”
The move would have hidden costs, as well. He said a school has to put up $1.48 million to put in an application for Division I, and you have to be accepted into a Division I conference, too, which adds another cost.
“Our basketball facility, our golf facility and where we play tennis is no problem, but right now, no Division I conference is going to take us, because we don’t have a baseball and softball facility adequate to be members of that conference,” he said. “And we need a soccer facility.”
Again, he stressed the importance of doing it right.
“It ain’t no fun doing it the other way,” he said. “When you can’t afford to do it, schools end up dropping sports.”
And while shedding weight might make for a good New Year’s resolution, it’s not the direction the new administration wants its athletics department to go. You Might Also Like: