Since losing an estimated $1.4 billion in state support due to the recession of 2008-09, the University System of Georgia (USG) has set out on one of the most aggressive college/university consolidation missions in the country. From 2013-2015, the USG has had six consolidations which dropped the system from 35 to 29 public universities and colleges. The largest student body merger (53,000 students) took place in 2015 as Georgia State University and Georgia Perimeter College merged. This past January, the USG announced its 8th merger and 2nd largest student body (27,000 students) impacted consolidation between Georgia Southern University (GS) and Armstrong State University (AS). The new Georgia Southern University will now have campuses in Statesboro, Savannah, and Hinesville. The uniqueness of GS/AS merger lies in the fact it’s the first USG merger involving both a highly successful Division I and Division II athletic department. Thus, this merger has created a unique situation for both the GS and AS athletic departments.
This merger has presented both GS Athletic Director Tom Kleinlein and AS Athletic Director Lisa Sweany with the rare, unfortunate opportunity to have to shutter a successful athletic department (Armstrong State) and at the same time, formulate a plan to greatly enhance another successful athletic department (Georgia Southern). To my knowledge there is no road map that exists for these athletic directors to follow, they are charting new territory and, as someone that studies college athletics for a living, I had three questions that popped into my mind:
1) How do you best handle the Armstrong State Student-Athletes?
2) Will the Armstrong State Athletic Department Personnel (Administrators, Coaches, & Staff) be fully transitioned into the GS Athletic Department?
3) How will the Armstrong State facilities factor into the new Georgia Southern Athletics Department?
I was fortunate to speak with GS Athletic Director Tom Kleinlein earlier this month in an effort to seek out answers to the aforementioned questions. I opened our conversation by asking Kleinlein what was the starting point for the process of consolidating two athletics departments into one new Georgia Southern athletic department? Kleinlein stated once the consolidation announcement was made both Sweany and his teams began discussions with a primary focus placed on student-athlete welfare for impacted athletes. Kleinlein further stressed the importance of starting with the student-athlete welfare question as it would set the path for how they attacked all future situations. Kleinlein was kind enough to take me through their process.
Both ADs began by going through individual team rosters to identify which student-athletes might want to transfer, which student-athletes might want to stay but end their playing career, and which student-athletes might want to move up to Division I and compete for the new GS athletic department. Kleinlein took me through the latter example as he explained their decision-making process.
When determining what to do with the SA that wants to stay and play as a GS student-athlete, Kleinlein and Sweany started with a student-athlete GS compliance review. If the compliance review indicated the SA was eligible the current GS head sports coach would be contacted to gauge if mutual interest existed. Kleinlein explained all of the AS student-athletes were eligible to transfer under the “open transfer rule” and would not have to sit out. If mutual interest existed, the next step identified potential scholarship availability for the perspective SA. Kleinlein shared that this was where the process might hit a rough patch for the SA because this merger was still bound to comply with NCAA scholarship allocation limits. Kleinlein offered a baseball example, “if there was mutual interest and GS was willing to offer a baseball scholarship, great no problems. But what if we got to this point of mutual interest and GS baseball had already allocated its full 11.7 scholarship allotment for 2017-2018. GS cannot add another scholarship from AS for this SA.” We discussed this scenario and we determined to speak with the AS student-athlete about his potential interest to walk-on to the GS team. “This is by no means the perfect solution; however it is the best solution we can offer under the current circumstances,” Kleinlein stated. He further explained if the SA was not willing to walk-on but wanted to keep playing Kleinlein and Sweany would then implement an action plan to assist the SA in finding another landing spot. Kleinlein emphasized, “This merger is not a cut and dry process, and the further we get into it the more questions that arise. But we are trying to systematically work through each scenario on a case by case basis always be cognizant of the impact this decision is having on the individual.”
Kleinlein then shifted focus to a similar discussion on how decisions are being made regarding the impacted administrators, coaches, and athletic department staff personnel. It was reiterated that much of the aforementioned process has been replicated when analyzing this group of professionals. He further shared that Sweany and he, “were charged by GS President Jaimie Hebert to create a new organizational structure for the GS Athletic Department.” The initial focus was centered on identifying the current GS Athletic Department’s weaknesses or challenges and how Armstrong State administrators, staff, and coaches could strengthen these areas. Again, Kleinlein stated the team is going through this process on a case by case basis. He was adamant, “these discussions also focused on current GS personnel to determine how each best fit into the new GS athletic department.” One example Kleinlein offered to illustrate this process was with the GS Women’s Basketball program.
Currently, the GS Women’s Basketball program does not have a Director of Basketball Operations position. Through the merger, GS is now going to be able to add this position and could offer this position to a current member of the Armstrong State Women’s Basketball staff. Knowing that GS moved its football program up to the Division I Football Bowl Series level and transitioned to the Sun Belt Conference 4 years ago, I asked if this department analysis process was similar to how you evaluated departmental needs back in 2013? He agreed there existed some similarities from the standpoint of having the opportunity to bring the athletics department staffing up to where it should be will be a great benefit to the new GS Athletic Department.
When asked to discuss the current state of how the Armstrong State athletic facilities will be used, Kleinlein stated, “This is still a fluid situation and discussions are still on-going because there are several factors that still need to be considered.” He brought up some of the questions and concerns being analyzed. For example, is it feasible to house the GS Men’s and Women’s Tennis teams in Savannah? He addressed what this would mean from a staffing position; GS would have to then create new positions in the following areas: strength and conditioning position, sports psychologist, sports nutritionist, and athletic training. All roles would then be positioned in Savannah and is this the best use of our resources and what about the desires of the GS student-athletes? Do they want to live in Savannah and commute back to Statesboro if their major is not offered on the Savannah campus? Who is going to cover the cost of rebranding all of the Armstrong State athletic facilities into GS athletics? These discussions are still ongoing, but the one thing Kleinlein sees is the possibility to leverage the Armstrong State athletic facilities into a potential new revenue stream for the new GS Athletic Department because of their high quality.
The merger of Georgia Southern’s and Armstrong State’s Athletic Departments is almost unprecedented and creates a unique situation for two successful Athletic Directors. To my knowledge, a roadmap for the simultaneously closing and expansion of two successful athletic programs does not exist. History has shown the normal path for athletic department budget expansion is by moving up a division or switching conference affiliation. Both of which Georgia Southern has recently accomplished, but now Georgia Southern has been presented with another athletic budget growth opportunity. However, this opportunity is not based on its own decision; it has been driven by the University System of Georgia as it continues to consolidate state institutions. The University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents will still have final approval of the new structure and how much additional revenue, if any, flows to the new Georgia Southern Athletics Department with this merger. The final merger decisions are left to be made, but one thing is for sure, the big business of intercollegiate athletics continues on.
Matt Wilson, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of sport business at Stetson University. A former college and professional baseball player, Wilson completed his doctoral work at the University of Georgia and has taught in higher education since 1998. His research focuses on issues in intercollegiate athletics. His work has been featured in Time Magazine, USA Today, Inside Higher Education, and has been presented at several international conferences.
Got athletic department news? Want us to post a job for your athletic department? Contact us! 775-238-3557, @collegead or email@example.com. Sources always remain anonymous.