“I think of myself as an educator, we are trying to educate these men and women for life beyond their time here. That means academically, socially, personally, holistically as a person. By design, our culture is built for the holistic development of the student-athlete. You do want to post wins, get points on the board, but at the end of the day the development of student-athletes is why we are here. If you make that your focus day in and day out, you’re driving your culture.” -Jared Benko
Jared Benko was hired in March of 2020 as the leader of the Georgia Southern Athletics Department. He stepped in at a time when the world was coming to grips with just what a pandemic would mean. He didn’t let COVID-19 distract from his mission, he and his staff have placed student-athletes at the forefront of every decision.
“Student-athletes are the reason that we are all here,” he explains. “At Georgia Southern, we have 400 student-athletes, so our biggest constituent group and biggest priority are the same, student-athletes.”
That focus on student-athlete development has been a mainstay of Benko’s overall plan since taking the AD job just a few months ago. He’s proud of the direction of his department and explains they have more to come, especially in the midst of all of the uncertainty.
“We created Eagles in Transition. It has a focus on community service, which is a model used universities across the country have. To go further, We focus heavily on areas such as degree choices. We celebrate every student-athlete that signs with Georgia Southern, but how much are we celebrating degree choices? One thing we are going to have is ‘Declare Your Major Day’ and we are going to make it a big celebration into their sophomore year. As student-athletes matriculate, we focus on their network and assisting them with outreach and connecting them with alumni student-athletes. Our Eagles Outreach program where we connect current student-athletes with former student-athletes.”
He explains that they are still working through the program and collecting data. He says the student-athletes will get real-world information in their chosen degree field as well as job shadowing or internship opportunities. Jared Benko also makes the point that Eagles Outreach serves as a way to bring alumni back to the university.
“I believe that most people want to give back, what better way than to impact the young men and women in our program right now. It really feeds right back to the culture, we always say, ‘be humble, serve others, and always tell the truth.’ We are here to serve our student-athletes, with a servant mind and servant heart you end up creating relationships with student-athletes early on. You’re molding them, you are instilling in them that you care.”
The care and preparation that goes into the student-athlete experience at Georgia Southern, pays off in the long run, according to Benko. He sees the real win years down the road as former student-athletes make their way in the world.
“The student-athlete experience to me is defined five or ten years later when they come back and give me a hug or handshake and say ‘Thank you for challenging me in ways that I didn’t understand at the time but now I see the value. It’s not about in the present tense of making everyone happy, but at the end of the day we are building young men and women for the long run.”
In a highly competitive league like the Sun Belt, Georgia Sothern’s overall student-athlete experience is a standout. Jared Benko says his team leverages that overall approach to potential recruits.
“Since it is so competitive, we are recruiting some of the top men and women in the country, so we have to think about what makes us different. For us, we dove into the process of how to enhance our student-athlete development, we are trying to do it from the lens of a mom or dad. The student-athletes that we are recruiting are going to have other offers. We highlight what we are doing and some of that is a progression of thought, here’s where we started and here’s where we are going. If you highlight progress and show them that you have a vested interest in their son or daughter, that’s all we can ask for as a parent.”
Benko explains that the student-athlete experience is critical in the current sponsorship climate. As he points out, sponsorships and partnerships have changed drastically in the past few months, but their commitment to student-athletes has not. They can leverage their overall experience to help attract the attention of sponsors.
“With sponsorships there has been a lot of change in that sector in the past five or six months. We’ve tried to find new assets and bring those to the table. One of those assets is the student-athlete themself. We’ve done more in-depth features with our student-athletes and coaches. As an example, when I started here in April, we started a Tuesday Talk. Every Tuesday I had a coach on and it was a chance for that coach to highlight their program. Part of that was to highlight our programs and student-athletes and you’ll see more opportunities like that. Our student-athletes are our best assets and when you start these features you can bring in new sponsorship opportunities.”
“Our student-athletes are the draw to the program, every donor, every fanbase has an affinity to their school, but the school isn’t just one person. So, when we go out and highlight our programs, it’s a natural progression in the conversation that they want to know about our student-athletes. We should always celebrate our wins and successes, and our student-athletes, that’s where our wins are.”
The pandemic has changed a lot of things about campus life, but Jared Benko insists that the challenges shouldn’t be the main focus. He says the crisis has also pushed some topics to the forefront.
“One thing we’ve talked about, ad nauseam, is mental health and investing in mental health. We just hired another sports psychologist. These investments are worth highlighting, it’s one of the biggest concerns in my role is making sure our student-athletes make mental health a priority.”
He also says the pandemic has made relationship building a priority. He believes those relationships will last beyond 2020.
“On a personal note, I try to find positives out of situations, I think it goes back to a core tenant of fostering great relationships on campus. Whether it’s picking up the phone and having a personal conversation that way or a Zoom where you can look someone in the eye. We are in a relationship business, internal and external constituents alike, there are positive take-a-ways.”
Benko understands the stresses student-athletes and staff are under during these unprecedented times, but he asks for everyone to focus on what you can control, on what each of them can bring to the table.
“There are so many things that are uncontrollable and if you get too focused on that you can lose your North Star. What I like to tell my student-athletes is that there are three things you can control every day with no argument, your attitude, your effort, and how you treat people. Every day you make a decision about your attitude, your work ethic, and the last is biblically-based, you treat your neighbor as you would yourself.”
He says if you can work on the things you can control, it’s possible to see the positive in most situations and work on creating the best version of yourself.
“If you focus on those three things you will find yourself being centered and balanced.”