On the Brink
By Matthew Osborne
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Heartbreaking losses to conclude each of the past three seasons has caused tremendous pain for those close to the Georgia Southern program.
With Georgia Southern’s recent run of success on the gridiron, which includes becoming the first program in FCS history to reach three consecutive FCS semifinals under the current playoff structure, you would hardly be able to tell that this was a program that just a mere four seasons ago was undergoing a significant schematic and philosophical makeover.
Following the dismissal of Mike Sewak at the end of the 2005 season, subsequent head coaches Brian VanGorder and Chris Hatcher did the unthinkable, scrapping Georgia Southern’s patented triple option attack in favor of a more “modern” spread offense.
Monken’s hire prior to the 2010 season marked a return to the Eagles’ triple option roots and, not coincidentally, the school’s successful ways.
A longtime assistant coach under legendary Georgia Southern head coach Paul Johnson, Monken was keenly aware of the program’s rich and storied history upon his return to Statesboro. Inheriting a team recruited for a system which could not have been more opposite from the one which he planned to incorporate, Monken expedited the learning curve for his first team, overcoming some initial road bumps to lead the 2010 Eagles all the way to the FCS “Final Four”.
The 2011 season would prove to follow a similar script, minus the early season road bumps, as the Eagles once again made it to the brink of the FCS Championship Game before being ousted by eventual champion North Dakota State.
Déjà vu would ensue in 2012, as the Eagles again made it to the semifinals of the playoffs only to be sent home by the same North Dakota State Bison.
The 2012 semifinal loss would prove to be the most difficult one to swallow for folks close to the program. Led by dynamic quarterback Jerick McKinnon, the Eagles thoroughly outgained the Bison in total yardage. A series of critical mistakes down the stretch, though, would ultimately allow the Bison to escape with the narrow victory.
It is a loss which still haunts the Eagles’ head coach.
“I’ve probably reflected more than I needed to,” Monken told the Southern Pigskin Radio Network when asked if he still thinks back to the 2012 matchup in Fargo. “You re-live it. You re-live every play and re-live every call, and second guess and arm chair quarterback yourself to death.”
Reflecting upon the Eagles’ recent accomplishments from an outside perspective, it is amazing to think that Monken and his coaching staff have been able to return the program to glory in such a rapid manner.
But while three straight semifinal appearances are a great accomplishment in retrospect, the feat does not take away from the sting of three straight losses in those semifinal contests. The re-emergence of deep postseason runs was certainly a welcome sight to Georgia Southern fans, but this is a program accustom to bringing home the hardware, not just advancing deep into the playoffs.
“The bar is set awfully high at Georgia Southern, and certainly the expectations that we have as coaches and as a program are to win the national championship and when you fall short of that, there is a sense of disappointment,” said the 2011 SoCon Coach of the Year. “You know, you make it that far and you have your eyes set on the national championship, it’s really tough to lose in the semifinals again.”
Heartbreaking losses to conclude each of the past three seasons has obviously caused tremendous pain for those close to the Georgia Southern program. Keeping in mind where this program was prior to Monken’s arrival, however, it is astonishing to think that the team is even in a situation of mourning postseason disappointments.
The ascension to the ranks of the FCS elite has been rapid, but that doesn’t mean that it has been easy.
Building a championship program is comparable to making a cross country trek; you stay on course, continuously grinding until you eventually reach your ultimate destination.
For Monken, his teams have fought through the wilderness, coming precariously close to the culmination of their arduous journey. At this point, it will simply take the continued and steady struggling for the finish line to see things through.
“I hope we improve all the time and I think we are improving as a football program and improving as a team. Each year our guys have gotten better. Every new team is just that, they take on a new personality,” Monken remarked. “We really have the same goals in mind each year, and that’s to be the best we can be, to try to push our guys to maximize their potential and to play together so that we can get the most out of our football team.”
Fans in Statesboro have been waiting since 2000 to once again enjoy the sweet taste of a national championship.
Judging by the recent trends of the program, that wait will come to an end sooner rather than later.