First a little bit of history…
The history of Georgia Southern football since it started playing in Division I in 1984, can be neatly divided into two different eras with 2006 as the dividing line.
From 1984-2006, the Eagles went 214-66, a .764 winning percentage, won six I-AA national titles, eight SoCon championships, averaged 10 wins a season, and if you take out the 1996 Frank Ellwood season, had just four head coaches in 22 years. In fact, 1996 was the only losing season during that stretch. All of this was accomplished while running the flexbone triple-option offense.
Then period 2, from 2006 to 2020, where Georgia Southern has gone 109-77, a .564 winning percentage, won only three conference championships, and has averaged 7 wins a season. That record will end up being worse once you factor in 2021. Excluding interims, the current search marks the 7th coaching change during that time.
So what changed? Well, my freshman year at Georgia Southern was the Fall of 2004, so I have had a front-row seat to the chaos. I can’t shake the feeling that I am somehow am the bad luck charm that brought this all upon us. Growing up in the South, I was aware of Georgia Southern to some extent. I knew they had badass blue uniforms, they ran the triple option, and they beat just about everybody they played. If I’m completely honest, part of the reason I went to Georgia Southern is because of the football team.
In my freshman and to a lesser extent sophomore year I got to see exactly what I expected. The 2004 and 2005 teams, led by Mike Sewak, were fun to watch. They regularly ripped through teams on their schedule by three touchdowns or more. The triple-option artistry was a sight to behold. But that all changed after a devastating collapse in the first round of the 2005 playoffs to Texas State. Despite leading 35-16 with 4:20 left to go in the 3rd quarter, the Eagles surrendered 34 unanswered points to close out the game, losing 50-35.
After the loss, fans were pissed. The most prominent Ga. Southern fan message board, GSUfans.com, was on fire. Fans were calling for Mike Sewak and defensive coordinator Joe Tresey’s heads. The loss capped off this three stretch:
2003: 7-4, no playoffs
2004: 9-3, first-round loss to New Hampshire at home
2005: 8-4, first-round loss to Texas State
Most fanbases in the country, while disappointed, would be satisfied with this level of success. In 2005, eventual Walter Payton Award winner Jayson Foster was just a sophomore. A more level-headed program would have just hunkered down and stayed the course. But for Eagles fans that were spoiled by the successes of the Paul Johnson era, this was unacceptable.
So athletic director Sam Baker fired Mike Sewak. A man with a record of 35-16 in four seasons at the helm. There were calls for Georgia Southern to “modernize” and move away from the triple option. Baker obliged, Brian VanGorder was hired, and the roller coaster ride began.
The story of Georgia Southern football post-2006 has been about a program trying to figure out its identity. When VanGorder was hired he scrapped the triple-option offense in favor of pro-style. Then when he left Chris Hatcher brought in the Air Raid. Then when Hatcher was fired, Jeff Monken brought back the flexbone again. Then Willie Fritz with his gun-option attack, which has remained in place ever since.
If it were not for the guidance of former GSU president Dr. Brooks Keel, who had a hand in the hires of Monken and Fritz, the past 15 years would have truly been a disaster. The national media likes to label Georgia Southern as having a “triple-option offense” but in reality, it runs this weird compromise gun-option which has not worked since Fritz left in 2015.
So, as you can see, when Georgia Southern has to search for a new head coach, offensive philosophy becomes a big topic of debate. The fan base is split into two warring factions: the pro-option crowd and the anti-option crowd. The pro-option tribe tends to be a little older and remembers the glory years of the ’80s and ’90s. They point to the fact that most of the program’s successful head coaches (Russell, Stowers, Johnson, Sewak, Monken) ran the QB-under-center, flexbone option. The anti-option tribe skews younger and thinks the offense is no longer viable in this day and age and puts a strain on recruiting. They point to the success that conference rivals such as App State, Coastal Carolina, and Louisiana have had.
So for the last seven coaching searches dating back to 2005, both sides have been at a near-constant state of war. No end in sight.
But what if I were to tell you there was a candidate that could possibly satisfy both sides? A man who has been able to successfully mix option principles into a modern innovative scheme? Would that intrigue you?
High on Cronic
That man exists and his name is Drew Cronic, head coach at Mercer University.
A small subplot in this saga of Georgia Southern’s coaching search, is the serious FOMO Eagles fans have at missing out on Jamey Chadwell. After Willie Fritz left for Tulane following the 2015 season, Georgia Southern seriously considered Jamey Chadwell for the job after his run of success at Charleston Southern. But ultimately, for reasons that remain a mystery to this day, Chadwell was passed over for Tyson Summers, and we all know what happened next.
Meanwhile, Chadwell has built Coastal Carolina into a power in the Sun Belt running a modernized version of the option. Coach Dan Casey does a good job breaking it down on Twitter.
Running an offense like this represents a “holy grail” of sorts for Georgia Southern. It could do what the gun option couldn’t, satisfy both factions of the fan base and be successful at the same time.
Well it just so happens that Drew Cronic runs a similar system at Mercer. But who is Drew Cronic?
A rising star in the coaching profession, Cronic has risen through the ranks quickly with stops at Reinhardt, Furman (as OC), Lenoir-Rhyne, until he was hired by Mercer in 2019. He’s racked up a 57-11 record in six seasons as a head coach. He’s got Mercer near the top of the Southern Conference in 2nd season at the helm.
Like Chadwell, Cronic has an option background but has blended that offense with the Wing-T. Except it is a Wing-T with a vertical passing game. Earlier this season, when Mercer played Alabama, Nick Saban emphasized what a pain it was to prepare for such a unique offense.
During his weekly radio show, Saban compared the Mercer offense to the style of offense that Georgia Tech ran under Paul Johnson in the 2010s. While Johnson was head coach from 2008-2018, the Yellow Jackets never finished outside of the top ten in the country in rushing yards per game and were top four in nine of eleven years.
Mercer's offense is different though than Georgia Tech's, which ran a more traditional triple option. Saban said the Bears are semi-wishbone and semi-spread. Mercer uses sweeps, motions and reverses to spread the defense out and force the defenders to be disciplined and decide who they will follow.
Mercer’s use of the “joker” position is extremely unique. Not unlike the A-Backs in a traditional flexbone option, the joker is a cross between a running back and a wide receiver and is often put in motion pre-snap to keep defenses off balanced. What has resulted is a potent attack that ranks 17th in total offense in FCS and 7th in rushing, while maintaining an efficient, big-play passing attack that averages 205 yards per game as well.
Today’s college football is increasingly dominated by offense. The schemes are ever evolving and the team that can stay ahead of the curve, usually ends up winning a lot of games. Cronic, like Chadwell, is on the cutting edge of offensive innovation. His offense works and is quickly producing results at Mercer this season. Check it out for yourself:
Is Drew Cronic worth the risk? After all, he’s only in his sixth year as a head coach, and only his 2nd at Mercer. He doesn’t have a ton of experience. It remains to be seen if his offense can sustain success once defenses get tape and adjust to it. As soon as I hopped on the “Cronic train” a couple weeks ago, Mercer got absolutely drubbed by VMI 45-7. Running a program at small private schools like Mercer, Lenoir-Rhyne, and Reinhardt are completely different animals than a FBS program like Georgia Southern. There are legitimate risks involved.
Additionally, Georgia Southern’s fans have fatigue from watching the “gun-option” compromise offense the last few years. The gun-option was a compromise mandated upon high by the previous athletic director Tom Kleinlein. It worked well under Fritz, but has sucked ever since. Other candidates like KC Keeler at Sam Houston State and Brian Bohannon at Kennesaw State are probably safer bets. They have deeper resumes, longer track records of success, and more conventional offenses.
But if athletic director Jared Benko really wanted to think outside the box and stay a step ahead of the rest of college football, he would be right to consider Drew Cronic.