KENNESAW, Ga. — It's one thing to build a program into a national power, but it's entirely different to build one from scratch.
The support, money and logistics associated with starting a college football program are enough to make an administrator's head spin.
Despite that, several startup programs have found success over the last 20 years, including Georgia State, Old Dominion and South Florida—which played its first game in 1997 and was ranked No. 2 in the nation in 2007.
Two decades ago, Kennesaw State University was a blip on the college athletics radar. A commuter school. A road sign on I-75 just northwest of Atlanta that, if you weren't paying attention, you would miss as quickly as that Chick-fil-A a couple of exits ago that you desperately wanted to stop at for lunch.
Fast-forward 20 years, and Kennesaw State is much more than a road sign; it's a full-fledged destination university that's about to make a major splash on the college football scene.
A project that's been six years in the making, the Owls will join the world of college football as part of the Big South Conference in FCS in 2015, with their season opener taking place on September 3 against East Tennessee State in Johnson City, Tennessee.
How did they do it? A blend of a coaching superstar, support from the community and a staff that's familiar with the state of Georgia.
A Front Man
Around most of Georgia, Vince Dooley is known as the man who brought a national championship to Athens. In Kennesaw, though, he's known as the man who became the first face of Kennesaw State football.
Dooley was named as the chairman of Kennesaw State's football exploratory committee in December 2009. That committee included 34 people and four subcommittees, and it was charged with coming to a consensus on whether or not to pursue football.
"It took us about seven months, but finally, with a document about an inch thick, the consensus was, overwhelmingly, that we recommend to the president that he move forward with starting a football program," Dooley told Bleacher Report.
Why take the risk of attaching his name to a startup program in rather uncertain economic times?
Simple. Dooley recognized that, for Kennesaw State, football was the logical next step.
"This is a school that started out as a commuter school, and then it became a residential school," he said. "Now it has dormitories and a dining hall, and the next big step is to give it a culture and something for people to be proud of with a mascot, their colors and a fight song. Football does that more so than any other sport on campus."
It wasn't without pressure, though.
The Georgia Board of Regents was the determining factor in whether or not to allow Kennesaw State to pursue football. It recently allowed Georgia State to start up a program just as the economic crisis of 2008 began to take hold, and it requested that Kennesaw State find $5-10 million to cover startup costs before being approved.
"They took a little bit of a firmer stance than they have in the past," Dooley said. "Georgia State started football, and they didn’t have hands on as much now. They’re watching everything and making us jump through a lot of financial hoops, and they’ve been able to do that."
Fifth Third Bank hopped on board and became the first business to partner with the Kennesaw State football program. Their investment will be prominent in Year 1. The 8,318-seat soccer-specific stadium built in 2010, which is located adjacent to campus and was used by the now-defunct Atlanta Beat of the Women's Professional Soccer league, has been rebranded for football as Fifth Third Bank Stadium.
"This relationship has always felt like a great match due to the similarity in our growth plans, community commitments and values,” said Hal Clemmer, President and CEO of Fifth Third Bank Georgia. "Our expanded relationship with KSU reflects our plans to continue growing in Cobb County, the broader Atlanta metro area and throughout the state, supporting our communities and building our brand."
The pressure to find a company willing to take a risk on a startup plan helped the committee focus on what's important and how to build the program the right way.
"It’s because of that that we really think they have a sound plan, good leadership in position and got the right coach," Dooley said.
Homegrown Head Coach
The "right coach" was one who wouldn't take no for an answer, and one with more ties to the state of Georgia than roads named "Peachtree" in the metro Atlanta area.
Brian Bohannon didn't know much about Kennesaw State University when he was the wide receivers coach at Georgia Tech under Paul Johnson.
He barely even knew it existed.
"I live in Woodstock, which is eight miles from the Kennesaw State campus," Bohannon told Bleacher Report. "I’m commuting to Georgia Tech every day down I-75, which can be challenging. I had heard of Kennesaw State, but I knew nothing about it. I had never been on campus."
Yet when Kennesaw State president Daniel S. Papp began the quest to get football approved, Bohannon was immediately interested.
"As I’m hearing all of these rumblings of football starting at Kennesaw State, Chip Rogers—a former state senator—is coaching my 10-year-old son’s basketball team," Bohannon said. "He said that [the team] is going to watch Kennesaw State play basketball, and I asked if I could go because I’ve never been over there. I said, ‘Listen, I think they’re going to start football, and I might be interested in this job.'
"So we go over to the Convocation Center, and they weren’t very good at basketball at the time. They had just transitioned to a new coach. I walk in and the place is packed. I’m going, ‘you gotta be kidding me?’"
Bohannon's connections in Georgia were a huge selling point for athletics director Vaughn Williams. As an FCS team in the talent-rich Peach State, the administration and various committees knew they'd have to find a relentless worker who knew the recruiting grounds backward and forward.
Bohannon's work in the Peach State, his time as a Georgia receiver and his roots as the son of a legendary head coach—Lloyd Bohannon, who coached in Griffin, Georgia—made him a natural fit.
|Brian Bohannon's Resume|
|1994-1995||West Georgia||Assistant Coach|
|1997-1999||Georgia Southern||WR Coach|
|2000-2001||Georgia Southern||DB Coach|
|2008-2012||Georgia Tech||WR Coach|
|2013-Present||Kennesaw State||Head Coach|
|Kennesaw State University|
"I wanted somebody from this state," Williams told Bleacher Report. "Football in this state is huge, and I felt it was very important to have somebody who has recruited here, who has played here and who has lived here at all levels. Bohannon happened to have all of those attributes, and a lot of others did too, but it was important to have a native son."
Bohannon didn't sit back on his Peach State resume and assume they'd find him. He tracked down Williams in December 2012—two months before football was even announced by the school.
On a cold, rainy Christmas Eve at the Marietta Diner just southwest of campus, the two met for a job interview that would define the future of the program.
"We talked for a couple of hours, not really football—just stuff," Bohannon said. "He said, ‘Brian, have you ever seen the stadium?’ I said no, and we went up to the stadium. I walk in to basically a brand-new stadium, all chair-back, and my mouth drops. The thing about it is that I’ve been by the school the entire time, and I had seen all the buildings all the time."
"Now I’m walking through the football stadium after going to the basketball game and thinking, ‘You have to be kidding me. There’s a brand-new football locker room with 101 lockers, and they don’t even have football yet,'" he explained. "You see the support of the students and fans at the basketball game, the dedication of the program to a sport that doesn’t exist yet and I thought, ‘This is a no-brainer.’"
Bohannon got a taste of what Kennesaw State wanted to be, and he wanted more.
"I went after the job. I hadn’t interviewed for a job in 17 years," he said. "I took the job with Coach Johnson and that wasn’t really even an interview. He took me out to eat at Snooky’s in Statesboro and asked, 'what time can you be here?' I went after this one. I’m contacting people on the committee. I’m doing everything I can, because to me, this was a no-brainer."
On March 24, 2013—just a month and change after the school announced football as a sport that will start in 2015, Bohannon was named its head coach. What's more, in an effort to provide stability, Williams signed Bohannon to a seven-year contract.
"We gotta lock down Georgia as much as we can, and we are doing a good job of that," Williams said. "Brian had an understanding of what he wanted to do. We needed individuals who wanted to be here for a while, and that’s the top priority. I signed Brian to a seven-year contract right out of the gate, because we need to keep this staff together as long as we can."
The combination of Williams and Bohannon leading the charge is a perfect fit in the eyes of Dooley.
"[Bohannon] was the right man for the job, and he’s done a terrific job in the two years of recruiting, organizing the staff," Dooley said. "He’s got an incredible enthusiasm. I’ve never seen two people, the AD and the football coach, with as much enthusiasm. The first game, Vaughn will be running out first with the flag leading Brian, whose eyes will be huge."
With Bohannon set and a small staff in place, it was time to spread the word.
The lifeblood of any program is recruiting. Kennesaw State isn't going to go toe-to-toe with the Georgias, Georgia Techs and big-time regional programs on the recruiting trail and win many battles. The skeleton staff of Bohannon, offensive coordinator Grant Chestnut, defensive line coach/recruiting coordinator Liam Klein and linebackers coach Shane Bowen set out to make it known to high schools that they're planning on acting like those programs with prospects.
"Not knowing what we could recruit was a challenge. Who can we get? Who can’t we get? I took the state and divvied it up," Bohannon said. "The first spring evaluation, four of us went to every school in the state of Georgia. It was the old-school, ‘come see us, this is what we have, this is what we’re doing’ type of thing."
It wasn't long until Bohannon and his staff got their first commitment in program history.
Quarterback Chandler Burks of nearby South Paulding High School became the first to commit to the Owls, and he has the pride in the program that the staff is constantly looking for on the recruiting trail.
"You have to start somewhere," Burks said in June 2013, according to Doug Roberson of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "If it has to start with me, I don’t mind. This program is going to be successful. You look at who they are recruiting, they are going for the best of the best. We are going to start a tradition that will start a dynasty."
Finding commitments for the 2014 class proved to be incredibly challenging though. Anybody who signed as part of the first recruiting class in school history had to agree to a year-and-a-half of nothing but practice.
"We were fundamentally oriented—four skill sets per position," Bohannon said. "That’s all you’re working on getting better at. We adopted the EAT motto—effort, attitude and toughness. We created competition, changed up what we did and did everything we could to keep them engaged. We involved them in leadership seminars once a week. The fall was devoted to that. Was it a challenge? Absolutely. Youth is a challenge."
Youth in players, but "youth" as a program and as coaches as well.
"Sometimes my walk from the locker room to the practice field, I talk to myself and remind myself, 'Hey, know where you are,'" Bohannon said. "We’re taking baby steps. Our kids have had a great attitude laying a foundation and being a part of history. They’ve really bought in."
On the field, Bohannon and his staff were busy laying the foundation for a successful program. But a program is much bigger than the product on the field.
Williams engaged other programs who recently started football, including Georgia State, Old Dominion, UNC-Charlotte and others, to find out what the right path to success is. They were all in consensus: It takes partners, fans and community to truly build a successful program, and Kennesaw State has that by the boatloads in suburban Atlanta.
"We have a game-day community football committee with around 95 people from around Kennesaw, including neighbors, mayors, commissioners, the Chamber, businesses," Williams said. "They’re all involved. We are all thinking about how game day is going to be and how it impacts the community, and it’s been meeting for almost two years now. You have to have your community involved."
Community involvement is great, but it also takes money. With Fifth Third Bank already on board, Williams and his staff set out to get in front of as many local and regional businesses as possible. Everything from the press box to the loge section to the student section will be sponsored—mostly by businesses that have ties to the program and local community.
"We’ll have a lot more fans 10 years from now, but right now, we have a community behind us," Williams said. "They’re supporters. They went to school in different places, and that’s fine. A lot of them said to use football to showcase the institution."
That institution, though, didn't have much of an athletic identity prior to the announcement that football would begin in 2015.
Things have changed.
"We wanted to make it easy, and start building traditions," Williams said. "There was no fight song before we got here. We changed the logo. All of these different thing are new, and we wanted to engage people in all of these things. Engage everybody in every part of the process, and people feel like they’re a part of this thing, because they are."
With a fertile recruiting ground in its own backyard and the path Georgia State took to FBS and the Sun Belt as a precedent, it might be assumed that Kennesaw State is on the fast track for college football's highest division.
The words of other startup schools that Williams spoke to during the process have stuck with him: "Be who you are."
Kennesaw State is a school that is only 32 years into athletics, has soccer and lacrosse using the football stadium and fills the FCS void left in the state after Georgia State and Georgia Southern moved up to FCS.
"Ten years from now, I think we are winning FCS championships," Williams said. "I think we will have the most amazing game day in FCS football. I think our supporters will have turned into rabid fans. We’ve spread that brand. This community will be painted in black and gold."
Bohannon disagrees with that goal, but in a way, that pleases Williams and Owls fans.
"I told the first class, 'The goal here is to compete for a championship before you leave.' We aren’t here just to do it, we are here to win. We have a five-year plan, from scholarships to the whole ball of wax. The goal is to win an FCS championship."
After many steps off the field to accomplish that goal, the first step between the white lines takes place Sept. 3 in Johnson City, Tennessee, at Kermit-Tipton Stadium.
It's only fitting that the field in Johnson City is named after a local legend who's well-versed in taking college programs from the outhouse to the penthouse—former Florida and current South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on Sirius 93, XM 208.
Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.