Success, exposure for Savannah State comes too late

by Donal Ware

Savannah State University moving down from Division I to Division II is the right move.  And it’s probably something that should have happened sooner.

The school announced on Monday that it was reclassifying from Division I to Division II because of financial reasons.  SSU athletics director Sterling Steward told the Savannah Morning News that the school was in talks with several Division II conferences in the region, but did not specify which conferences.  The conference that would make the most since would be the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference or SIAC, since that was the conference SSU was a member of for 30 or so years before officially becoming a Division I member in 2002.

It is a wonder why the Tiger program moved to Division I in the first place. Most schools in athletics are measured by the success of its football teams since football tends to drive revenue. In its years in the SIAC, the Tigers were possibly above marginal, but never won a championship.  The men’s basketball team only won one SIAC Tournament championship in 1970. The baseball teams were very good winning five-straight championships from 1995-99, but baseball is a non-revenue sport. While in Division I, not only did the football program not have a winning season, they had three winless seasons to boot.

The school itself had all of the makings for success at the Division I level.  Savannah State has a beautiful campus, situated in the third largest populated city in Georgia. Savannah is regarded as one of the most charming cities in the U.S.  And a move from Division II to Division I is about exposure.  Your athletics matter more.  You have more of an opportunity to be on television.  Even the guarantee games that the Tiger football program has been ostracized for and a poster child against, bring in guaranteed revenue that should be reinvested back into the athletics department.

The problem with Savannah State is that those revenues seemingly did not go back into the athletics department.  The Tigers are a Division I program, yet have no on-campus weight room? How do you expect to get players to come there and coaches to succeed, particularly in football’?

And what does this now do to the MEAC who had ideas of grandeur 10 years ago by adding Savannah State, North Carolina Central and Winston-Salem State, in the hopes of splitting the conference into two divisions and having a football championship game? Winston-Salem State’s decision to reclassify from Division I to Division II only a few years after making the move from the CIAA to the MEAC was a little different, but also had to do with financial reasons.  Does this make other schools more apprehensive about leaving to go Division I?

Why exactly didn’t this work out for Savannah State? It has worked for North Carolina Central, certainly on the field.  It has worked for Alabama State and Alabama A&M and Norfolk State and Hampton, etc.  Or maybe it’s not working; where athletics departments may be in the red, but the universities absorb the hit and look at athletics, particularly from a Division I perspective as a marketing tool of the university.  Which when it appears on national television, it is.

Then again for SSU, most of its national headlines were not positive. Remember Robbie Wells and the $350,000 that cost the school. And what about the negative publicity from the money games. Or the men’s basketball team going 0-28 during the 2004-05 season.

All of those years as an independent in Division I for Savannah State.  Plenty of money games.  Was it a lack of fan or alumni support? Was there a lack of support from businesses in Savannah?  Perhaps Savannah State should have gotten out before being excepted fully into the MEAC in 2011.

And the timing of this is bad also, now that it seems that the football program is headed in the right direction under head coach Erik Raeburn.  Three wins last year may not seem significant, but when you’ve had a total of four wins since joining the MEAC in 2011, its progress.  Speaking of exposure the Tigers would have their name attached to Marquis Smith, a BOXTOROW All-American linebacker/defensive end this past season, who if not drafted, will definitely sign as a free agent with an NFL team and has all the tools to have success on the next level.  BOXTOROW also ranked Savannah state as the 10th best recruiting class amongst HBCU FCS schools two months ago.

The men’s basketball program has been pretty successful under Horace Brodnax, winning the MEAC regular season in 2012 and an NIT bid, while the Tigers baseball program under Carlton Hardy is one of three programs other than Bethune-Cookman to win a MEAC Tournament baseball championship in the last 16 years, when they won in it in 2013.

Former Tigers pitcher Kyle McGowin, who was drafted by the Los Angeles Angels in the 2013 MLB Draft, has progressed nicely over the last four seasons in professional baseball to the point that he’s with the Washington Nationals AAA affiliate and could possibly be called up towards the latter part of the season according to Hardy.

With an endowment of just over $4 million it was time for Savannah State to make this move.  The move won’t be official until 2019.

Time for the Tigers to win some championships and get that exposure that it had been seeking at the Division I level.

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