ATLANTA -- With football for the Charlotte 49ers officially on the way in 2013, I headed down Interstate 85 on Wednesday to Georgia State, where the Panthers will play college football for the first time this season.
I’m writing a story that will appear in The Observer within the next few weeks about how the Panthers have made it to this point -- and what lessons Charlotte can take from them.
But here are a few early observations from downtown Atlanta, where Georgia State’s campus is located:
-- There are plenty of similarities between Georgia State and Charlotte -- two state universities in big cities, both with “commuter” school reputations that play in the shadows of more established programs in the ACC and SEC. The biggest difference is Georgia State’s campus is as urban as you can get, while UNC Charlotte is located on the outskirts of town and has built up its own surrounding community. Another difference: Atlanta is a huge college football city. Charlotte, not so much.
-- As the 49ers prepare to build their own on-campus stadium, Georgia State is swinging as far the other way as possible. The Panthers will play in the 71,228-seat Georgia Dome, a seven-minute walk from campus. The school has sold 3,187 season tickets. Athletics director Cheryl Levick says the goal is to sell out the lower bowl of the Georgia Dome, which seats 28,155.
-- Georgia State’s best move so far appears to be hiring coach Bill Curry, a former Georgia Tech and Alabama coach who grew up near the Georgia State campus in College Park, Ga.
Curry is a local guy whose wife Carolyn is a Georgia State grad. He’s totally committed to making it work. He’s got the credentials, contacts, experience and charisma to help get the program off to a solid start.
Charlotte athletics director Judy Rose says she might have a coach hired by early 2011. She would do well to find someone like Curry.
-- Curry’s staff is also impressive. Defensive coordinator John Thompson is a former head coach at East Carolina. Offensive coordinator John Bond probably didn’t have to move, coming from Georgia Tech, where he coached ACC rushing leader Tashard Choice in 2007.
-- Just because Georgia State is a start-up, it doesn’t mean there aren’t quality players on the roster. The Panthers’ 90-player roster, while dominated by freshmen, also has a healthy dose of transfers. Chief among them are quarterback Star Jackson, who played in five games as a redshirt freshman last season for Alabama, and offensive guard Joseph Gilbert, a two-year starter at Georgia Tech. Freshman quarterback Drew Little threw for 9,003 yards in high school in McDonough, Ga., the second highest total in state history.
-- Georgia State’s first freshman commitment is from Charlotte, sort of. Linebacker Mark Hogan played high school football in Sudbury, Mass., but his family moved to Matthews after he graduated. He was the only football player on campus when he enrolled in January 2009, and worked out by himself the entire semester. Five other players joined him that summer before the rest of the school’s first class of football players joined them last fall.
-- Curry says the economy has been the biggest challenge that the school has faced in starting the program. “That’s affected everything you do, it’s the most unpleasant thing I’ve had to deal with,” said Curry. “Just like it’s affected everybody in the world, everybody is suffering the same way. Here we are attempting to raise funds, which is worthy, but is it more worthy than an earthquake victim? So we can’t wallow around in self pity, because everybody else is suffering the same way.”
-- That said, the school received a $1.5 million donation from a local businessman Wednesday. The booster -- Parker H. Petit -- will perform the coin toss before the first game.
Is there anyone out there who would write the 49ers that kind of check?
-- The Panthers’ schedule features a mixture of smaller schools, some of similar size and one very big challenge on a Thursday night in November. Georgia State’s first two games are against NAIA schools Shorter (Ga.) and and Lambuth (Tenn.). Many of their next games feature FCS teams, including Jacksonville State, Morehead State, Savannah State, N.C. Central and Old Dominion. Lamar, which will play the Panthers Nov. 6, is playing football for the first time since 1989. Campbell, which hosts Georgia State on Sept. 25, is in its third season of football and Old Dominion (Oct. 23) is in its second season.
And on Nov. 18, Georgia State will play Alabama in Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
-- Unlike Charlotte, Georgia State has no plans to play beyond the NCAA Football Championship Series (formerly Division I-AA) level. The Panthers will play as an FCS independent in 2011 before joining the Colonial Athletic Association in 2012.
Look for the 49ers and Panthers to be play each other regularly.
Georgia State’s 2010 schedule
Sept. 2: Shorter (Ga.)
Sept. 11: Lambuth (Tenn.)
Sept. 18: Jacksonville State
Sept. 25: at Campbell
Oct. 2: Morehead State
Oct. 9: Savannah State
Oct. 16: N.C. Central
Oct. 23: at Old Dominion
Oct. 30: at South Alabama
Nov. 6: Lamar
Nov. 18: at Alabama