“We belong! We belong!” shouted Georgia Southern President Brooks A. Keel, Ph.D., as he followed fans onto Glenn Bryant Field at Allen E. Paulson Stadium after the Eagles defeated the University of Louisiana Monroe in the last football game of the 2014 season to capture the Sun Belt Conference’s championship title. “We belong” in the same league as other Division 1 teams, a move up that characterizes the momentum Dr. Keel has created during his first five years as president.
“The buzz across the country is much more than we thought,” he said. “No question, we couldn’t have paid for the twelve minutes of exposure on ESPN to talk about the University’s research on concussions with football helmets. We were able to do that and air three commercials about what Georgia Southern has to offer a national audience.”
The media exposure is just one benefit of Dr. Keel’s mission to move Georgia Southern forward. His overall plan to “transfer our brand from regional to national” includes athletics, academics, research, and economic development of the area.
In preparation for moving up a division level in football, in the last five years Dr. Keel has overseen an addition to Allen E. Paulson stadium of 6,500 seats, expanding the capacity to 25,000, and the construction of a 50,000 sq. ft. Ted Smith Family Football Center. The new Ted Smith FFC provides facilities for football coaches and staff, locker rooms for players, and meeting, weight, and rehabilitation rooms.
A large portion of the cost of the expansions were covered by an enthusiastic student fan base that voted to raise activity fees for the stadium improvements and the move to the FBS, or Football Bowl Subdivision.
Addressing the issue of football head injuries, Dr. Keel supported the expansion of research in brain concussions of student athletes through the Athletic Department and the Georgia Southern School of Kinesiology; research not only benefitting athletes nationally, but also raising Georgia Southern’s profile as a research institution.
Along with the Department of Natural Resources and the City of Statesboro, Dr. Keel forged a partnership resulting in the construction of a $5.8 million Shooting Sports Education Center on the southwest edge of campus. It will become home to the recently formed Georgia Southern Women’s Rifle Team.
Opening in 2013, the 167-acre Georgia Southern University Golf Course “Is a fantastic venue!” according to Dr. Keel, “it was recently named one of the 100 Best New Courses in 2014 by Golf Digest.”
Both the Shooting Sports Center and the Georgia Southern Golf Course are available for public use, with the potential to add to the local economy through the generation of tourism dollars from tournaments and other special events.
During Dr. Keel’s tenure as president, the University has joined Mayor Jan Moore and community leaders in focusing on the visual appeal and the overall economic development of downtown Statesboro.
“It benefits us all to have an attractive entrance to our city with curb appeal. I would like to see the iconic beauty of Sweetheart Circle carried off campus to add character and green space, plus pedestrian access to the downtown area,” Dr. Keel stated.
Mayor Moore and Dr. Keel have titled the collaborative project the “Blue Mile,” which designates the area of South Main Street extending from Sweetheart Circle and the main entrance to Georgia Southern to the Bulloch County Courthouse.
“An attractive corridor to downtown will serve as an enticement to go downtown for students and visitors,” he said. “This will be a huge benefit to all. People will come to shop, play, and dine.”
Under Dr. Keel’s leadership, Georgia Southern Admissions and the Athletics Department have partnered with the city to create special events in downtown Statesboro in support of the Eagles move to the FBS. Before the first football game in Paulson Stadium this year, a celebration was held downtown, “Paint the Town Blue,” with a contest for businesses showing the most school spirit and the best decorations. A festival was held on Thursday night featuring visits from team mascot GUS, the Georgia Southern Marching Band, cheerleaders, and football team members. The City and the University want this to be a tradition.
“It’s a fantastic way for businesses to show team support and appreciation. Plus, it creates a great atmosphere for football!” Dr. Keel stated.
For the University’s Family Weekend in late September, Vine Street was closed for a “Downtown Tailgate” event in conjunction with the City of Statesboro, coordinated by the Statesboro Convention & Visitors Bureau. The event also featured the Main Street Farmers Market, a great downtown attraction for students and their parents.
“The market is great even if you don’t have a need to go there; just to walk up and down and absorb the ambience. It’s more than a farmers market, we enjoy the other things that are locally produced: soap, gourds, kettle corn,” said Dr. Keel.
Two more examples of the University’s spread into the downtown area are the City Campus on East Main Street and the Georgia Southern Museum’s rotating exhibit at the new Visitor’s Center on South Main.
“We’re just in the beginning stages of the building renovations for the City Campus,” Dr. Keel shared. “The university has partnered with the Averitt Center for the Arts in submitting a grant application for the construction of a pedestrian way between the campus and city hall.” When completed the City Campus will also house the Averitt’s Visual Arts Center.
“We enjoy an excellent quality of life in Statesboro,” Dr. Keel said. “We have good schools and available land. I see Statesboro and Savannah becoming an epicenter of industrial growth in the next five to ten years.”
To meet the need of supplying trained workers for current and future industry, Dr. Keel has focused the University on producing work ready graduates.
“If students aren’t getting jobs, we’re not doing our jobs,” he said. “We have a bigger role than teaching Liberal Arts,” stated Dr. Keel, “the state expects more from us. As a university we have to ask ourselves, ‘How are we increasing the economy of the region?’”
One way is by offering new engineering programs approved by the Board of Regents and conveyed in the fields of Electrical, Mechanical, Manufacturing, and Civil Engineering, through the Allen E. Paulson College of Engineering and Information Technology (CEIT), which achieved certification by the Accreditation Board for Information Technology (ABET), and which came to fruition during Dr. Keel’s term.
“We must teach students not only theory, but application, such as team work and good ethics. We want to produce work-ready graduates. Our role has to be both academic and practical,” he said.
“Statesboro and Georgia Southern are blessed to have a positive reputation in the state,” Dr. Keel stated, “For the future, I expect more of the same. We want to be known nationally as a university that prides itself in providing for the economy of the region in every way - better athletic programs, more business and industry, and cultural advantages - because of Georgia Southern.”
“We have a 108-year history of doing a great job at being a leader in South Georgia. I think we can build on that to become a leader known throughout the country,” he said, “Our goal is putting Georgia Southern on the national stage, where we belong.”