STATESBORO — Georgia Southern graduates Robert Blair and Ethan Gillespie like this spot alongside the path to Paulson Stadium known as the Eagle Walk.
Blair and Gillespie unfold a couple of chairs under the shade of a small nearby tree and relax with beers in hand, waiting for one of Georgia Southern’s proudest traditions, where football players and coaches step off a pair of yellow school buses and meet swarms of Eagle faithful adorned in blue and white as they head into the stadium.
The sad thing is, they don’t even need to stand to get a good glimpse of the players passing by. They do anyway, of course. Blair claps and tells running back L.A. Ramsby to have a good game.
A little closer to the buses, Wes Bonner, who graduated from Georgia Southern in 1993, stands under a blue tent he sets up before every home game. Bonner has paid good money to get this spot, he says. He mingles with four of his friends, but he hasn’t done much in the way of true tailgating, you know, with the tables of food and the cornhole game and all that stuff. Usually, he’s bumping shoulders with about 25 people who surround his tent on a typical Saturday.
This isn’t a typical Saturday. It’s not even a Saturday. It’s a Wednesday, and it’s easy to see the difference.
“When the team normally comes through here, it’s packed. Normally, I’m trying to fight people off in this area,” Bonner says.
Worth the money?
Gary Simmons makes a drink on the other side of the field that serves as the main parking lot for Paulson Stadium. This is known as the RV area, but Simmons’ RV is just one of a few present. Usually, there are about 50 of them, and 35 show up on Friday night, Simmons says.
He likes spending the night here before the game. It reminds him of his college days. He graduated in 1987, the year after the Eagles won their second consecutive Division I-AA national championship.
“We’d get here early, set up, sleep in the car, stay up till 3 in the morning,” Simmons says.
He points to an empty parking spot where an RV usually sits on Saturdays. The owners of it live five minutes outside of Statesboro and didn’t bother to make the trip, he says.
Behind Simmons, there’s more activity going on outside of Dave MacDonald’s RV. He didn’t attend Georgia Southern, but his wife and two of his children are graduates. He has about 15 people crowded around the TV that protrudes from the side of the RV. They’ve allowed Zaxby’s to cater their tailgate because they didn’t have the time to prepare much food.
He doesn’t deny it, either. There are just not as many people around as usual.
“Saturday is easy,” MacDonald says. “This is hard. This is a lot of money to do this. You’ve got to ask, am I spending my money well?”
MacDonald says buying season tickets and reserving a parking spot for the season costs him more than $2,000.
All that money for a team that, in its transition to the FBS, scheduled a total of 10 home games for the 2016 and 2017 seasons, five for each season. Three of those games have been played on a weeknight, and another was relocated to Birmingham, Alabama because of Hurricane Irma. That leaves just three Saturday home games for each year.
And Saturday home games at Paulson are special, or so I’ve been told.
I attended the University of Florida, where tailgaters generally spread out across its 2,000-acre campus.
At Georgia Southern, the vast majority of the tailgating happens in this parking lot.
“We’ve become friends over the years with the people next to us,” says state court judge Gary Michael. “No matter what happens in the stadium, you know you’re going to have a great time.”
“It’s seeing the same folks you always see, seeing old classmates,” adds Bobby Azar. “This is it. This is Paulson. This is the best thing to me.”
Azar is probably one of the few who drove in from out of town to attended Wednesday night’s game between Georgia Southern and Arkansas State, a 43-25 loss for the Eagles that was shown nationally on ESPN2. He took off work early and drove from Augusta and arrived at 6:30 p.m., leaving him just enough time to talk to some of his regulars.
“You work all day, rush to get home, throw everything in the truck and try not to speed,” he says.
Worth the exposure?
The Eagles will play their first Saturday home game of the season this week against New Mexico State. The date will be Oct. 14. That’s just the way things are right now in Statesboro, and fans might as well get used to it. It’s going to be a long time before Georgia Southern gets a Saturday home game televised on ESPN2.
“It’s a great atmosphere,” Blair says. “I feel like this atmosphere here, I feel like we have an SEC tailgate — when they’re not on a Wednesday night. I completely get the national exposure, but from a fan’s standpoint, it’s kind of a bummer.”
That begs the question, if the Georgia Southern athletic department is trading Saturday home games for national exposure, is the college football world really seeing everything that Georgia Southern has to offer?
Take away Saturday, and all you’re left with is the product on the field, and the product on the field is 0-4 and has lost by double digits in every game this season.
“Then they show the footage, and 11,000 fans are in the stands,” Bonner says.
Wednesday’s official attendance was 13,781, about half the output GS fans are capable of at Paulson, and much of that was driven by the student section. But by the time the Red Wolves began to pull away in the third quarter, even the students didn’t have the patience to stay. Paulson Stadium was nearly empty by the fourth quarter, and the only way the folks at home didn’t see that is if they had changed the channel when Arkansas State went up by three scores.
Georgia Southern may have looked better and played its best game of the season, but that doesn’t matter to the viewers at home. There was nothing good to pluck from Wednesday’s game in terms of national exposure.
Meanwhile, fans are enduring a losing season while missing out on one of the things they most enjoy — Saturday tailgating.
“There’s a disappointment with the number of games,” MacDonald says. “There’s only three Saturday games. If they were winning, it would feel different. Winning trumps everything.”
And if the team isn’t winning, then Georgia Southern has more to lose than it does to gain from these midweek games — from reputation to recruiting. Even tradition.
Nathan Deen covers Georgia Southern athletics for the Savannah Morning News. Contact him at 912-652-0353 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @NathanDeenSMN.