At Savannah State, It's Much Bigger Than Moving Down to Division II

This should not be the typical conversation about HBCU athletics, the athletes they can’t recruit, the fans who don’t show up, the games we cannot win and the money we cannot make. Those discussions, and the umbrella conversations about the wisdom of competing at Division I are legitimate on both sides when it comes to scholarships, promotional opportunities, and visibility for institutions.
This is about the optics of opportunity in Georgia and states like it. No public HBCU in the state enrolls more students or is stationed in a more developed city than Savannah State University. It had long been on the radar of state legislators seeking to merge the school with a proximate PWI, but whispers of racism and the threat of federal litigation then and now spared the school from that measure.
By this time next year, the University System of Georgia will have completed its consolidation of Georgia Southern University and Armstrong State University. The new GSU will bring to Savannah a BCS-level athletics program, which during the 2015-16 season earned more than $18 million in revenues and $1.3 million in total profit.
Not bad for a mid-major program which moved to the BCS two years after Savannah State joined the Division I Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, and essentially doubled up SSU in total revenues.  With the consolidation, the former mid-major football powerhouse will grow its athletic brand in a strategic location; a stark contrast to SSU, which this week announced that it is considering moving down to the NCAA’s Division II.
Six years after moving to Division I and just over a year before Georgia Southern takes up real estate just nine miles from its campus, Savannah State realizes that it is too costly and not worth the struggle to maintain the membership – before a larger, better-resourced institution begins competition in the city in 2018.  Recruiting top-tier athletes will be virtually impossible. Savannah’s local media outlets in print and broadcast will be fully committed to GSU’s new digs and new potential.
And any hope SSU had at attracting corporate support and fan buy-in for its sports programs will be overrun by its new predominantly white neighbor.
But Georgia higher ed officials are seemingly content with allowing SSU to stand just long enough so that it can be outperformed athletically, academically and philanthropically by a nearby PWI with 20,000-plus students, a BCS football program and an endless supply of goodwill coming behind it.
It did not have to be this way. The USG could have just as easily consolidated Armstrong State into Savannah State in the same way it consolidated Darton State College into Albany State University. But because the Armstrong opposition lobby was too strong, and the Georgia Southern brand is big enough and diverse enough to avoid charges of limiting choice for minorities, it will flourish while Savannah State, seemingly, will wither.
From a strict sports perspective, there is a reason to applaud Savannah State for seeking out the same pressure valve Winston-Salem State University found in 2010. WSSU returned to the CIAA after a failed five-year tenure in the MEAC and won championships across the board while maintaining resonance with its fan base and the surrounding community.
In the last five years, several Division II HBCUs have been nationally-ranked in football, men’s and women’s basketball. The CIAA Basketball Tournament remains among the nation’s most viable college sports products, regardless of division. The Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference has led the country in D-II football attendance for 14 straight years. On the surface, there appears to be room for optimism among Savannah State sports fans.
But from operational and cultural perspectives, the timing of this announcement could not be worse for the institution. GSU arrives with a BCS bandwagon gassed up and ready to go, while Savannah State signals to its stakeholders that the old stationwagon upon which campus excutives have been working to restore for the better part of a decade is only fit to drive to church services and cabarets.
And for Georgia taxpayers who don’t know the political or financial back stories of these schools, they’ll only see two vastly different cars ringing up miles for dramatically different reasons – at their expense.
This has long been the essence of the HBCU experiment in the latter part of the 20th century and into the 21st – do they grow smaller and excel at a few things through fiscal conservatism and strategic development? Or do they expand, pray for the best and expect the worse?
Today’s political climate defines smart finance as how much money can be cut instead of how much can be made. Racism, in the eyes of many white and far too many black constituents, falls into one of two piles – victimization or alternative facts. Officials gamed the system by allowing SSU to survive, but in the shadows of the fastest growing peer institution in the entire USG – all while many stakeholders dismissed as premature the doomsday prediction for Savannah State when word of the GSU-ASU consolidation became policy.
And now, SSU may not have enough money to remain even in the same athletic division as its greatest institutional threat. Southern and South Carolina State have in recent years flirted with the idea of moving down, but have never done it – even under terms of financial exigency. That Savannah State is preemptively working to avoid such a move, speaks volumes about the state of affairs at the school, and the threats it faces in the months and years to come.