STATESBORO — In what he called one of the most agonizing decisions of his life, Jeff Monken on Tuesday accepted the job of head football coach at the United States Military Academy.
“When a four-star general looks you in the eye and says, ‘I believe you can make a difference,’ it’s hard to say no,” Monken said Tuesday afternoon. “You have no idea how I agonized and the tears I shed.
“This should be a reason to celebrate, but I have a heavy heart. I truly love Georgia Southern. I bleed blue and white ... I feel like it’s my alma mater.”
Monken’s decision to go to Army thus ended a four-year run as head coach at Georgia Southern, where he posted a 38-16 record that included three straight trips to the FCS semifinals and a season-ending 26-20 win over Florida to close the 2013 season.
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Army announced earlier in the day it was hiring Monken, who prior to becoming head coach at Georgia Southern served as an assistant coach under Paul Johnson at Georgia Southern, Navy and Georgia Tech.
Monken was hired to restore Army football to winning ways and beat Navy. And not necessarily in that order.
The Black Knights have had only two winning seasons in the past 17 years and have lost 12 straight games to the Midshipmen, a streak that began in Monken’s first year as an assistant at Navy.
Monken, however, is 0-1 as a head coach against the Middies. His first Eagles team lost at Navy, 13-7, in the second game of the 2010 season.
Army athletics director Boo Corrigan made the announcement that Monken had been hired as Army’s 37th football head coach, replacing Rich Ellerson, who was fired the day after the Cadets lost 34-7 to Navy.
Corrigan and academy superintendent Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen said they conducted a national search before selecting Monken, who was a finalist for the position in 2008 when Ellerson, who was 20-41 in his five years, was hired.
Georgia Southern was 7-4 this past season, ending with three straight victories. Monken’s first three seasons all saw the Eagles post double-digit victories.
The Eagles were not eligible for the playoffs or for the Southern Conference championship this past season because of the program’s transition to FBS. Georgia Southern will join the Sun Belt on July 1.
“We were fortunate to have an excellent pool of candidates to consider,” Corrigan said. “We were very impressed with each of the individuals we interviewed. Throughout the process, Jeff separated himself from the others.
“His passion, energy and strong experience in turning around a program immediately helped him rise to the top of our list.”
When Monken was hired at Georgia Southern, he took over a program which had gone 21-23 the previous four seasons, and when he went to Navy with Johnson they took over a Middies program that was in similar straits to the current Army program.
After going 2-12, including a win over Army, in his first season, Johnson turned Navy into the strongest of the three military academy programs, and that success was what made Monken an attractive candidate for the Army hierarchy.
“I’m excited about the challenge,” Monken said. “It’s really with mixed emotions, but it’s a wonderful opportunity. It’s similar to the one we experienced at Navy.
“We’re going to try and do the same thing, and I believe we can.”
Georgia Southern president Brooks Keel and athletics director Tom Kleinlein held a news conference Tuesday afternoon in which they thanked Monken and wished him well, and outlined their plans to find a replacement.
“Jeff Monken is a special person, and we hate to see him go,” Keel said. “He’s been a tremendous asset to this program, but this (Army) position was an opportunity that simply could not be passed up.
“The resources that will be made available to him at this point in time we can’t meet. An opportunity to be at a service academy and serve his country is very special to him. We couldn’t be prouder of what he’s accomplished here and couldn’t be prouder of the move he’s making. We wish him well.”
Describing the Georgia Southern head coaching job as “a plum position for any head coach,” Keel said the school had received inquiries from coaches “all across this country. We will not have a problem in finding a head coach.”
Kleinlein said the Georgia Southern job was an especially attractive one with the move to FBS, along with the ongoing addition of 6,000 seats to the stadium and construction of a football operations center.
“We’re going to set out on a national search,” Kleinlein said. “This job is a very special job. We need to find a coach that understands what it is to run a program and be a CEO. He needs to understand and embrace the traditions of our institution, and understand where we are going forward with our program not only from the football standpoint, but where we are going as a university.
“I can tell you interest is at an all-time high. I’m very pleased with the amount of people who have already reached out to me.”
Monken’s base salary, Kleinlein said, was $260,000, and he derived additional income from his television and radio shows. The new head coach’s salary, Kleinlein said, will be competitive with other Sun Belt programs.
Salaries for head coaches in the Sun Belt currently range from a low of $225,000, Kleinlein said, to the $700,000 that Arkansas State is paying new head coach Blake Anderson.