A year ago, Georgia College & State was awaiting the arrival of a new athletics director, one who had been hired in early June and was to start Aug. 1.
It was GCSU’s first new athletics director in nearly two decades, the program having been run by Stan Aldridge from 1990 until he announced in late January of 2008 his impending retirement.
Now, after only two athletics directors in almost 30 years, GCSU is looking for its second one in less than a year and hopes to have the job filled by within a month.
“We’re going through pretty much the same process as a year ago,” said Bruce Harshbarger, GCSU’s vice president for student affairs and dean of students. “I think we were all very pleased with where we wound up a year ago.”
That was with Jud Damon, hired from the Savannah College of Art and Design. His appointment was announced at GCSU on June 6, 2008, about four months after Aldridge announced that he would retire at the end of March, with almost two months left on the sports calendar.
Aldridge spent 32 years at GCSU, first as the head basketball coach and then as athletics director. He succeeded Mike Peeler, who was the athletics director – and golf coach — from 1981 until his death in 1990 at the age of 46. The outdoor sports complex on the West Campus is named after Peeler, who led GCSU from NAIA to the NCAA in 1989.
Aldridge was the interim athletics director for about three years before taking over officially in 1993.
So from 1981 until 2008, GCSU didn’t have to worry much about its athletics department leadership. And it was sure more than a year ago it wouldn’t have to worry about it again for a while with the hiring of Damon.
Damon’s family lived in Gray, and he announced his resignation in May to accept the same position at Flagler College in Florida.
“Jud left primarily because of family reasons,” Harshbarger said. “We certainly want to emphasize involvement in the local community.”
Longtime women’s head basketball coach John Carrick raved about Damon upon his hiring and hopes GCSU can land a similar candidate.
“All of us really liked the guy,” said Carrick, a GCSU alum who has been the women’s head coach since 1984. “Aldridge was a tough act to follow. We all felt (Damon) was a good hire.
“Like I told him, he didn’t really have any competition. Everybody’s a little bit scared (now) like we were before. You don’t know what to expect with new blood.”
Harshbarger is part of the seven-person search committee that is working with executive search firm Alden & Associates, which was hired after Aldridge’s retirement announcement. Damon’s official departure date was one day before GCSU’s contract with Alden & Associates ran out, so the school was able to use its services again with no additional payment.
The list of more than 50 applicants will drop to nine, with up to five getting an interview on campus.
“The search committee has been contacting semifinalists and finishing that this week and doing another series of reference checks,” Harshbarger said. “We’ll be inviting people to interview on campus, probably not next week because a lot of people are going to take the week off with the holiday in it. But the week after that, we’ll probably start the interviews and hopefully name someone in the middle of July and get them here in August.”
Harshbarger noted the short list of athletics directors in GCSU history and said that Damon’s biggest contribution was behind the scenes.
“This was really the first time we had a set of outside eyes come in and had a chance to take a look at some things,” Harshbarger said. “One of the things Jud had pointed out was that some of the operations, they resided more in people’s heads than on paper. He said we needed to get a lot of the standard operating procedures down and codified and (as) an official document. The same people had been there year in and year out.”
Fund-raising was a priority for Damon, and Harshbarger said that will remain so as well as “taking a more structured approach” in dealing with and increasing support and donations.
Carrick isn’t one to hold back his opinions, and he is only half-kidding when he wonders about the athletics director position, especially considering the strength of the program.
“Just raise money and stay the (heck) out of the way,” Carrick said with a laugh. “Some ADs come in and change this and that. Obviously we’ve been successful.”
Indeed, GCSU had perhaps its best year in 2008-09, with All-Americans in four sports and the Peach Belt Conference player of the year in softball.
The men’s basketball team won the Peach Belt’s sportsmanship award in that sport and had three players — including former West Laurens standout Ken Kemp — on the PBC’s first men’s basketball all-academic team.
The golf team reached the NCAA tournament for the fifth time in six years and finished fifth, its third top-five finish. The men’s tennis team reached the Elite Eight, and Steve Barsby was named the national coach of the year while veteran men’s basketball coach Terry Sellers took conference honors.
GCSU reached the NCAA tournament — which in Division II begins usually with region play — in nine of 10 sports. More than 90 student-athletes made the conference’s presidential honor roll (3.0 GPA or higher), including Kemp, Alex Pate (men’s cross country/Peach County), Rich Crumpton (golf/John Milledge), Bayley Craig (golf/John Milledge), Bailey Thompson (softball/Vidalia) and Haley Holloway (softball/GMC).
The 92 academic honorees were the third-most among the 11 conference programs.
And the school won the PBC’s Commissioner’s Cup for all-sports success for the first time.
“Maybe a little stronger,” Harshbarger said of the quality of applicants this time around. “As we talk to several of the semifinalists, they mentioned that they had been encouraged to pursue it because they were aware we won the conference Commissioner’s Cup.
“I think people are pretty encouraged by the folks we have in the process. Hopefully we’ll get somebody who’s a pretty good fit this year.”