Georgia Southern AD Jared Benko setting higher bar for Eagles sports teams
STATESBORO — Jared Benko, as a homeowner, was out doing yard work with the heat index north of 100 degrees this weekend. There was work to be done, and that was his time to do it.
Benko, as director of athletics, has been spotted before Georgia Southern football games tidying up the landscape at Paulson Stadium. There was work to be done, and the head of the department is not above pitching in with his staff.
"We enjoy working and getting our hands dirty," Benko said Monday. "You don't see that everywhere. I think that speaks to the teamwork and camaraderie we're building in the department. It also speaks to the quality of people we have.
"At Georgia Southern, we always talk about being blue collar, but what does that mean? Does that mean we don't make mistakes? I'm OK with effort mistakes. My patience is not great when mistakes are made and the effort's not there."
Benko, who started at Georgia Southern in April 2020 as COVID-19 changed the world, hasn't let the pandemic prevent him from staying on task in Statesboro.
On Aug. 2, his department unveiled a strategic plan for 2021-26 called "Soaring to New Heights" that identifies five areas of focus for GS athletics: student-athlete success, competitive excellence, resource optimization, brand engagement/fan experience, and diversity and integrity.
The 32-page plan, which he described as bold and ambitious, highlights 29 objectives and 128 initiatives, and can be summed up with one bottom line: comprehensive excellence.
"Ultimately, we're doing things for the betterment of our student-athletes," he said. "That's really why we're here and all I ask for, is to make sure we're pushing as hard as possible, as fast as possible, to get things done here. We're not going to be a complacent organization.
"We didn't come here to be mediocre. We came here to be the best in class."
Range of topics
In an interview session with local sports media on Monday in his office on campus, Benko answered a wide range of questions relating to Georgia Southern athletics as the Eagles' fall teams prepare to soar.
On the football team, 8-5 last season including a bowl victory:
"Coach (Chad) Lunsford would share with you, and I agree with him, 7-5 (in the regular season) isn't the standard here," Benko said of a program that annually has high expectations. "He's open about that and I am, too. I'm very optimistic this year about the pieces we added on both the roster and the coaching staff. We have a great home schedule. All the ingredients we have for a special season. I learned a long time ago not to forecast how the season's going to go just because things can change. But I'm very optimistic heading into the season."
On health protocols as another academic year of playing during the pandemic is about to start:
"All the student-athletes when they return to campus have a COVID test to come back in the bubble, come back on campus," Benko said. "Those that are vaccinated are not going to be going through the weekly surveillance testing unless they have symptoms. If you're not vaccinated, you'll be going through weekly testing. Obviously, you'll be subject to contact tracing as well.
"Right now, we're doing the best we can to continue to educate our student-athletes. In particular, this vaccination is the most-researched one in the history of mankind. So there's a lot of information we're putting in front of our student-athletes. It's an individual decision. I share with them why I got vaccinated and why that's important, but ultimately we trying to make sure they have education. We're not indoctrinating them but we are educating them on the information out there. They can make the decision as an adult."
Benko said he can't speak to the policies of other college athletic departments, but GS is trying to get "the right people to talk with the student-athletes."
"I think it's important that we talk about the research out there, that we do bring in speakers, bring in doctors. I'm not a doctor, obviously, but we can bring in people that are very educated in this space and continue to help our student-athletes because we are educators."
On absorbing the financial hit that GS, like most every college athletic department, took in 2020-21 because of the pandemic:
"A lot of that was just trying to tighten the belt and cut expenses," Benko said. "Because we didn't have as many events, we didn't have the crowds, we were going to have to cut our costs. We weren't on the road recruiting. We tried to make of it the best we could.
"Going ahead for this year, looking at where we are, we're anticipating a much better year. At least to this point, there are no plans for reducing capacity (for home games). So this year is going to be more of a typical year. I think last year, we found ways to become more efficient, ways to maybe do business better. We tried to use it more as a growth opportunity versus a crutch. I think last year we learned a lot about ourselves both as a culture and as a team. Also, how to be more efficient with what we do. I'm really proud. I think we did a pretty good job last year, considering all things."
On the vision for Eagles athletics, which has included a few head coaching changes under Benko's watch:
"For us, all 17 sports, we talk about in every departmental meeting with coaches and staff that we expect excellence — both in and out of the classroom," Benko said. "Our coaches and student-athletes deserve all of the credit.
"I truly feel our best days are ahead. What you're starting to see it play out on the competitive landscape is we're getting better. The programs historically that maybe have not been where we want them to be are starting to show signs of being better. I'm fired up. I think the next two to three years will be really special, particularly from the new coaches."
Nathan Dominitz is the Sports Content Editor of the Savannah Morning News and savannahnow.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @NathanDominitz