BOILING SPRINGS, N.C.The whole thing just had a bad feel to it. An hour lightning delay, playing without a quarterback that had one of the best freshman seasons in the history of the tradition-rich program, and finally, having to play without center Eric Thoni, who was unavailable at center for undisclosed reasons, as Furman dropped a 28-21 decision to Gardner-Webb at Spangler Stadium on Saturday night.
Despite Furman’s youth, most figured the Paladins to be the bigger, stronger team coming into the matchup, and even with Reese Hannon sidelined with a minor injury, the Paladins entered the game as a favorite. After all, it was the SoCon vs. the Big South.
However, as was the case on the opening weekend of Southern Conference football, nothing is going to be a given when it comes to winning games in the non-conference this fall. The reality ended up being that it was a matchup between a couple of teams that were coming off 3-8 seasons a year ago.
Gardner-Webb also had a familiar face on its sideline when it opened the 2013 season with plenty of new energy as a program on Saturday night, with Carroll McCray–former Furman offensive line coach (2007-10)–leading a veteran cast of characters returning for the Red and Black-clad Bulldogs entering the 2013 season.
It was a team stacked with experience, much like Fowler’s first team in Greenville back in 2011, which included the likes of experienced veterans Ryan Steed and Kadarron Anderson on defense, while Chris Forcier was under center. The Paladins, which were ranked as late as the first week of November, coming in ranked at No. 17 in the national polls following a 20-10 win over No. 3 Appalachian State in Fowler’s first team of 2011, seem like a far cry from that team that nearly went to the playoffs just a couple of years later.
Building a program is a process, and for a program as steeped in tradition as Furman is, the Purple and White fanbase is finding out just how hard that process can be. Unlike schools at the major BCS conference level of college football, fan support is fleeting, and the Paladin crowd support on Saturday night saw the diehards show up to see a program that just seven years ago weathered five Ingle Martin INTs to take a 38-6 win over the Runnin’ Bulldogs back to Greenville.
But these Paladins are different, which does not mean less talented, although at quarterback, Ingle Martins don’t just come along every day, but what can a fanbase humbled by its own tradition take from a 28-21 loss to open the 2013 season just about 90 minutes up the road to a team it had outscored 143-44 in three previous matchups? For one thing, youth–and lots of it.
The very large dose of humble pie Paladin nation, or rather now Paladin village were trying to digest on the short trek back to Greenville on Saturday night was actually due to a little crunching–number crunching– as the proud program sported a 72-22-1 (.763) record all-time against the conference coming into Saturday night’s clash. Sixty-seven of the 72 wins against current league members came before the league’s formation in 2003.
With the loss on Saturday night, the Paladins are now 5-4 against the conference since 2003, including having lost two of the last three meetings against the conference.
But several disturbing trends revealed themselves on Saturday night at Spangler Stadium, which included the fact that the second-half struggles from last season, which saw the Purple and White outscored by a comprehensive total of 186-103 in the second half and overtime last season. The Paladins saw a 14-point lead in the second half on Saturday night, with a 21-7 lead seemingly evaporated just as quickly as it materialized, dissolving in the span of a little less than 10 minutes on the game clock.
Furman isn’t used to this, and while teams like North Dakota State, Eastern Washington, Northern Iowa and McNeese State only bolstered their respective football traditions with some huge wins over BCS conference foes to open the 2013 season.
Furman was once that program. A program that couldn’t be taken lightly, and one that as recent as 2004, took the eventual Fiesta Bowl qualifier Pittsburgh Panthers to overtime before losing, 43-40. Now, it’s a program that is building from the lobby level and trying to get back to the penthouse suite, which it occupied as late as 2006.
While “the process” isn’t a fun part of the deal for the fans that remained over the years, it isn’t exactly a bed of roses for players and coaches either, but any program that remains relevant must have the fan support and funding to stay relevant, and it really has less to do with coaching and more to do with the general value assessment of the Furman football program to its administration and remaining diehards left over from the glory days of the 1980′s and ’90′s.
Or, is Furman headed for the graveyard? Well, the answer probably is somewhere between the graveyard and clinging to life at this point, but the old cliché seems to be whatever doesn’t kill you will make you stronger. Furman has reached a crossroads as a program, and it has less to do with coaching and more to do with a loss in all areas.
It’s a Furman program that has reverted back to Bob King era at the end of the Bobby Lamb tenure relatively speaking, which was before Art Baker began to transform the program that into one that would eventually capture the national title some 15 years after under the direction of Jimmy Satterfield, and its first of 12 Southern Conference crowns some five years later under the leadership of Dick Sheridan.
That means this season will be part of the process. Will it be 3-9 this season, or 2-10? Or will it be 4-8, which is a more likely expectation. Any Furman fan or any media member who expected more than that was delusional, and without Hannon in the opener and facing a team with 19 starters back, expecting a win should have naturally been altered to hoping for a win by the casual fan.
So, what’s the one thing that Furman got out of the 28-21 loss to Gardner-Webb on Saturday night at Spangler Stadium? What is the one great, yet unpopular answer to this equation that must suffice for Fowler and his team heading into a markedly better opponent in week two.
It’s simple and it’s one word. Experience. It is not ever going to sit well with anyone, but the great programs have to endure it and no program is immune.
It’s the progress that goes unseen in losses to Gardner-Webb, which leads to competing for conference titles and national titles against the likes of Wofford and North Dakota State 3-5 years removed, although, it will likely take less time than these current Paladins to get where Baker’s Paladins got from the early-late 1970′s.
Losses are a part of winning, youth and building, however, it’s the things you don’t see that lead programs to the greatest of feats–things that can be found in those so-called “low points” or losses to Gardner-Webb. It’s the unconventional nature of building a championship program back to where it was, and no program has ever been invincible. Anyone watch the Alabama Crimson Tide from the mid 1990′s to the mid 2000′s?
But, the reality is, the programs that have fans and administrations that care, through the struggles and the triumphs are the ones that thrive and survive at both the FBS and FCS level.
The question for Furman’s football program is how much does it want to be back at the top of the FCS ladder, or is it content just being status quo? It is not a question on the administrations part of having enough fortitude to fire coaches after one game, but answers that provide the necessities of a forward vision and the budget to accomplish success, which also involves the extracurricular aspects such as attendance and marketing.
Can it live with getting out-drawn by its new Furman to the South, Mercer, which has the potential to be what Furman was and what Villanova and Richmond are. That is the reality of what Furman’s football program now faces in the immediate future.
Check back for part II of the Game 1 recap, as Saturday Blitz further dissects the season-opening loss in Boiling Springs this past Saturday night.