BOZEMAN — Brian Bohannon spent years as an assistant coach under triple-option innovator Paul Johnson at Georgia Southern, Navy and, most recently, Georgia Tech. Coaching different positions on either side of the ball, Bohannon helped Johnson and Georgia Southern win back-to-back FCS championships in 1999 and 2000.
The time eventually came for Bohannon to take over his own program, and Kennesaw State chose him in 2013 to be its first coach in team history — two full years before the Owls played their first season.
Some coaches might be wary of joining a start-up, especially in the heart of SEC country, where FCS programs are like tiny needles in an overgrown haystack. But Bohannon looked at it from a different angle.
He had no reservations about the job, partly because of the fertile recruiting ground on which KSU is located in Kennesaw, Georgia, just north of Atlanta, and partly because of the financial commitment the university administration was making to ensure the venture was undertaken in the correct way.
Three years in, it’s all come together nicely for Bohannon and the Owls, who have won 21 games since the start of the 2015 season and bring a 7-1 record and the No. 25 ranking in the STATS poll into a nonconference clash Saturday at Montana State.
“We’ve got 35,000 students, we’re 20 minutes outside of Atlanta in a great community, and a lot of our facilities on campus are really, really nice,” Bohannon said Wednesday in a telephone interview. “Our campus has a lot to offer. It’s a really popular school, and I think once we get kids and families on campus it’s been an easy sell for what we’re trying to accomplish and the vision of what we’re doing.
“We’ve been able to create something instead of change it, and I think that’s really where we’ve been fortunate. We’ve been able to win enough early — just enough that the players have totally bought in and believed in what we’re doing.
“That, and having a great product to sell, which is our university, has paid dividends for us. Prior to my arrival, obviously there was a good plan in place to do it right financially. We’re still not anywhere near where we’re going to be or where we need to be, but definitely there was a really good plan in place prior to me taking the job financially with how we do it.”
Bohannon said student fees were the financial foundation for the Owls’ ability to build quickly, and at a school of KSU’s size, it makes sense. From a recruiting aspect, Bohannon acknowledges the vast pool of talent he and his staff can draw from.
In fact, 72 of the players listed on Kennesaw State’s roster — regardless of class — hail from Georgia. Only one player doesn’t hail from the Southeast: senior cornerback Bert Birdsall is from Chesterfield, Missouri, and transferred to KSU from Miami (Ohio).
“If we wanted to we could recruit within two hours of the school, Bohannon said. “We recruit the whole state, and the surrounding states just for need. There’s five million people in metro Atlanta. The football is unbelievable, the coaches are unbelievable. That has been a huge part of it, having a lot of good players close by.
“Our goal is to get them on campus, because this is what I call the best-kept secret in the South. A lot of people really didn’t know about our program, and then once you start getting them on campus it sells itself. And having a lot of really good players close by, we felt we could do that.”
One of the Owls’ most prominent players is junior quarterback Chandler Burks, the catalyst of the team’s triple-option offense who has 10 rushing touchdown to lead the Big South Conference. Burks came to KSU from Douglasville, Georgia, which is roughly 25 miles from Kennesaw.
The Owls are the sixth ranked team the Bobcats will have played this season. From his perspective, MSU coach Jeff Choate — who is preparing his team in an effort to win its third consecutive game — talked about some of the ways Kennesaw State has won at a rapid rate in a short amount of time.
“Somebody wanted to be good in football at Kennesaw State, and when you put the kind of investment that they’ve put into that program, you’re going to be,” Choate said. “You’re 20 miles from Atlanta, Georgia, you’re going to have the opportunity to find some good athletes. But those kids aren’t going to go to school at Kennesaw State if they don’t see the investment and they don’t see it as important. It certainly is.
“I’ve been impressed with the job that (Bohannon) has done, and he’s surrounded himself with a very good, experienced group. He’s not getting those people unless they’re investing in those coaching salaries, because there’s lots of options in terms of coaching in the Southeast.
“Top-notch facilities, huge investment in that program ... I think that’s why you’re seeing it accelerate the way it is.”