At Kennesaw State, Developing Positive Culture Has Developed A Lot of Wins

Courtesy Kennesaw State Athletics

By Brian Mull
Special to the College Sports Journal

On a rainy Christmas Eve morning in 2012, thenKennesaw State athletic director Vaughn Williams and Brian Bohannon met for breakfast at the Marietta Diner in the Atlanta suburbs.

The men enjoyed a delicious meal. Their conversation lasted 2 ½ hours. They hardly discussed football, although that was why they’d convened. While the University System of Georgia Board of Regents wouldn’t formally approve Kennesaw State’s plans to start football for another two months, each milestone from the previous three years pointed toward one reality: the Owls needed a football coach.

Bohannon, a Peach State native, was interested in the job and an obvious candidate. A former Georgia wide receiver, he was a Georgia Tech assistant who learned the game from his father, a high school coaching legend in the state, and was enjoying a successful run under coach Paul Johnson, following him from Georgia Southern to Navy to Atlanta.

“(Marietta Diner) wasn’t my spot for everybody, but that was my spot for him,” said Williams, now an associate AD at Boston College. “We talked about family, where he came from and values, his kids, those type of things. We were trying to hire a special person to take this on. It was going to have to be more than just a football coach.”

Secret Visit

After the meal, Williams drove Bohannon to Fifth Third Bank Stadium, the university’s new 10,500-seat facility replete with suites, and a football locker room built in secret when the stadium was intended solely for the women’s soccer program. Bohannon recalls being impressed at the infrastructure in place to build and sustain a winning program. The men sat down in the empty locker room and chatted some more.

“I knew there was something I liked about him from the beginning,” Williams recalled. “He was real, he was honest … there was something about his authentic nature, I could see myself playing for him, see my kids playing for him.”

The university formed a search committee and brought three finalists to campus. The other two had head coaching experience but Kennesaw State chose Bohannon, naming him on March 24, 2013. They’d found the man to coach the first game in 2015, a rising star who has led the program to unprecedented success in less than five seasons – notably a winning record every year and two Big South Conference championships.

“From a recruiting standpoint, I knew there were a ton of players from around here,” Bohannon said. “I hadn’t even been on campus, I went to the stadium and I knew this was a no-brainer, we could do this. It was the first job I interviewed for in 17 years, never one of those guys to be hunting jobs all the time. The more you found out about Kennesaw State the better it got.”

Courtesy KSU Athletics

Rising To the Top

Kennesaw State is ranked No. 6 in the latest STATS FCS poll entering Saturday’s game at Presbyterian, marking its 23rd consecutive week in the top 10. The Owls are chasing a third consecutive outright Big South Championship and have won 11 conference games in a row. They lead the nation in all major rushing statistics (total, per carry, per game) and rank first in total defense, allowing 255.3 yards per game. The lone blemish on their 5-1 record is a 26-23 overtime loss to FBS member Kent State in the second week of the season. The Owls have advanced to the FCS Quarterfinals each of the last two years, are 42-13 overall in their young existence and 28-5 since 2017.

Bohannon is pleased with his team’s success, made more impressive this season because the squad had to replace 10 offensive starters from last season – six of which were First-Team All-Conference selections. Still, he’s unsatisfied. At the first team meeting in 2014, before anyone threw a pass or made a tackle, Bohannon set what he calls the “gold standard.” He expected the Owls to win the Big South, advance to the playoffs and compete for the national championship – every year.

“We haven’t even scratched the surface of where we think we need to be offensively. The thing that’s in place that helps our program is you have a culture established,” Bohannon said. “The kids understand it and winning is a huge part of that culture. We’ve yet to play the way we’re capable of, which is encouraging but also discouraging, if that makes sense. Our kids understand what is expected here.”

Kennesaw State Growth

During a decade as Kennesaw State president from 2006-2016, Dr. Daniel Papp led the university to remarkable growth, from commuter school to residence university, from NCAA Division II to Division I and watched enrollment double to nearly 34,000. When he arrived, the university’s athletics ‘facilities’ consisted of an acre-and-a-half of intramural fields. Within years, Kennesaw had acquired 88 acres nearby which is where the football stadium is located today.

Across campus, Kennesaw State built a half-billion dollars worth of facilities with Papp at the helm. He helped raise millions of dollars and initiated the university’s doctorate program. But to many, his legacy is bringing football to the Cobb County campus, located 25 miles outside of Atlanta with a population exceeding 700,000.

It was an arduous process, studying the feasibility, recruiting the necessary businesses and community leaders, engaging with students, who agreed to a student fee increase to help fund football and the other programs added to meet Title IX requirements.

It was also an extremely rewarding process.

Early in the exploration process, Papp met former Georgia football coach Vince Dooley through Frank Ross, a Coca-Cola vice president who was Dooley’s captain on the 1980 national championship team.

Dooley agreed to chair the committee. After nine months of research, the committee recommended Kennesaw State add football on Feb. 13, 2013. The invitation from the Big South Conference followed a few months later, and on Sept. 4, KSU became an official football member of the league.

“Given the growth of Kennesaw State and that Georgia and the Southeast is a hotbed for football, given that coach Dooley was involved and we hired a up-and-coming coach, I was pretty confident we’d be really good right after the bat,” Papp said.

Papp retired as Kennesaw State president in 2016 but he remains a Cobb County resident and follows the Owls closely on Saturday afternoons.

The current president, Dr. Pamela Whitten, also understands the impact athletics has made at KSU. She travels with the football team, and current athletic director Milton Overton always expects her to request a stat sheet to peruse at halftime.

Courtesy KSU Athletics

Tremendous Support

Without question, the Owls’ football program has benefited from tremendous resources, and a strong recruiting footprint at a rapidly growing university in a booming region. Game attendance has fluctuated, but more than half of the program’s season ticket holders are non-alumni. (the Owls are averaging 7,431 fans after three home games in 2019). Still, to some measure, the success can be attributed to Bohannon, the coach.

Overton, a four-year starter on the offensive line at Oklahoma, came to Kennesaw State in 2017 from Florida A&M, where he helped the program reach top five in FCS in attendance in consecutive years. Prior to that, he worked in administration at Texas A&M and Alabama.

“I’ve worked with very special coaches, and coach is in the upper echelon of the coaches that have the type of skill set to lead a team,” Overton said. “He’s cut from a unique mold, has a lot of discipline, believes in his formula and sticks to it. You can see that now in the new class. He has good character kids who operate within his system with that championship caliber mentality.”

The former AD Williams said Bohannon deserves everything he gets.

“They can recruit and flat out coach,” he said. “He hired some really great teachers as assistant coaches. They can relate to the kids but are very technical in how they teach the game.”

Bohannon is often compared to his mentor, Johnson, because the Owls run the triple option offense. But he’s taken the ground-oriented attack in a different direction at Kennesaw State, creating something original and sustainable in less than five years. More recruiting doors have opened throughout Georgia and neighboring states. He doesn’t have to spend time explaining every aspect of the program like he did on trips to high schools five years ago. Bohannon believes the Owls can compete for most prospects in the talent-rich state.

Bohannon also says “culture trumps scheme.” On the front of Kennesaw’s helmet is EAT – effort, attitude, toughness.

“We take a lot of pride in our work ethic, accountability and discipline that the first class built to lay the foundation. It’s hard and not easy, But our kids do know if they’ll embrace it, the rewards are awesome on a Saturday afternoon and they’re awesome when they graduate,” Bohannon said. “They’re able to get and sustain a job with the qualities and characteristics they’ve learned in this game along the way. We’ve never gone into a game here that our kids didn’t think we were going to win. I think that’s really unique. ”