ATLANTA -- Trent Miles sat in his office and flipped through the pages of an imaginary newspaper. Georgia State’s coach pretended to scan a few headlines, then leaned behind his desk and shrugged.
Miles understands his program’s predicament. Georgia State’s relative anonymity is to be expected in one of the country’s most tradition-rich football areas. Atlanta sits smack in the cross-section of ACC and SEC country, and brand-name powers from across the region routinely overshadow the local team in the Sun Belt.
Georgia State played its first college football game in 2010. It went 0-12 last year in its inaugural season in the FBS. Winning isn’t something Miles and his staff can sell right now. What they can sell, however, is the opportunity to build from the ground up, and there might be no better leader for the Panthers’ climb than Miles.
Miles came to Atlanta in December 2012 after five seasons at FCS-level Indiana State. The Sycamores won one game in three seasons prior to Miles’ arrival in 2008; they went a combined 19-14 in the final three years of his tenure. Miles took home Missouri Valley Conference Coach of the Year honors after a six-win campaign in ‘10, and his unranked Indiana State squad upset top-ranked North Dakota State in ‘12.
When Georgia State came calling, its program had only begun to take shape. The school enlisted former Alabama and Georgia Tech coach Bill Curry to lead the program upon its inception in 2010, and the Panthers went 9-13 as an FCS independent during Curry’s first two seasons. Then Georgia State joined the FCS Colonial Athletic Association in ‘12 and won a single game. Curry announced his retirement shortly thereafter, so the Panthers pursued Miles to take the team into the FBS.
Some advised him against taking the job, arguing that Georgia State was moving too fast. But Miles, who spent time as an assistant with Stanford, Notre Dame, Washington and the NFL’s Green Bay Packers, saw things differently.
“The sky’s the limit here if you do it right,” said Miles, who cites Ty Willingham and Marvin Lewis as his coaching mentors. “You’re in the heart of Georgia. You border Florida, South Carolina, Alabama. Just in this driving area from a recruiting standpoint, you can go a long way if you do it right.”
Miles knew what he was getting into, but that didn’t make last season any less challenging. The Panthers lost to three FCS foes (Samford, UT-Chattanooga and Jacksonville State) en route to a 0-12 campaign. Georgia State started 15 true freshmen and became the third winless team from the Sun Belt since 2002.
Still, coaches kept a steady eye on the Panthers' goals. “You’ve got to stay positive in a situation where you’re not winning,” said offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski, the former head coach at Boston College who worked with Miles in Green Bay. “This could’ve been a real miserable place to be, but Trent didn’t make it that way. Trent said, ‘I know early on we’re going to have to take it on the chin a few times, but it’ll be OK. Stay the course, stay with the plan and we’re going to be fine.’”
Miles knows the process of building a program takes time. He went 1-22 in his first two seasons at Indiana State. Yet Georgia State’s progress over the next few years could serve as a blueprint for other schools attempting to work their way up the college football ladder.
At Indiana State, Miles sparked a massive overhaul of the program’s culture. He dismissed a whopping 41 players in his first year with the Sycamores. There are several steps to Miles’ plan, but the first is simple: Buy in or get out.
The best way to tell if players are buying in is their performance in the classroom. That’s why Miles already considers Georgia State 1-0 in 2014. The Panthers closed out last fall with the highest team GPA in the Sun Belt -- they have a trophy to prove it -- and players say that’s one example of the program's changing atmosphere.
“I believe in everything our coaches tell us,” junior linebacker Joseph Peterson said in a phone interview. “I think it’s going the right way. We’re a lot better with guys coming in as role models, guys coming to the weight room with a smile on their face. I believe this program’s going nowhere but up, and that’s the only way we can go with the season we had.”
In recruiting, coaches sell a chance to mold Georgia State’s legacy. This isn’t a once-proud program fallen on hard times; the fledgling Panthers have no history, and Miles informs prospects they’ll be tasked with laying the foundation.
Miles doesn’t pretend Georgia State can compete with championship-caliber teams. However, he’s finding ways to keep the school on prospects’ radars. In June, Penn State coach James Franklin and his staff will work as guest coaches at the Trent Miles Football Camp in Atlanta. It’s an opportunity for Franklin and his assistants to evaluate recruits from the South who might not normally venture to State College, and it’s also a chance for Georgia State to get face time with heralded in-state players who wouldn’t typically attend a Panthers’ camp.
"The way they’re selling the school is fascinating to see,” said Sarah Gigantino, who has served as Georgia State’s director of football operations since 2010. “Really, you can see it when [recruits] come in on their visits. They’re just bigger kids. They’re definitely dealing with [FBS] caliber kids.”
The school’s facilities will soon improve, too. The shell of its current 165,000 square foot practice facility dates to the Civil War, and it once served as an old Coca-Cola bottling plant. But the school is currently raising funds for a $2 million facelift that would include an expansive weight room.
There could be an even bigger project on the horizon. Earlier this month the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Georgia State wants to redevelop Turner Field, the current home of the Atlanta Braves, into a football stadium. The Braves are building a new stadium north of downtown to open in 2017, and Georgia State, which currently plays home games at the Georgia Dome, could turn the property into a venue for the school’s football and baseball teams.
The Panthers’ proposal is one of many for Turner Field, but Miles likes the idea for Georgia State’s future. In fact, it’s been a dream for a while. Coaches regularly visit a barbecue spot across the street from Turner Field called the Bullpen Rib House. “We always go in there with recruits on Saturdays,” Jagodzinski said. “The coaches will look out and go, ‘Man, wouldn’t that be a cool place to play in?’”
Right now there’s only one measuring stick for 2014: Win. Junior college transfer Nick Arbuckle is the de facto starting quarterback, but he’ll have to deal with the loss of four starters on the offensive line and 1,000-yard receiver Albert Wilson. The defense, meanwhile, will be defined by youth, though Miles said he “saw more confidence” on that side of the ball this spring.
All Miles can ask for is belief in the process. That’s how Georgia State -- and other up-and-coming programs -- can take steps toward grabbing newspaper headlines one day. “Our first year at Indiana State, we didn’t win any games,” Miles said. “Our second year, we won one. Then the belief started happening. Our kids believe here now. We just need to win some football games. We are now to the point where, if we just go out, take care of us and play the best that we can play, we’ll win some games.”