Gearing up for the inaugural season of Kennesaw State University’s new football program the past two years hasn’t just been about making history, but garnering support from the Cobb County community; everyone from students and staff to residents and business owners.
“Without this business community, we wouldn’t be able to do this,” says KSU Athletic Director Vaughn Williams. “It’s about more than dollars, though, it’s about a partnership. We care about our community. We care about spreading the black and gold anywhere we can and we care about their values … opportunities to build our community. That is a relationship that we can hold onto, which makes it a little more special and important.”
In 2009, KSU President Dr. Dan Papp appointed a football exploratory committee headed by former University of Georgia Head Football Coach Vince Dooley to determine how favorable it would be to create a football program there. The following year, the recommendation was announced and in February 2013, the University System of Georgia Board of Regents officially accepted KSU’s proposal.
Since that time, Williams says the university has worked diligently with the community to recruit some of the best names in business as sponsors and gain their support. “You gotta have the community! Coach Vince Dooley and I talked about it from the beginning … You need the community with a start-up program,” he says. “We tried to engage as much as we can. We had a football committee that was formed and has been meeting for two years. There was even a subcommittee called ‘Business Development,’ informing all the businesses that are in what we call the ‘control zone’ of Fifth Third Bank Stadium to make them aware of everything that is going on and let them have some input.”
“We want to let them partake in the process, instead of reacting to the process,” Williams continues. “We want to keep them very informed in how we can all benefit. It’s a win-win. These things can generate money for our surrounding businesses as well, so we wanted to make sure they were involved from ground zero.
“The chamber is involved, business associations, all those different groups are involved in how we can make game day work. All these different facets are involved in building a game day. We want to be the community’s team. We are prideful in that, and I believe that Cobb County and northwest Georgia is as well. And they’ve shown that by buying these tickets. It’s going to be a really neat scene from this point forward.”
One of the first sponsors to jump on board was Fifth Third Bank, a U.S. regional banking corporation that purchased the naming rights for the stadium. Shortly thereafter, Superior Plumbing, WellStar Health System and Carl Black Chevrolet Buick GMC Inc., all based in Cobb County, purchased naming rights — Superior Plumbing Loge Section, WellStar Press Box and Carl Black Stage. “To have these businesses as some of our pillar partners is great,” Williams says. “They define this community.” To date, there’s approximately $8.5 million in sponsorships, most of which are 10-year commitments.
When previously asked about the sponsorship opportunities, T. Scott Jordan, general manager of Carl Black of Kennesaw and operating partner of Carl Black Automotive Group, said, “I am truly excited and grateful for the opportunity to be involved with Kennesaw State Athletics. Like Kennesaw State, Carl Black strives to make a positive, meaningful impact on the community and to provide a high quality experience for the people we come in contact with. Now is an exciting time of growth and opportunity for both Kennesaw State and Carl Black, and our combined efforts will certainly be a success for both us and for the community.”
KSU Head Football Coach Brian Bohannon was announced as the school’s new head coach March 24, 2013, and began his task of recruiting his staff and team the following day. This was his first head coaching job and first time coaching at a new program, and he came to KSU after coaching quarterbacks and B-backs at Georgia Tech for five seasons. “It’s been challenging, but the two things I focused on early was hiring a staff and great people to do the things that we wanted to do here and then the recruiting,” he recalls, adding that his decision to coach there was a “no-brainer.” “Football is so great in the state of Georgia and there are so many players in this area, that all these things just matched up and it made sense.”
His expectations for their first season were realistic. “We won’t ever play a football game that we don’t expect to win but in the same breath, our kids and staff understand that we’re in a building process and that we are building this thing for the long haul.” He goes on to say that they aren’t trying to “quick fix” the program in the first year or two. “We’re a young football team and there will be a learning process,” he adds. “We want to build a successful program and learn from the things that don’t go well.”
He reminds himself and the staff, however, that this is a fun endeavor. “This is a once in a lifetime deal. You have to enjoy the moments, small milestones and the things that happen along the way, because you’re making history every day that you get up and go to work,” Bohannon says. “The first time we run out on the field, I remind the guys that they need to enjoy that. They will never get to do that again in their lifetime — not for a first. There are so many things that we’re doing with this program and you’ve gotta find a way to enjoy that.”
To Recruits: ‘Best Kept Secret’
The team consists mostly of student-athletes from Georgia, many of which are from Cobb and surrounding counties, but there are 14 transfers on the team from areas throughout the country, including California or Texas. As far as recruiting players, Bohannon says it was all about getting them to the campus, so they could see first-hand the great amenities and opportunities the school offers students. “We knew that if we could get kids and their parents to campus, this place would sell itself,” he says. “We have a brand new stadium, brand new locker rooms, our housing and dining halls are top in the country, we just went through consolidations and have so much academically … I call this the best kept secret in the South, although I don’t think it will be for long.”
And that “secret” is what drew 20-year-old Taylor Henkle to commit to KSU. The 2014 Kell High School graduate, who is the son of Jennifer Henkle and Kris Henkle, is a KSU redshirt sophomore whose high school football playing career includes being named to First Team All-State, Second Team All-State, First Team All-County, Second Team All-County, two-time First Team All-Region and Best Defensive Back in Cobb County, in addition to his No. 26 jersey being retired by the Longhorn team. “I’ve been playing football since I was 5 years old, so it’s been a part of my whole life, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it,” Henkle says. “My ultimate goal was to play college football.”
Growing up just 6 miles from the KSU campus, Henkle committed to play for the Owls during his senior year of high school after originally showing interest in Mercer University in Macon, as well as Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas. “I had a good relationship with Coach Bohannon while he was at Georgia Tech, and when he took the head coaching job at KSU, it took my interest here,” Henkle recalls. “I came on a visit, saw the campus and facilities and everything, and that’s what I thought was best for me — playing for him.”
“Our kids have worked extremely hard,” Bohannon adds. “There’s nothing better than going into a packed house for every home game, with a bunch of Kennesaw State fans screaming and yelling. You can’t beat that. That’s as good as it gets. That’s awesome!”