By MIKE FOSTER
Daniel Wilburn had not set foot on the humble soccer pitch at Southern Polytechnic State University for 11 months. He may not want to walk the field ever again.
Empty water bottles, soda cans, rotting equipment and a blank scoreboard were the only fixtures at the field. There were no lines on the turf—nothing to lead the way, or tell a story. The dilapidated facility had turned quickly.
Almost too quickly for Wilburn, who was shocked to see the place he used to spend hours on in its current state.
Wilburn is a sophomore and former member of SPSU’s men’s soccer team.
“Just seeing this field, you can already tell how much has changed,” he said. “Coach would never have let it get like this.”
He skimmed the slightly overgrown grass with the tip of the skateboard.
Wilburn last touched the grass in a Hornet uniform in October 2013. The men’s soccer team, of which Wilburn was a member, built a 10-6-2 record and was even ranked No. 2 in the National Intercollegiate Athletic Association in its final season.
When he showed up at the field in preparation for a photo, he brought along all three jerseys he wore as a Hornet. Now relics to Wilburn, the jerseys were given away to the players.
“Heck, they’ve no longer got use for them,” Wilburn said. “So, we get to keep them.”
Kennesaw State University and Southern Polytechnic State University are both situated just off Interstate 75 in Cobb County, an outskirt of the metro Atlanta area that is a mainstay for major suburban development.
Both schools have mirrored the growth of the area through the years, and quickly: SPSU was instituted in 1948 and moved to its Marietta site from Chamblee in 1962. KSU opened up the road a year later.
Since these humble starts, both schools have deviated toward very different identities. KSU is now the third largest school in the University System of Georgia. It’s a largely popular school for its business, nursing and education programs, and with world class housing and dining options, it’s quickly become a model—a mecca, if you will—for building a modern state college.
SPSU has a smaller campus and is a technical school with an almost exclusively male student body.
Just like these differences, the two schools athletic programs have been different in recent years. Kennesaw State is now a Division I program in the National College Athletic Association, while Southern Poly competed at the NAIA level.
Unfortunately for athletes like Wilburn, they soon will be competing somewhere else, or nowhere at all.
In November 2013, the University System of Georgia announced the two schools would be “consolidated” into one institution. This consolidation meant a gauntlet of ambitious logistical operations that had to be dealt with before the merger completes in fall of 2015.
In late February 2013, athletes at the SPSU campus were told grim news: The men’s and women’s basketball teams, baseball team and soccer team, all going by the moniker ‘Hornets’, were done.
The home of the Hornets had now become ‘Owl country.’
Vaughn Williams works through athletic consolidations
Kennesaw State director of athletics, Vaughn Williams, knew immediately he had a tough situation on his hands. Williams, who took over the athletic department at KSU in the spring of 2011, has turned an athletic scene that used to look much more like SPSU’s into one that rivals larger, traditional schools.
To this point, his job had been a clean slate of positivity. He oversaw the long-awaited approval of a football program, re-committed student athletes to the classroom, implemented a complete rebranding with a contract with Adidas, upgraded the Convocation Center on campus and brought in numerous sponsorships.
When it came to the merger with SPSU, Williams might have had it harder than any other department.
There’s no way to simply combine two athletic programs, and while the Hornets only existed in four different sports, there was little room on the existing Owls rosters.
In a press release from KSU in late-February of last year, the 88 student athletes at SPSU would be honored their existing scholarships and would be provided the opportunity to try out for Kennesaw State teams.
Apparently, those tryouts were a pipe dream. There simply wasn’t room on any of the four rosters at KSU for SPSU athletes. To this point, no former Hornets are now Owls.
Williams knew he was put in a tough situation and says that ample time was spent helping student athletes get into other programs in a short turnaround.
“It was a hard thing to do,” Williams said. “We’re talking about impacting lives. Nobody asked for it or saw it coming, and that was a big concern of ours. We wanted to make sure the student athletes understood what was going on.”
KSU’s primary solution was to honor the scholarship portion of former SPSU athletes. Williams said about 21 former Hornets will choose to stay part of the new school and give up their athletic careers.
Matt Griffin, the athletic director at SPSU, didn’t have to go job searching. He was hired on as KSU’s associate athletic director earlier in the fall.
Griffin, who now knows the two entities well, knew that getting NAIA players on DI rosters wouldn’t be the best route.
Instead, Griffin said nearly all of the scholarship athletes who had remaining eligibility have transferred out of the institution, some even going to play in higher classifications than before.
“We were an NAIA school, we weren’t Division I,” Griffin, a former Hornet baseball player and coach, said. “I think that was in the back of most of the athletes minds.
“A large majority of the student athletes have either chosen to continue their academic and athletic career at another university, or they chose to stay at Southern Poly to continue to finish their degrees. We helped them along the way as best we could, myself and administrators at Kennesaw State, to have a hand in making sure they found a place.”
Griffin said all four coaches of SPSU’s teams found jobs elsewhere despite the short turnaround, as well.
However, Wilburn and his teammates weren’t given any tryout opportunity.
KSU does not field a men’s soccer team, and probably never will due to scholarship mandates in Title IX, which requires a certain balance of men’s scholarships versus women’s scholarships in athletics.
“It just kind of sucks really,” Wilburn said. “It’s called a merger, but it really feels like a takeover…they kind of just took our team away and told us to find something else to do.”
Wilburn’s soccer career and future plans
A graduate of Lassiter High School, just minutes from Kennesaw State, Wilburn, 19, has been playing soccer since he was 5 years old.
He had an opportunity to play Division I soccer at Mercer, KSU’s rival, or even at South Carolina.
“I tried out at South Carolina,” Wilburn said. “Had I pursued that a little bit more I probably could have gone there. I also knew Mercer’s coach pretty well.”
Wilburn went to SPSU for its civil engineering program. He redshirted this past season and would have had four years of eligibility with the team.
“At first, I didn’t even know about this school until Coach came up to me and told me about the program,” Wilburn said.
While the news of the merger was tough on Wilburn and his teammates, he can’t help but admit he’s looking forward to his future.
“I’m actually looking into pursuing playing for KSU’s club team,” Wilburn said. “It kind of works out for me because civil engineering is becoming difficult, and I need more time to study and things like that.”
“The north campus is beautiful. I’ll probably go up there on some weekends to get a pickup game in, because it’s usually pretty dead down here.”
As far as the history of the Hornets is concerned, one of the major projects included in the merger was the Southern Poly Athletic Hall of Fame, which Griffin and Williams look forward to implementing.
“It’s a tremendous honor to show off the tremendous athletes that competed at Southern Poly at a high level,” Griffin said. “It’s great for them.”
“We wanted to make sure we could honor the past, and part of the history of the new university,” said Williams.
Wilburn agrees the Hall of Fame is an ample part of the consolidation process, but he endorsed some other ideas to remember the Hornets past as well.
“Maybe they could have a throwback night where they wear green instead of gold,” Wilburn said.