KENNESAW — Football may be finally coming to Kennesaw State, but there was never any guarantee that the program would become a reality.
“I always said the worst thing is a major university in the South without a football program,” university president Dan Papp said. “However, the one thing even worse than that is a major university in the South with a football program it can’t afford.”
According to Papp, that’s why football was approached slowly and carefully at Kennesaw State.
“We went about it the right way,” he said. “We set up a multitude of checkpoints where, if one was not met at any time, the idea of the program would have been taken off the table.
“I was a football agnostic. I know it is a huge commitment, and if it’s not done right, it can bring down a university.”
Papp said, as the process began, the first thing he needed was a large, diverse group of people from a multitude of backgrounds to agree that football should be in the university’s future. Those were the people who became the 33-member football exploratory committee formed in 2009.
Then, there was bringing in former Georgia coach and athletic director Vince Dooley to chair the committee.
“We brought in Vince, not because of what he did as a football coach, but what he did as an athletic director,” Papp said. “At Georgia, he helped build it into one of the top 10 athletic associations in the country. He’s a really good business man.”
Once the exploratory committee made its recommendation to bring football to campus, the decision was brought to the students — the only time, Papp said, he was concerned that football might fall through.
“I did not know how the student vote was going to break,” he said. “Asking them to increase their student fees by $100 — an extra $100 is a lot of money.”
In the end, Papp said the student vote was overwhelming, with a 33-percent response rate and a 56-percent rate of “yes” votes.
Papp thought the final hurdle was the 1½ years it took to secure a $5 million investment over 10 years from Fifth Third Bank — to aid with start-up costs and stadium naming rights — in one of the most difficult economies in recent memory, but the University System of Georgia threw one more obstacle in the way.
Kennesaw State was expected to be on the agenda to have the student fee increase for football voted on in January, but it was tabled indefinitely at the last moment, with the board forming a committee to research all athletic fee proposals.
The measure was finally approved in February, and Papp said that if the university was forced to wait any longer — pushing the football program’s earliest start date from 2015 to 2016 — it would have asked the students to vote again and reaffirm their support for football.
Now, Papp can get the student body, the alumni and the Kennesaw State community ready for that first football game day 27 months from now.
“We hope to provide the best game-day experience in the Southeast,” Papp said. “(The KSU Sports and Recreation Park) is tailor-made for tailgating experiences.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the marching band march down Chastain Road to the stadium. I’m looking forward to seeing all students and alumni, along with the folks in Cobb County, coming out and adopting our football program as one of their own.
“Most of all, I want to win.”
Success at the highest level of competition is something Papp has strived for ever since he played football for the first time as a fifth-grader in North Olmsted, Ohio.
After graduating from high school in 1965, Papp played on the freshman team at Dartmouth College. He was a starting defensive back for the Big Green and had two vivid memories he listed as highlights.
First, Papp made two interceptions and had a fumble recovery against Boston University. The second was from a tackle he tried to make against a running back from Yale.
“No. 35 was coming around the end,” Papp said. “I came up and was in perfect position to make the tackle. The only thing I remember after that is waking up.”
Papp felt he may have been in perfect tackling position, but he was going up against a future No. 1 draft pick in Calvin Hill.
Hill went on to play 12 years in the NFL, helping the Dallas Cowboys win a Super Bowl. He’s the father of longtime NBA star Grant Hill.
While playing summer baseball in Cleveland following his freshman year at Dartmouth, Papp injured his knee and was forced to give up football, but his love of the game never wavered.
“Not just football, but all team sports,” he said. “I loved the camaraderie — working with people who have like objectives — and mostly the competition.”
Papp has continued to show his love of team sports since he succeeded Betty Siegel as Kennesaw State’s president in 2006.
In the last seven years, the university has completed its move from NCAA Division II to Division I, the intramural program has grown to offer more than 40 sports, and the club program has grown as large. Papp also oversaw the construction of the 8,300-seat Fifth Third Bank Stadium in 2010, next to the 88-acre KSU Sports and Recreation Park that opened in 2012.
“I’d like to think my administration has made it so every student at KSU has the opportunity to compete or get the physical exercise they want,” Papp said, “whether it’s playing football, ultimate Frisbee or competing on the equestrian team.”