A new, contemporary logo commands attention from campus passersby and from visitors to the school's Web site.
And steel beams rise outside the football stadium, the site of a $67 million expansion to facilitate the school's future leap to the big leagues.
It's just not the same Jacksonville State University anymore.
To students, faculty and alumni, this all looks pretty sleek. But is it enough to help the 125-year-old institution polish its image?
The expansion of Paul Snow Stadium is widely criticized by students and even faculty. The school has had trouble shaking allegations that its president, Bill Meehan, plagiarized his dissertation.
And JSU's football team, for three straight years, has failed to meet NCAA academic standards and cannot participate in postseason play this fall.
These problems are enough to give any school a black eye. But JSU leaders said the good that shines at these rolling hills trumps any negative press or cynics wary of the school's future.
"There will always be critics and the purpose of these changes (is) not to silence critics," said Becky Turner, vice president of academic and student affairs. Instead, "it's to improve the university…"
School leaders praise the university's progress in recent years — the 38 accredited programs, a number that exceeds any other regional university in the state; the expanding or launching of several new academic programs; the nationally-acclaimed marching band and business, education and nursing schools.
The stadium expansion project is costly, school leaders said, but it's an opportunity to build on JSU's brand. It's a recruiting drive to lure not only bigger and better athletes, but stronger students.
A debatable project
Many argue that the stadium project not only comes during a time of economic strife, but when demand to watch Gamecock football is down.
For instance, Rufus Kinney, a retired English instructor at JSU who labeled the project as "bone-headed" said this: "To expand a stadium that I rarely saw more than half full, at a time when the nation's economy is in the tank, is absolutely crazy."
But according to attendance records, more people filled the stands in the 2008 season than in recent memory — even more than the year JSU won a national championship.
Last year, about 11,300 people on average attended the five home football games at Paul Snow Stadium — a jump of more than 1,500 since 2007 and more than 3,500 since 2006.
In 1992, when the school was a Division II powerhouse and won the national title, attendance records show an average of 10,554.
During its glory days, JSU won national championships in men's basketball and football and baseball. To this day, JSU is the only school, at any level, to win national titles in the big three sports.
But after 1992, JSU made the leap to Division I. It's had marginal results on the money-making sports since.
Now the school is poised to move up again.
JSU trustees in April 2008 voted to expand the stadium to prepare the football program for a move to the NCAA's Bowl Subdivision, formerly Division I-A. School officials say the strategy could increase enrollment, better market the athletic program and increase revenues.
Kinney said he polled more than 100 students to gauge the move up. Only two were in favor.
He said the students grew up rooting for Alabama and Auburn.
"They don't want JSU competing against Alabama and Auburn," he said.
Some students protested the decision. They didn't need to move up, or an expanded stadium to help facilitate the shift.
Since construction began, the mood around campus has only worsened. School leaders announced recently they were staring at $5.25 million in unexpected construction costs, which it will address on Monday at the trustees' meeting.
Construction caused existing bleachers to settle in a southern portion of the stadium, a problem that will cost about $730,000 to fix. It will cost about $4.5 million more than expected to drill holes to support the new foundation.
Some students fear they'll be paying for it with soaring tuition. University leaders said a bond issue will cover most of the overrun. The school also counts on making money from selling the luxury skybox seats to repay that bond.
JSU leaders said the project is also about offering more quality products to prospective students, not just athletes. There are 9,000 students at JSU compared to 400 student athletes.
The expansion creates luxury student housing, a computer lab and meeting rooms.
"We're getting phenomenal housing for our students, state-of-the-art, best-around housing," Turner said. "The kind that a student wants."
JSU leaders want enrollment to reach 10,000 by the fall of 2010, but some argue that if the school continues to spike its tuition, it will fall short.
Costs creeping up
Years ago, JSU touted itself as one of the most affordable universities in the state. Today, with its recent 9.47 percent tuition increase to $208 per credit hour, JSU is about the middle of the road — still cheaper than the University of Alabama, Auburn University and the University of Alabama at Birmingham, among others.
School leaders said the increase was necessary because of state budget cuts and because students are offered more amenities. For example, the school is renovating its food services facilities by opening a chicken wing restaurant, a Baha Fresh Mexican grill and a coffee shop in the library. In the fall, JSU will offer a busing system to transport students to and from campus.
Additionally, school leaders are seeking money from the federal stimulus package to build a pedestrian walkway over Alabama 21.
JSU is not exclusive in tuition increases.
Students at the University of Alabama system — UA, UAB and the Huntsville campus — will pay 9.4 percent more next year. Auburn students will pay about 7 percent more.
But Matt McElroy, a 19-year-old computer integrated manufacturing student from Centre, wishes he had back his decision to enroll at JSU.
"Now I'm regretting even coming because it's basically the same price for Alabama or Auburn," he said, adding the tuition increase "pushes people from wanting to come here."
Tuition costs for a year at UA and AU is about $7,000, while JSU is roughly $700 less, about 10 percent cheaper.
Other students who stroll through campus remain bitter about the construction work at Paul Snow stadium.
"Any money that comes into the university seems to go to football," said Racheal Boyd, a 24-year-old nursing student from Rome, Ga., later adding: "It just makes you wonder the purpose of it."
Financial information in the university's 2008 fact book does not show what percentage of money goes towards athletics, and university staff could not provide a number when asked on Friday. The budget for FY 2009 was about $112 million.
"We spend our money on our students," said spokeswoman Patty Hobbs, "and athletes are our students."
According to an NCAA financial database on schools nationwide compiled by The Indianapolis Star, JSU spent 7.2 percent of its $97.5 million budget in 2004-05 on sports — or about $7 million. Of that, $1.7 million went to football.
Boyd said she'd like to see more money go towards activities, such as rugby, which she plays.
Ford Wiles, a '96 JSU graduate of fine arts, thinks the school is progressing for the better.
"When you go up there now, the new (stadium) that's being built, that's gonna be big time," he said. "That's gonna change the university in my opinion (in) a lot of ways. It kind of puts it on another level."
Wiles works for a firm that designed the school's new advertising campaign, which brought ads to television, magazines and a new logo on JSU's Web site and campus.
For so long, he said, the university did not try to market itself. "(It was) left to the public to make their assumptions about it."
There was limited exposure to the university outside of its core region — Anniston and the surrounding counties. But now the school has spent tens of thousands on pumping ads into Birmingham, Huntsville, and in the future, Atlanta.
It launched a new marketing and communication department and hired Tim Garner, a marketing guru who'd worked with Kellogg's and Coca-Cola.
Garner, executive director of the new department, said integrated marketing is getting JSU's name out with a list of its best products, such as the nursing, education, business and emergency management programs.
But he thinks the school should do more to tout itself.
"Our kids are all taught by professors — no (graduate assistants)," he said, adding later: "We should promote even more our small class size and the fact that there are not (graduate assistants) here."
The school has a student-teacher ratio of about 20 to 1.
Garner said he pushed for total branding transformation — commercials, ads and a new Web site, as the former software had been around since the Clinton administration.
All these efforts were created to get the students thinking about their future at JSU — not about a new stadium, and not to toss a cloak over bad press.
Turner, the vice president of student and academic affairs, is tired of reading headlines about Meehan and plagiarism allegations. She said Meehan, a man of integrity, has been cleared and there "will be no other outcome."
Meehan first gained headlines in 2007 after admittedly using a ghost writer for his weekly "Town and Gown" column in The Jacksonville News. The ghost writer, Al Harris, plagiarized some portions from a health Web site under Meehan's byline and blamed it on health problems.
Then, the dissertation he submitted 10 years ago to UA was questioned as part of a former professor's lawsuit about an unrelated matter. Meehan's dissertation was based on and closely resembled work done earlier by another Ph.D. candidate. JSU and UA both investigated, and cleared Meehan.
That didn't stop the criticism. A May editor's note on the Tuscaloosa News's Web site, for instance, said: "Maybe it isn't considered plagiarism at UA, but it would be in our newsroom."
Turner wants to move forward.
"I hope people see it for what it is," she said. "It certainly doesn't negatively affect the way we do our job here."
Another challenge, the NCAA sanctions, even brought the school and its officials closer.
She said academic affairs will help manage the situation and offer support to turn the tide.
Perhaps the students can one day cheer on a team in a brand new stadium, another national title on the line.
"We're moving and changing and growing and improving," she said, "and that's wonderful."
Alicia Simmons, JSU director of institutional research and assessment, said the school has hurdles to leap, but it remains focused on meeting the needs of the students.
JSU continues to push towards making the school accessible to more students, launching numerous new online programs, including a business undergraduate and master's program in the fall.
The school continues to expand its foreign exchange program. Next year, JSU is offering its first computer science program with Taizhou University in China.
JSU leaders also tout their faculty, which seniors applauded in a national survey. According to the National Survey of Student Engagement, seniors polled in 2008 ranked JSU's instructors on average ahead of all other universities in the survey, better than Auburn, Alabama A&M, Ball State and Boise State.
The softball team this year finished in the top 25 in the nation.
And Princeton Review ranked the business school No. 2 in providing the "Greatest Opportunities for Women."
"We know what our purpose is and our purpose is our students," Simmons said. "And we continue to work for the benefit of our students every day. That's what we're here for."