ATLANTA — It took four years for the College Football Playoff to bring its national championship game to Atlanta. What took so long?
If the Bill Hancocks of the world wanted a major American city — one with an NFL-sized stadium and at least 26,000 hotel rooms, and one with a heart that belongs once and forever to college football, they could have searched from Seattle to Miami without a finding a city more gaga about Saturday football than this one.
“It’s easy to call it a love affair, but it’s a lot more than that,” said Bill Curry, 75, who grew up in the Atlanta suburb of College Park, played at Georgia Tech and served both his alma mater and Georgia State as head coach. “It’s a cultural expectation.”
Georgia and Alabama will play the College Football Playoff National Championship on Monday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on the edge of downtown Atlanta, four miles from Piedmont Park, where Auburn and Georgia played for the first time in 1892, and exactly where they played for the 122nd time just four weeks ago.
The Bulldogs and the Tide will play two miles from Grant Field, the oldest on-campus stadium in the FBS, where in the 1950s all of Atlanta gathered in the west stands on autumn Saturdays to watch how Bobby Dodd’s undersized Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets would outsmart and outluck some hapless SEC visitor.
And they will play two miles from Georgia State Stadium, nee Ted Turner Field, nee Centennial Olympic Stadium, the new home of the Georgia State Panthers, who this season won seven games and a bowl for the first time in the school’s short history.
Georgia and Alabama will play within one mile of the College Football Hall of Fame, the 3-year-old museum with the helmet facade that stands as a love letter to the sport. The teams will also be playing within a one-mile radius of Morris Brown, Morehouse and Clark Atlanta, historically black colleges and universities with rich football traditions of their own.
Atlanta is a metropolitan area of 7 million people, all of them with a college football flag in their front yard. Atlanta is big enough to support six professional sports teams, yet it’s still a city that cares more about college football than any of them. Put it this way: When the Falcons designed Mercedes-Benz Stadium, they included two additional oversized (100-locker) locker rooms for the college teams that will play in it.
No, the Falcons didn’t think of everything. They forgot staircases from the seats to the field for the bands to get to the field for halftime. NFL teams don’t have bands. You can bet, after the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Games exposed the oversight, the stairs are there now.
The point is, everyone thinks of college football here.
“College football’s crossroads is essentially in this market,” said Wes Durham, the voice of Georgia Tech sports for 18 years before he began calling ACC games on Fox Sports Net. “You’ve got everybody here.”
Everybody? Not only does Atlanta sit at the geographic heart of the SEC and the ACC, two of the conferences that make up the Power 5, but five years ago, when the Big Ten expanded to 14 teams, the league didn’t take Rutgers until it had been turned down by Georgia Tech. Atlanta has brought in so many transplants that nearly half of the Power 5 schools have alumni watch parties on autumn Saturdays.
The Ohio State Alumni Club of Atlanta regularly draws 150 people to the Hudson Grille in Sandy Springs, an Atlanta suburb. Four times that many Buckeyes have gathered to watch the Ohio State-Michigan game, according to club president Shawn Murnahan, an attorney for the SEC (no, not that one; the Securities and Exchange Commission).
“The manager here said to me, ‘Y’all are the reason I got a bonus last year,'” Murnahan said.
It has always been like this. The city’s rich and famous may not all gather in the west side stands of Grant Field these days. But The Atlantan, a glossy, oversized magazine for those who want to see and be seen (the average income of its 50,000 rate base is nearly $400,000), keeps an eye on college football the same way it monitors charity galas.
“We treat it as a cultural event,” said Lauren Finney, the magazine’s editor-in-chief. “Saturday is kind of a sacred time. I treat it as I would a museum or gallery opening, a show coming to the Fox Theater. It’s something to have on our social calendar.”
Crossroads? Go to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the world’s busiest airport, on a fall weekend and you’ll see a crossroads. Stand at the middle of Concourse A for one hour on a Friday morning in October and you will count fans sporting the gear of 28 different schools.
And while it may a bit hyperbolic to say that every Atlantan flies a school flag in his or her front yard, it is true that many of those transplants, once they understand how important college football is here, feel the imperative to mark their territory.
“You can drive through my neighborhood and you’ll see Michigan flags, Michigan State flags, Alabama, Clemson,” Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson said.
“In my neighborhood,” Durham said, “there’s a Kentucky flag, a Georgia flag, a Tennessee flag, a Georgia Tech flag. There used to be a Furman flag. On one of the cul-de-sacs there is a USC flag.”
It’s not just in the neighborhoods, either. Find another hotel in a major American city like the Atlanta Marriott Buckhead, which this season has flown the flags of the AP top 10 schools, in order, over its front door. A lot of coaches stay at that hotel when they come to Atlanta to recruit. And they all come to Atlanta to recruit.
If Atlanta is nothing else, it’s a recruiting crossroads. Of the 65 Power 5 schools, 54 of them listed a player from metro Atlanta on their 2017 rosters. “I tell people all the time, if you want to get offers, and you’re a good player, just move to metro Atlanta,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said, “because every team in the country comes in, and you’re going to get seen by somebody.”
Johnson began his head-coaching career at FCS Georgia Southern 20 years ago.
“It’s not like it once was,” the Georgia Tech head coach said. “If Georgia and Georgia Tech and Auburn weren’t recruiting them, you had a really good chance to get them at Georgia Southern. … Now that’s not the case.”
The population explosion in Atlanta has been reflected in the quality of player that the area has produced. From 1942, when the NCAA first compiled a consensus All-America team, to 1997, metro Atlanta produced 14 All-Americans. In the past 20 seasons, the area has produced 24, including, for the first time, three in one season this year: defensive end Bradley Chubb of North Carolina State, wide receiver Michael Gallup of Colorado State and offensive tackle Orlando Brown of Oklahoma.
None of them went to Georgia. None of them even stayed in the SEC.
The crossroads is reflected in TV ratings for college football. Atlanta is the only one of the nation’s 10 biggest cities that also ranks among the nation’s 10 biggest college football markets, as determined by Nielsen ratings.
Atlanta is certainly the financial crossroads of college football. For one thing, the sport is good for Atlanta. The fourth-biggest convention city in the nation will host five “conventions” of more than 76,000 attendees at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in 18 weeks. Stokan estimated a total economic impact of $250 million, including some $50 million in direct tax revenue to the city.
For another, College GameDay is presented by The Home Depot, headquartered in Atlanta. And Chick-fil-A, headquartered in College Park, has used college football as the marketing vehicle to transform itself from a regional chain to a national one.
Chick-fil-A attached its name to the two Kickoff Games on opening weekend and to the Peach Bowl, which celebrated its 50th year this season. In the old pre-Georgia Dome days, Stokan joked, the title sponsor of the Peach Bowl was Weather Plagued. Every December, it seemed, the cameras would show sleet and rain turning the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium field into a mud pit, and the first reference to the game would be the “weather-plagued Peach Bowl.”
When the Peach Bowl decided in 2009 to kick in $5 million as the seed money to lure the Hall of Fame to Atlanta, the first solicitation for a matching contribution went to Chick-fil-A.
Without hesitating, the late S. Truett Cathy, the 88-year-old founder of Chick-fil-A, said yes.
“And [his son] Bubba says, ‘Dad, don’t you want to talk about this?'” Stokan said. “Truett wasn’t even going to meet on this one. He said, ‘It’s in our city, it’s good for our people in Atlanta. It’s college football. We’re in.'”
The ultimate sign that Atlanta is a college football town: Chick-fil-A takes pride in its policy of closing its more than 2,000 stores on Sundays. That means that its booths in Mercedes-Benz Stadium aren’t open for Falcons games. You can bet they’ll be open Monday night.
Whether or not they sold Coke at that first Auburn-Georgia game has been lost to the ages, but it is a fact that the soft drink Atlanta gave to the world has been a ubiquitous presence in college football since the invention of the concession stand. The Coca-Cola Company was founded on Jan. 29, 1892, three weeks before the Tigers and the Dawgs played for the first time.
Five years later, college football in Atlanta nearly ground to a halt. On Oct. 3, 1897, in a game against Virginia, Georgia linebacker Richard Von Gammon suffered a blow to the head and died the next morning. The death horrified not only the university but the entire state. The General Assembly voted to outlaw football at all schools that receive state funds and sent the bill to Gov. W. Y. Atkinson.
Von Gammon’s mother wrote a letter to her state representative, imploring the state not to ban the sport. She had lost enough. “Grant me the right,” she wrote, “to request that my boy’s death should not be used to defeat the most cherished objects of his life.”
Gov. Atkinson vetoed the bill.
The history of college football thereafter in Atlanta is tied to Georgia Tech, which sits a few blocks north of downtown. Georgia Tech played its first game in 1892 as well and didn’t hire a coach until 1904. But what a coach — Tech outbid two other schools to lure John Heisman away from Clemson. He immediately made the Yellow Jackets a force. Tech went 33 games without a loss from late in 1914 to 1918. That included the infamous 222-0 rout of Cumberland, and the 1917 national title.
After the 1919 season, Heisman broke Tech hearts when he left for Penn. He had lost Atlanta in a divorce. Heisman agreed that if his ex-wife, Evelyn, chose to stay in Atlanta, he would leave.
Over the next 47 seasons, a period in which Atlanta matured from a mere state capital to a regional hub and laid the foundation on which it built an international city, Georgia Tech employed only two head football coaches, Bill Alexander and Bobby Dodd.
Alexander’s best team, in 1928, went 10-0 and beat California in the Rose Bowl 8-7. But that game is remembered for the Golden Bears’ Roy “Wrong Way” Riegels, who recovered a fumble and ran 69 yards toward his own end zone before teammate Benny Lom caught him and turned him around.
Robert E. Lee Dodd, Alexander’s top assistant, took over in 1945 and immediately put the Yellow Jackets among the SEC elite. In 1952, Georgia Tech went 12-0. The Yellow Jackets didn’t allow a single touchdown pass and finished No. 2 behind Michigan State.
“It isn’t just the best I ever coached,” Dodd said. “It’s the best I ever saw.”
The city’s black colleges and universities played football right down the road from Grant Field. Morehouse dominated black college football in the early 1920s, thanks to a tackle named A. Louis Irving, known for his steady leadership and durability.
If you ask Heisman voters, the best back in the nation in 1940 had to be Tom Harmon of Michigan. But Harmon may not even have been the best Wolverine. John “Big Train” Moody led the Morris Brown Wolverines to the black national championship in 1940 and again in 1941.
Moody, at 5-foot-7, 216 pounds, outweighed most linemen. He combined speed and power in a manner unseen in his generation. Big Train also could punt (with either foot) and place kick. According to the late tennis great Arthur Ashe in his history of African-American athletes, “A Hard Road to Glory,” Moody averaged 11 yards per carry and scored 39 touchdowns.
He also got the opportunity to prove himself against white players. Moody started for the Fifth Army team against the Twelfth Air Force in the Spaghetti Bowl, a football game played in Florence, Italy, on Jan. 1, 1945. Moody scored the Fifth Army’s first two touchdowns in a 20-0 victory.
But Atlanta was a Tech town under Dodd and remained so until the mid-1960s, when Georgia hired 31-year-old Auburn assistant Vince Dooley. As he entered the SEC in 1964, Dodd took Georgia Tech out of the conference. He didn’t like the league’s liberal scholarship limits.
It proved to be a spectacular miscalculation by Dodd. In the next two years, the Braves moved to Atlanta from Milwaukee and the NFL awarded an expansion franchise to the city. The Falcons, trying to curry favor with the locals, wore a helmet with Georgia and Georgia Tech colors: red, black, gold and white stripes.
Make of it what you will that the Falcons stuck with the red and black, but original owner Rankin Smith Jr. did go to Georgia.
Dodd retired after the 1966 season. His last year was the Falcons’ first.
Tech became irrelevant for nearly two decades. It let the other schools enter the facilities arms race. The ACC threw Tech a lifeline, beginning in 1983, but even then, Dodd, by then long retired, understood how the landscape had changed. He had watched Curry, his former player, take Georgia Tech from 1-10 to 9-2-1. But when Curry left Georgia Tech after the 1986 season to take over at Alabama, Dodd said of his protégé, “It’s a chance to be a big-time major football coach, which he could never be at Georgia Tech.”
Four years later, Bobby Ross led Georgia Tech to a share of the 1990 national championship. George O’Leary drove the Yellow Jackets into national contention at the end of the decade, and Johnson has kept Georgia Tech a consistent winner in his 10 seasons. But Dooley took Atlanta away from Georgia Tech, and Georgia’s vastly greater number of alumni have kept it.
Georgia Tech has its fans, and Georgia State, the commuter school in downtown Atlanta that has already surpassed Tech in enrollment, is trying to attract more fans. The Panthers began play under Curry only seven years ago. The program sees itself as Steve Jobs in the garage, the school that will challenge the legacy programs down the street (Tech) and up the highway (Georgia).
Senior defensive back Chandon Sullivan, this year a Sullivan Award finalist, helped lead the Panthers to a 7-6 record, their most wins ever.
“You see a lot of Georgia Tech fans, just five minutes down the street,” Sullivan said. “You see a lot of Georgia fans. It gives you the hunger and the drive to keep pushing, in the hopes of being like a UGA one day.”
Atlanta is a Georgia town. Since 1994, Atlanta has been an SEC town. That year, after two SEC championship games in Birmingham that could have had the title sponsor “Weather Plagued,” commissioner Roy Kramer moved the game to the Georgia Dome.
SEC coaches don’t talk about winning the league title.
“We talk about playing in Atlanta, getting to Atlanta,” said Alabama head coach Nick Saban, who has taken seven of his 11 Crimson Tide teams there.
“You know what you have to do to get to Atlanta,” former Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin said in July.
“I was also brought in here to get to Atlanta,” said former Florida head coach Jim McElwain, who got the Gators to Atlanta in the only two seasons he completed in Gainesville.
They talk about getting to Atlanta in the SWAC and the MEAC, too. For the past three years, the HBCU conferences have chosen not to send their champions to the FCS playoffs so that they can play each other in the Celebration Bowl, which was played at the Georgia Dome the first two years and at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in 2017.
“We always start with Atlanta, where we want to go, what it’s going to take to get there,” said Grambling head coach Broderick Fobbs, whose school is an eight-hour drive away. Fobbs said he tells his team, “West on I-20 is not anything. You got to go east in order to be a champion.”
MEAC commissioner Dennis Thomas lobbied his members for more than a decade before they agreed to forego the FCS playoffs. It may have helped his case that the MEAC last won a playoff game in 1999.
“It’s a vision come true,” Thomas said. “Atlanta, to me, is the perfect place. If you look at Atlanta, hell, this is the damn football capital.”
Each year, the Peach Bowl invites the newest inductees into the College Football Hall of Fame to Atlanta and gives them an on-field salute during the game. The bowl also co-sponsors the Dodd Trophy, an annual coaching award that honors “scholarship, leadership and integrity.” On Saturday night, the Hall of Famers had dinner in the Venetian Room of the Capital City Club. The Dodd winners, among them Dooley, Curry, Frank Beamer and David Cutcliffe of Duke, ate in the club’s Bobby Dodd Room, complete with a portrait of Dodd over the fireplace.
Between the two rooms is a bar, where the great players in one room and the great coaches in the other gather for a cocktail reception before dinner and, inevitably, start telling stories — say, a Brian Bosworth talking to a Bobby Bowden. At that moment, the bar becomes the crossroads of the game’s greats.
Call it the capital. Call it the crossroads. On Monday night, perhaps early Tuesday morning, the 2017 season will come to a close in a state-of-the-art stadium. And Atlanta will be a little sadder. College football season will be over.