As the fictitious San Franciscan Harry Callahan famously proclaimed: A man has to know his limitations. So should a city. We in Atlanta have our weaknesses. We’re not very good at selling out Braves playoff games, not that there have been any lately. The sight of Cubs/Packers/Steelers/Yankees/Celtics fans in a Southern stadium reminds us that we’re a collection of transients. Oh, and we have too many cars, too many streets named “Peachtree” and we drive too fast.
But there is one thing at which Atlanta is the absolute champ. We do college football better than any big city. Being a good sport, I give you a moment to think of another metropolis in our league …
And you just proved my point. Because you couldn’t. Because there isn’t one. Not New York, not L.A., not Chicago, not Dallas-Fort Worth, not Boston, not Philly. At college football, no other city comes close. And here we go again, doing our A-T-L strut.
The first two collegiate games in the just-opened Mercedes-Benz Stadium: No. 1 Alabama versus No. 3 Florida State on Saturday, then No. 25 Tennessee against forever-undervalued Georgia Tech on Labor Day night. Four Southern teams, all with substantial followings in our footprint. Two SEC, two ACC. Heck, there’s a real chance Bama and FSU could play again here in January — for the national championship. Whoa, Nellie.
Actually, the long holiday weekend commences, football-wise, Thursday. Georgia State opens its new home, prosaically named Georgia State Stadium but formerly known as Turner Field, against Tennessee State. Kennesaw State visits Birmingham to face Samford, which 16 days hence will face Georgia in Athens. The West Georgia Wolves, based in Carrollton, play host to Fort Valley State, based in … um, Fort Valley, Ga.
On Saturday night, the aforementioned Georgia Bulldogs tee it up between the hedges against Appalachian State. That same night, Georgia Southern plays at Auburn. Earlier that day, the reigning national champ will face Kent State in Clemson, S.C. Every game mentioned will be staged within a 150-mile radius of the Georgia State capitol, which doesn’t have a statue of Herschel Walker trampling Bill Bates atop its dome but should. I mean, Keith Jackson, the man who (kind of) made “Whoa, Nellie” a catch phrase? Born in Roopville, 10 miles from Carrollton.
The College Football Hall of Fame used to be in Kings Island, Ohio. Then it moved to South Bend, Ind. Today it sits off Marietta Street. Of course it does.
Athens isn’t technically part of metro Atlanta, but Atlanta is still Bulldogs territory. Actually, it’s a United Nations of football allegiances. On any given autumn Saturday, one lap around our Perimeter will reveal cars festooned with flags and signs and whatnot, all headed to a game but not to the same game. I-20 leads to both Tuscaloosa and Columbia, S.C. I-75 gets you to Knoxville and Gainesville, Fla., and if you take the Sylvester/Wenona exit, to Tallahassee. I-85 skirts Auburn and Clemson. We’re Atlanta, meaning we’ve got alums from everywhere. (Over 33 1/2 years at the AJC, I’m proud to say I’ve angered every constituency.)
And college football in the South is not to be confused with, say, pro sports in the South. Braves attendance can wax and wane. Hawks attendance is mostly a rumor. There were empty seats for the Falcons’ opening exhibition in MBS. There will be no empty seats for the two Chick-fil-A Kickoff games.
After the recession of 2008, I asked Michael Adams, then Georgia’s president, if the economic downtown would have an effect on Sanford Stadium season tickets. He shook his head gravely. “For our fans, we’re second to the mortgage,” he said, meaning in terms of importance. Pro sports are a diversion from life. College football, at least down here, is life itself.
Gary Stokan, CEO of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, once said: “I tell people all the time that the two biggest pro teams in Atlanta are Georgia and Georgia Tech.” Outsiders don’t understand that. If you live here, you do. Atlanta gets a rap, sometimes deserved, as a fickle if not downright bad sports city, and we always show up on those Misery Index deals. But those never account for college sports, and omitting college football from any discussion of Atlanta as a sports town is like excluding Coca-Cola from a debate about the best soft drink.
It’s often said that sports can pull a city together. As evidence, we cite the worst-to-first Braves and the Dirty Bird Falcons. College sports don’t quite do that, simply because every office in this city has somebody who roots for Georgia, someone else who’s a Techie, someone else who’s a Gator and someone else who mumbles “War Eagle” while walking down the hall.
In a weird way, that diversity of loyalties is a unifier. Come Labor Day, we’re all in this together. We mightn’t be rooting for the same team, but by golly we’re rooting. And here we go again.