“War Eagle,” an Auburn fan near me yelled Saturday.
“That was not smart,” an Alabama fan near me responded. The Alabama fan was standing in front of a woman and her child in a stroller. Mother and daughter were wearing Ohio State colors.
The scene was not the College Football Hall of Fame, or a trivia session at a sports bar. It was Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park during the airing on 9/5/09 of ESPN College GameDay. That show was in Atlanta for the second straight year, this time because Alabama and Virginia Tech would be playing that night in the nearby Georgia Dome. And it was the Alabama-Clemson game in Atlanta that lured ESPN last year.
Not the Georgia Bulldogs. Oh and by the way, Georgia Tech was opening its 2009 season Saturday a few miles away on campus.
So I think it’s reasonable to declare Atlanta the No. 1 college football city in America. Sure it helps that it’s in SEC country. That league has produced the past three national champions. But reasons go beyond that.
Years ago, Birmingham proclaimed itself the “Football Capital of the South.” Made sense then. In Bear Bryant’s heyday, the Crimson Tide was regularly a national title contender, and it would play some key home games there, such as Auburn and Tennessee. But now the Tide stays in Tuscaloosa. Except, of course, when they venture to Atlanta.
Interest in the Los Angeles area might surprise you. That city has no pro football team to call its own (incredible, I know). And it’s quite the melting pot, as many from the Northeast and Midwest relocate there because they do not need snowblowers. So games such as Ohio State-Michigan bring those fans out of the woodwork.
Surprisingly, there are a lot of Texas fans in SoCal, though the Lone Star state also has beaches and warm weather. I’m told that’s because the energy industry is big in both Texas and California. (My picture below in this post tells of fan fervor in SoCal. It’s from my only visit to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.)
And everyone knows about the success of LA-based USC under Pete Carroll. The Trojans shared a national title in 2003 and won it all in 2004. They came very close in 2005, losing the title game in the last seconds against Texas. That school’s tradition includes Heisman Trophy winners Matt Leinart, Carson Palmer, Reggie Bush, Marcus Allen, Charles White, Mike Garrett and, yes, O.J. Simpson.
But would a season-opening game in LA not involving USC or UCLA pull in 75,000 fans, as Alabama and Virginia Tech did Saturday? I doubt it.
Even San Diego, a Navy town just down the road, gets riled now and then. In the ’80s when I was a journalist there, the locals got quite excited when the San Diego State Aztecs hosted BYU with a chance to win their first Western Athletic Conference title. The Aztecs delivered.
San Diego State has produced some key football players, such as Brian Sipe and Marshall Faulk. But the school is not part of a major conference and has to recruit against USC and UCLA. It has no on-campus stadium. And in San Diego, there’s always something else to do.
Atlanta sits in the midst of SEC and ACC territory. And its size means many from those conferences’ smaller towns relocate here for job reasons. And facilities such as the Georgia Dome and the ample number of corporate sponsors such as Chick-fil-a make it possible to create a game such as Bama-Virginia Tech or Bama-Clemson. (Updated 12/3/2010: The College Football Hall of Fame will relocate near the World Congress Center in Atlanta.)
(Updated 9/20/2012: A second Chick-fil-A game will be added in 2012.)
Gotta be unnerving to Georgia that the Nick Saban-coached Tide has twice come into its own backyard and won impressively. Alabama, like Georgia, recruits heavily in Atlanta. (Check Saban’s recent comments about recruiting in Georgia with the AJC newspaper. And the reported payout of $2.3 million to both teams is also quite an incentive.) What will be interesting is to see if Tennessee or Florida, Georgia’s top SEC East rivals, will be lured to this game soon. Twist their arms, right?
(Disclosure: I have not been paid by anyone or any organization to write this, or to shoot the above video.)
So I’d say Atlanta has it over other cities as far as college football interest. The colors in the above video paint the picture.