Once upon a time, in the middle of the capital city of the South, there was a university without a football team. This is a fact, true as the field is a hundred yards long, almost too strange to believe. Football, of course, is more than a sport around here. It’s a fever. It’s religion. It’s the prophets Bobby Dodd and Vince Dooley and the archangels Herschel Walker and Calvin Johnson. It’s Rick Bragg’s metaphorical “knife fight in a ditch,” and the reason that very real beer bottles are thrown across the Library bar in Athens at 1:45 on certain fall mornings. It’s a language for describing life, and a way of living it. “Dawgs football,” says Han Vance, author of the popular University of Georgia fan site Big Hairy Blawg, “is pure poetry on the level of Shakespeare.”
Head coach Bill Curry / Christopher T. Martin
It’s also big money. Last December, Forbes
estimated that the University of Texas’s football team, the most valuable college program in the country by Forbes
’ accounting, was worth $119 million to its university, athletics department, conference, and the city of Austin. The University of Georgia’s football program placed ninth on this noticeably Southern list—down from third in 2007—with an estimated value of $84 million.
But we’re not talking about UGA, or Georgia Tech, or even Valdosta State. We’re talking about Georgia State University. Currently the second-largest university in the state of Georgia, steadily gaining on UGA with roughly 30,000 students, Georgia State has suffered its share of indignities: What’s a Southern university without a grassy quad and a pregame kegger? It’s not just a rhetorical question; it’s an economic one.
Calling itself “the Southeast’s leading urban research institution,” Georgia State is now anxious to rise from the fourth tier of U.S. News & World Report
’s academic excellence rankings, the magazine’s lowest university category, and rid itself of a few sticky epithets: “commuter school,” “concrete campus,” and, subtlest of all, “basketball school.” These labels rile the school’s president, Mark Becker, much as they did his predecessor, Dr. Carl Patton, who retired in 2008.
“Yes, we were once a commuter school oriented toward evening and part-time programs,” says Becker, who came to Georgia State by way of Penn State and the University of Michigan, both of which won football national championships while he was around. “But we now have the full palette for a traditional undergraduate: They can live on campus, and there’s a complete athletics program with football on Saturdays.” It sounds like such a simple thing. Yet when the Panthers, who will eventually play in the Colonial Athletic Association, line up against Shorter University for the first game on September 2, it will have taken Georgia State ninety-seven years to play NCAA football. And its home field? A cozy little place off Northside Drive called the Georgia Dome.
Georgia State will be competing on Downtown’s biggest stage, before many of the city’s most powerful players. And as William Pate, president of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, and A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress, watch the Panthers from sweet seats, they’ll have at least as much at stake as the padded players: Downtown wants respect, too. Tourism brings more than 35 million visitors to Atlanta annually, accounting for $11 billion in visitor spending. But only $429 million was spent Downtown in 2007, and that number includes tourists, workers, and residents. A successful college football team in its midst—with a much bigger alumni fanbase than Georgia Tech’s—would drum up even more business, the thinking goes.
Carl Patton, who understood the importance of the relationship between school and city, began Georgia State’s continuing transformation into “a real university,” as more students and local alumni are starting to refer to it. Projects such as the $142 million Parker H. Petit Science Center, a 350,000-square-foot facility unveiled in March, and the $168 million University Commons, a 4.2-acre complex opened in 2007 that boards 2,000 students, have enhanced Georgia State’s physical identity and sense of community and have helped the university command a higher-caliber student. On-campus Greek housing, which opened this summer, will also attract younger, full-time, “traditional” college kids. But football, Georgia State believes, is still the linchpin.
“Right or wrong, football is king,” says Tom Lewis, senior vice president for external affairs under Patton, and now senior adviser to President Becker. “And it will remain king in the South.”