The F Word

Georgia State University finally has a football team. So who’s gonna win?
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.”

During much of President Patton’s watch, football at Georgia State was known around campus as “the F word.” As recently as six years ago, Patton repeatedly said to Lewis and others, when asked about the possibility of starting a football program, “Over my dead body.” (Patton, who is still very much alive, declined to comment for this story.) Certainly, it took awhile for Patton, a reserved urban planner focused on creating an identifiable college campus in Downtown Atlanta and improving the school’s nascent academic reputation, to get comfortable using the F word. How this happened has already taken on the qualities of myth.

One genesis story begins in the fall of 2001, when a small group of students known as “Lefty’s Loonies”—they loudly supported the school’s successful basketball team, at the time coached by Lefty Driesell—met at the Varsity on North Avenue. “Over a couple chili dogs and frosted oranges,” says Mark Lawson, who oversaw the meeting, “is when football started at Georgia State.” Lawson, a young alum, had recently been hired to help with the university’s real estate needs. A Panthers basketball fan, Lawson became the staff sponsor of the Loonies and sounding board for their schemes, one of which was starting club football. (The school’s recreation department oversees club football, while the athletics department guides and funds the NCAA team.)

The Chili Dog Congress was inspiring. Students researched where and whom to play, securing used equipment and leftover coaches. It all added up to football, and they successfully petitioned for an official club team in the spring of 2002.

Playing other clubs in the Southeast, on a mostly contributed budget of $50,000 per year, the sixty-man team—composed of junior college transfers, guys who’d been recruited elsewhere, and a hodgepodge of transients and tryouts—gave up one touchdown that first season. This success bolstered internal advocacy by players such as Saam Ghiaasiaan, who lobbied for football as vice president of student services. “I suspect the current university and athletic administration would give little credence to this,” says Lawson, “but those of us around from the beginning know we struck a chord. When the club received its charter letter, most believed that NCAA football would happen.” Former defensive and tight end Mike Jamal agrees: “We showed, with no money, that it was feasible to field a successful team.” Without recruiting, football had found players and token support. Whether it could attract fans and solicit serious financial support remained an open question.

The next genesis story begins in February 2007, when Tom Lewis saw former Falcons coach Dan Reeves at Thomas Barber Shop, an Old Atlanta cut-and-chat on West Paces Ferry. Lewis asked Reeves, whom he knew only casually, to have coffee. The idea of starting a football program at Georgia State intrigued Reeves. Encouraged by both Lewis and Jerry Rackliffe, the vice president for finance and administration, Patton hired Reeves on April 15 to consult with students and alumni about football’s viability. According to Lewis, the president told Reeves: “No is an answer.” In other words, Patton would be fine if Reeves thought football wouldn’t work. (Reeves doesn’t recall this exact exchange.) “Once Dan Reeves put his name on paper,” says Jamal, “that was the day football became real at Georgia State. Nobody’s hiring Dan Reeves to not get football.” Reeves admits he was more enabler than analyst: “When I came on board, Patton was already behind the idea. The more I talked to students and alums, I saw that it could work.”

Perhaps, but a feasibility study is the story that got all the press. Noting that Georgia State is “anxious to grow in stature,” the seventy-nine-page report concluded: “The addition of a football program,” though it may be a financial burden, “is very appropriate if the university intends on continuing to evolve from a commuter school to the more traditional college campus.” By this time, alumni and others had pledged $1.2 million to start football, which surprised Patton, who’d made it a condition of moving forward that $1 million be pledged prior to the report’s release. The basic pitch? Football would give students a more complete college experience. “We said it would also have a positive impact on Downtown,” says Lewis, “but that wasn’t a driving force.”

Companies such as Cousins Properties were moved. Bill Reeves (no relation to Dan) of Bill Reeves Realty personally donated more than a half million, according to Tom Lewis. The creation of football, Bill Reeves says, was the second-best day of his life—behind getting married. (His assistant says he “peddles tickets while he’s pumping gas.”) Jim Stark, former chairman of the athletics board, says he donated less than Reeves, but “much more than a few thousand dollars. It’s a great opportunity to spread the school’s name and bring alumni and students together.”

At speaking engagements in front of Atlanta’s brass, Dan Reeves had a recruiting message: Georgia produces many of the best football players in the country, and those who aren’t snapped up by UGA or Tech are forced to play at Georgia Southern and Valdosta State to remain in-state. “These guys aren’t going to play pro football. If they could stay here and play, then get a job, they would,” he told audiences. “How many jobs they got in Statesboro?” Supporters pledged by the dozen.

“The train,” says Lewis, “was pulling out of the station.”

At town hall meetings on campus throughout November 2007, the community voiced support. Students passed an athletics fee increase of $85 per semester with little dissent, creating some $5.3 million for the program’s first year. Almost two-thirds of that goes to football and the establishment of a marching band. (Indeed, all but 7 percent of Georgia State’s entire athletics budget comes from student fees.) And so, ninety-five years after its founding, Georgia State officially launched its football program on April 17, 2008. When Patton retired later that year, the press release announcing the news didn’t mention the F word once.

The weekend before his first day on the job back in 2008, Bill Curry dropped by his new office. Already he couldn’t escape notice. Then sixty-five, Curry had done a lot of things—Georgia Tech team captain; center on Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers; coach at the University of Alabama, Kentucky, and Georgia Tech; ESPN analyst—but he’d never built a program from the ground up. Now he was walking into a new office where the furniture wasn’t even assembled. He ran into two maintenance workers, who said they were on the case and were thrilled about the football program. This was another genesis moment, and Curry—a tall, tough-looking man who’s been described as having a model’s looks—gets emotional recalling it.

“I don’t want to let those guys down,” the coach says in his office, which he keeps near sixty degrees, having read somewhere that this improves mental functioning. “Just as important as the students are the people around here. They’re so jacked up about something exciting in Downtown Atlanta. And in this part of the world, it almost has to be football.”

Curry, whose annual salary is $350,000, isn’t the only big new athletics hire. Athletics director Cheryl L. Levick’s first day in the office was March 30, 2009. Levick, the former second in command at the athletics departments of Stanford and the University of Maryland, quickly got to work. “Coach Curry sells the dream,” Levick says. “I sell the plan.” Curry and Levick have been touring the city and the country fundraising and drumming up support. (This year, donations will account for 4 percent of her department budget. That will rise to an estimated 6 percent in 2015.) In early May they went to Washington, D.C., and handed out miniature Panthers helmets to Georgia senators and congressmen, all of whom, she says, expressed interest in attending a game. Meanwhile, A.J. Robinson and Central Atlanta Progress have been highlighting the program at annual meetings, inviting President Becker and Coach Curry to speak to city leadership, and including the program in CAP’s marketing literature.

Levick’s plan has involved big questions, like where will we practice? (Answer: A 3.8-acre former industrial site, covered with synthetic turf and natural grass, beneath Corey Tower on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.) And small questions, like is it legal to feed the walk-ons breakfast? (Answer: Bagels and fruit are okay. Doughnuts and muffins, due to the inscrutable decision-making of some obscure NCAA functionary, are not.) New marching band director Chester Phillips has written an as-yet-unreleased fight song (which, he allows, will begin with the words “Fight Panthers”) and is assembling a 150-piece band to play it. Presiding over a new football program is the most exciting thing Levick thinks an athletics director can do. “When I walked in the door,” she says, “we had one player, a head coach, a couple assistants, no equipment, one helmet, no practice facility, no marching band, and no locker room.”

That one player was Mark Hogan. Back in January 2009, Hogan was the only one working out. “I was washing my own clothes and wearing my own equipment,” he says. Hogan, who was an All-State high school linebacker in Massachusetts, is now joined by an insomniac running back, a pair of linebacker brothers of Samoan descent, and the other sixty-seven of Bill Curry’s inaugural recruits. The team has a $4.5 million budget for its first year, and a 71,250-capacity domed stadium that will cost Georgia State roughly $100,000 per contest—much cheaper than the $20 million it would have spent on a new stadium. If they can get 10,000 people to come to each game, Levick figures they’ll make their projected budget. If they can get 28,000, they’ll fill the lower bowl of their new home stadium.

Georgia State is banking hard on a few big numbers. One is 5.2 million: the number of people in metro Atlanta. Another is 100,000: the approximate number of Georgia State alums among those 5.2 million. Curry often points out, perhaps apocryphally, that there are more CEOs and CFOs at Atlanta companies who went to Georgia State than there are from Tech and UGA combined.

But even if only 500 fans come out for each game, and million-dollar donors aren’t rushing forth, Levick insists that the team is here to stay. She can’t think of a single plausible scenario in which Georgia State won’t have a football program in five years or ten. “The questions at the end of the season,” she says, “will be, do we have our tickets priced correctly? Are corporate sponsorships optimized? Those kinds of things will be tweaked. Football isn’t going anywhere.”

President Becker also won’t say whether football will have to solicit a specific dollar amount or attendance rate to remain viable. He repeats that football is just one of many teams, all of them secondary to academics: “The criteria for success for football are the same as for all of our athletics teams,” he says. “We expect our student-athletes to graduate and to give back to the community, we expect our coaches to run their respective programs in full compliance with all applicable rules and regulations, and we expect our teams to be competitive for conference championships. All programs are reviewed annually.”

The Panthers’ most visible game of the year—which is the point of playing it—will be November 18 in Tuscaloosa, against Alabama. The Crimson Tide, of course, are the defending national champs, led last year by Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, and the same team that Curry coached in the late eighties. He led the Tide to an SEC cochampionship in 1989, his most successful season as a football coach. The decision to play this game against his old team is arguably the most significant that Georgia State football has made to date.

For a guaranteed payout of $400,000 from Alabama, Georgia State has signed on for what could be the most lopsided contest in college football history, and potentially an injurious one for the tragicomically outsized Panthers. Alabama has thirteen players weighing in at 300 pounds or more; Georgia State has four. And many of Alabama’s big men are as nimble as Georgia State’s most petite. The decision to play, however, was too tempting for a press-hungry program—and school—to resist. In fact, they asked for it.

After Curry’s arrival, the athletics department sent out twenty-five letters to major college programs, seeking a matchup that would garner press and experience down the road. Only Florida, Georgia, and Alabama responded, and only Alabama suggested playing in 2010. No one at Georgia State expected such an offer. An old friend of Curry’s delivered it. “He said, ‘Chicken? You scared?’” recalls Curry. “And I said”—he gulps—“‘No, I’m not scared.’” Players aren’t revealing cold feet either, as the clock ticks toward kickoff. “I know I won’t fall asleep during that one,” says Sam Burkhalter, the running back with insomnia.

“I don’t care how the game comes out,” says Tom Lewis. “The fact that our guys are gonna suit it up and go out on the field with the national champs and Bill Curry is gonna be there leading them—that’s priceless, and it opens up so many doors for Georgia State.”

But what will Bill Curry tell his boys after the Alabama game ends and they have to slouch back to Atlanta? This is one of the coach’s specialties. When Curry reported to the Green Bay Packers as an undersized lineman, he had to block Ray Nitschke, a middle linebacker now in the Hall of Fame. “And when I tried to do that,” he says, “he broke my face mask and my nose, and he knocked me out. And I had to decide if I wanted to get up off the ground and hit him again. That was a very important decision. That’s what I’ll tell our guys if it doesn’t go well. I’ll tell them that we’re gonna get up and we’re gonna hit them again, and again, and again, whoever they are, wherever they play. We’re gonna be able to play against anybody—and play them on their own terms—before we finish with this process. And one day that moment will come.”

Curry thought the biggest challenge facing a Georgia State football team would simply be its location: Downtown. Growing up here, Curry remembers the Downtown of old, when it was a big deal to go to Rich’s with his dad and then to a movie and ride a trolley back to College Park. “We’d wander around down near the GSU campus, which was two little bitty buildings and a parking lot. Look at it now. This is becoming a destination. Football’s going to make it an even bigger one.” Since 2007, Downtown Atlanta has seen $1.8 billion of new developments and improvements, spanning fifty-two projects. Fourteen projects are currently under construction, totaling $458.9 million. Still, Downtown sees a fraction of Atlanta’s total spending.

Curry’s faith and Central Atlanta Progress’s statistics notwithstanding, a straw poll of Downtown street vendors, pedestrians, and business owners, conducted in May, revealed as many skeptics as Downtown and Panther faithful. Ed Walls, general manager of the Westin Peachtree Plaza, looks forward to—hopefully—increased occupancy. So does Divya Parvatiyar, general manager of the Centennial Inn, formerly a Super 8 hotel, on Cone Street. “I’ve heard good things about the coach,” she says. “And I hope it kicks off well. But I don’t know. The direness down here can be overwhelming.”

Downtown, to be sure, doesn’t need a losing team in an empty stadium. Panther believers are buying in slowly: As of late May, some 2,000 season ticket packages, most ranging from $72 to $150, had been sold. There’s also an exclusive section of 300 seats at midfield priced at $2,500 per pair for the season, a portion of which is a tax-deductible donation. (These “Huddle” seats include access to the Owner’s Club and Priority Parking.) So far 120 have been sold. Notable locals who’ve purchased ticket packages or plan to attend the opening game include Pete Petit, former head of Matria Healthcare; former Mayor Andrew Young; Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle; Senator Johnny Isakson; Congressman John Lewis; and William Pate, president of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“I’ve already made plans to road-trip down to Tuscaloosa with a bunch of my fraternity brothers,” says Pate. “We’ve never tailgated before as a Georgia State group. It’ll be fun no matter what.” As a booster of both the school and the city, Pate will not deviate, for a reporter’s sake, from excitement about Georgia State football’s relationship with Downtown Atlanta. It’s not clear what message he and Robinson will trumpet, however, if box scores tell a less cheery story.

There remain skeptics who question the priorities of a school that starts a football program in the midst of budget cuts, seemingly at the cost of academic enrichment. “The timing seems off to me,” says Darius Soodmand, who graduated from Georgia State in 2009. “It seems a bit forced.” President Becker insists that this view is mistaken. “We’re not taking money away from academics to do this. People don’t understand the intricacies of the budget. Some think there’s an issue here. But not doing this wouldn’t solve the other problems.”

In 1997, the university of South Florida in Tampa launched a football program. The school was about the same size as Georgia State. USF, too, was found lacking in campus and community and was anxious to grow in stature. It was known as Drive-thru U. There are many reasons why enrollment continues to increase at USF, according to Paul Griffin, now at Georgia Tech, who was USF’s athletics director during the launch. But it’s not a coincidence, he says, that the number of beds in residence halls doubled and a $50 million student center followed shortly after football.

The school now competes in the Big East conference, one of the most watched in the country, and has a student body that has grown to more than 44,000. Getting here wasn’t easy, and Griffin warns against overspending and playing big-money guarantee games away from home. “Anybody can start a football program. Be clear about your goals, modest with your spending. And play as much as possible in front of your own fans.”

Griffin thinks that Georgia State football has two main things going for it. One is Bill Curry. The other is student money, or what he calls “fee-based taxpayer programs.” “Georgia State has a pretty good tax rate and a large number of taxpayers,” Griffin says. “They can collect fees for a long time to help underwrite their programs.” Georgia State expects to continue assessing the student fee as long as students matriculate. Students chose to pay for football, but as President Becker points out—wishing to draw the attention back to academics—football’s also helping choose them. “It surprised me a little, the number of highly academically qualified students who find GSU more attractive because we’re adding football.” Georgia State applications were up 21 percent last year, compared to 7 percent statewide. “Not all of that is due to football,” Becker says, “but it helps.”

Still, once games begin, the team must win. “As success grows,” says William Pate, “crowds will grow, excitement will grow, financial impact will grow. Kids are going to go down to the Dome and eat at restaurants and go to bars, so you’ll see incremental business there. But football has to prove itself.”

Time will tell if the expectations for Downtown are quite as high. “I believe the Georgia business community will embrace Georgia State football,” says A.J. Robinson. “There are so many alumni around the state. Football creates pride in graduates. It’ll bring them back to the campus, and when they come, they’ll be impressed with the changes to Downtown.” Robinson, when pressed, lists those changes: “New hotels, 300 restaurants, the Georgia Aquarium, the new World of Coca-Cola, streetscape improvements, new way-finding signs, students living Downtown, a rebirth of Woodruff Park, the redo of the old Macy’s buildings, etc., etc. Georgia State football gives locals and tourists one more thing to care about Downtown.”

On a chilly, early April morning, at the new practice field on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, a giant play clock ticked, a strength coach yelled himself hoarse, and MARTA trains careened by at regular intervals. Coach Curry, loudspeaker in hand, face hidden under a fisherman’s hat, corrected an excited player who had rushed offside: “That could have been a touchdown. Let’s do it again.”

The payoff for all this, Tom Lewis reminds us, is around the corner. “In no time this program will be worth millions in terms of recognition and exposure for us.” Pate points to Gonzaga, the little Jesuit university in Spokane, Washington, that rose to national prominence behind a successful basketball program, now one of the country’s best. “Twelve years ago,” he says, “no one knew where Gonzaga was. Basketball changed that.” Sport, in this thinking, is the ultimate recruitment tool. “A lot of high school seniors,” quips Lewis, “strangely enough, they don’t want to know if your history department ranked second or third.” A winning football team, in other words, is worth a hundred blue-ribbon history departments. Coach Curry understands that winning comes just behind breathing, and though age has mellowed his intensity, he feels the pressure that comes with meeting this bottom line.

“I will only be happy,” says Curry, “if we are a well-drilled, fundamentally sound, superaggressive football team. Meaning, we do all the things it takes to win. There will be times this year when that will suffice, and we’ll be able to win those games. And there will be times when it won’t. But I’m not interested in moral victories for a bunch of freshmen. There are no excuses in football.”