Atlanta is a sports town: Just look at our passion for college football

Our city’s past and people explain our unified love for college athletics over pro sports
Photograph by Mike Colletta

While our reputation as supporters of
professional teams is in dispute, there’s no denying Atlanta is the capital of college football. Why? The question is easy to answer.

History (the simple kind).
The Deep South didn’t have a long-term presence in a major pro league until the 1960s, when the Braves moved to town and the NFL granted us the Falcons. The closest options were in St. Louis or Washington, D.C. Southerners adapted by treating college programs like pro teams. (It’s no surprise that the first paid college coach was Georgia Tech’s John Heisman.) While New Yorkers had Yankee Stadium, Tech’s Grant Field was the place to be seen in Atlanta in the 1940s and 1950s.

History (the complex kind).
The South had a rough . . . few centuries or so. Other than producing superior food and music and manners, our people didn’t ring up very many wins against other regions—until Alabama won the 1926 Rose Bowl as the first Southern team to be invited to college football’s only bowl game.

We’re good at it.
It’s one part passion and one part (bacon-enhanced) produce. You try raising 310-pound defensive tackles on a California diet. It just doesn’t work. That’s why SEC teams overpower teams from elsewhere. Georgia is one of football’s most talent-rich states, second only to Florida in sending high school players to Division I college programs. Atlanta is the recruiting El Dorado; Big Ten teams set up shop here just to spend time with our prep stars.

Atlanta’s the heart of everything Southern.
Listen to the head coaches of every team in college football’s best conference before the season starts: They all say they “want to get to Atlanta” (for the SEC Championship). As the Southeast’s hub, Atlanta stands as the biggest post-grad destination for alumni from most ACC and SEC schools, and there’s a horde of Big Ten alums here, too. Our melting pot gets mocked by other Southern cities for quartering fans of the Cowboys, Celtics, and Red Sox, but that welcoming quality actually boosts our college fandom profile. In late August, look down your street: Odds are good you’ll see flags, stickers, and shirts celebrating Auburn, Tennessee, Florida, Ohio State, Clemson, and especially the Dawgs. You can’t get that spirit anywhere else.

Illustration by Jason Schneider
Illustration by Jason Schneider

This article originally appeared in our August 2014 issue under the headline “This Is a Sports Town.”