Georgia Tech The Notre Dame Of The South?

Jake ShoorContributor IJune 8, 2010

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - JANUARY 05:  Head coach Paul Johnson of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets smiles on the field during warm ups against the Iowa Hawkeyes during the FedEx Orange Bowl at Land Shark Stadium on January 5, 2010 in Miami Gardens, Florida. Iowa won 24-14. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

 

The Saturday before Thanksgiving in 1980 I talked college football with a friend whose family had Georgia graduates stretching back for three generations. Naturally, he was expecting the Bulldogs to rout Georgia Tech and play undefeated for the National Title in the Sugar Bowl. I told him that as much as I could appreciate what Vince Dooley’s team had accomplished, I was an ACC fan and so had to root for a Tech upset even if the Yellow Jackets were not yet competing as full league members.

My friend looked at me and said that he also believed in conference loyalty, which was one reason I should not want the Yellow Jackets to ever win anything. I knew that GT had left the SEC back in 1964, with many of its fans claiming that it would be the Notre Dame of the South: too important to need a conference. I told him that GT fans had learned the hard lesson, that now GT would be an ideal conference member, especially, I ribbed my UGa friend, when it was in a league more its academic peer than had been the Ag-school dominated SEC.

My friend laughed out loud, telling me that I did not understand Techies, that they had an arrogance that led them to get reality turned upside down. If they ever succeed, more than halfway, in any sport in the ACC, he said, they will assume that not only is the ACC not in even the smallest way responsible for their athletic resurgence, but they will conclude that the ACC is holding them back: that if not for the ACC operating behind the scenes to hurt GT, GT would be the champ in everything and have the largest fan base.

I found that hard to believe. After all, not only did it sound insane, a description of a paranoid fan base with unfounded delusions of grandeur, but I knew how far GT athletics had fallen since leaving the SEC. I knew about GT happy to sell 30,000 for any football game not against an SEC team that would bring at least 5000 of its own fans. I knew about GT basketball playing before Home crowds of 2000, and being happy with that. When the ACC had voted to add GT, I had read about how close the GT athletics department was to being overwhelmed with debt, how being added to a league that made geographic sense and was itself profitable and respected was the saving grace. Surely, I told my friend, you malign GT and its fans because you are an SEC fan.

Some day, my UGa friend predicted, you will learn. GT is a rogue elephant, he said: it pretends to be nice when it has to, and when it thinks it can get away with it, GT will gore anyone or anything to get what it wants and thinks it should be given. GT not only will not be thankful for what the ACC has done to save it, he declared, but at the first opportunity, GT will stab the ACC in the back. GT will hate and try to use the league to attack the schools that are the most successful, arranging votes to try to hamper them, just like it did in the SEC. Give it maybe two decades, my UGa friend asserted, and you will be thrilled if you could manage to trade GT for any Ag school in the SEC, even Mississippi State.

Over the years, I have learned how correct my UGa friend was. By the time Bobby Cremins had built a nationally competitive basketball program, GT fans were growing in their assertions that if not for the ACC and the ‘Tobacco Road Mafia’ that controlled it, GT would have the largest fan base and most television exposure of any league member. By 1990, GT fans were belching about how the ACC, that pawn of the Tobacco Road Mafia, had prevented the natural rise of GT football, which was far too good to be stuck in such a lousy little league. If GT had smaller football attendance, for bowls as well as for Home games, than did Tobacco Road ‘basketball schools’ like North Carolina and NC State, that surely was because (1) ACC football was boring and (2) secret machinations of the Tobacco Road Mafia. It was, many GT fans reasoned with their evolved higher engineering skills, a given that if not for the ACC, GT football would be averaging at least 70,000 fans per game and recruiting as well as any SEC school. The Tobacco Road Mafia uses the ACC, they bleated ceaselessly, to prevent all other schools from succeeding, and GT clearly suffers the most. If not for the ACC, they consoled themselves, we would have the most successful and wealthiest athletics department in the South and finally be able to prove to the SEC how wrong it was for not bowing down to us, thereby forcing us to leave.

When GT fans proclaimed in the mid-1960s that GT was to be the Notre Dame of the South, they meant that GT would have so large a fan base, buying tickets and following via media, and would win so much that it would not need a conference. What GT fans failed to understand, beside the obvious facts that GT had virtually no TV-radio fans outside the South and that its attendance had already been supplanted by several schools in the South, was that Notre Dame had been forced by the Big Ten to survive as an independent barnstorming the nation. The Big Ten had attempted to blackball it in scheduling and certainly was not going to admit a Catholic school. Notre Dame was forced through actual persecution to become the school that could stand alone; GT, in contrast, was made by, first, the Southern Conference and then the SEC and left that league in a childish temper tantrum, boasting about what it would accomplish by itself.

The great gulf of difference between Notre Dame and the self-professed, and utterly failed, Notre Dame of the South, GT, was driven home for me again recently. Fans of college football in the South know that Commissioner Mike Slive observed that the SEC might have to act, depending on what the Big Ten does with its expansion that could be as many as 5 new schools, to become the 16 member Big Ten. That led to Big Ten talk about population shifts meaning the Midwestern conference would need to look to the ‘sunbelt.’

Most of us know what that was about: the two 800 pound gorillas in the college football living room are baring their teeth and snarling at one another as they prepare to pound their chests and bellow like Carol Burnett doing Tarzan. They are preening for the cameras, each puffing out its chest to declare that it wields the most power.

Notre Dame, it seems, is going to resist the Big Ten’s overtures once again. That makes sense in every way but financial. It is a given that if Notre Dame’s massive national TV fan base were added to the Big Ten’s already richest media clout, the result would be almost unimaginable wealth. And that is why GT is perhaps the antithesis of Notre Dame. While Notre Dame will act to preserve what it sees as traditions worthy of keeping and to avoid joining a conference it knows to have a long history of bullying tactics, even when that means less money, GT fans, at least, are clamoring for their school to do the opposite: to sell to the highest bidder.

In the past, when I have read GT fans wishing that the SEC would re-invite GT, I have tended to overlook the emphases on the larger SEC TV money to assume that such hopes are based on a desire to reconnect with traditional rivalries that GT tossed aside in its 1960s petulance. While that would still be ingratitude to the ACC that saved GT athletics from slipping perhaps permanently into utterly impoverished small time status, it would have a defensible foundation: to reconnect with older traditions.

But looking to sell out to the highest bidder, which has no ties of any kind to GT or its state and region, is well beyond what even my UGa friend warned me about GT and its fans 30 years ago.

The GT Scout site has a thread on radio announcer Wes Durham speaking to a GT fan group, Lunch Bucnh: http://mbd.scout.com/mb.aspx?s=140&f=2938&t=5967732&p=1 . Durham stroked GT fans most by saying that GT would be a major desire for any conference looking to expand. Most notably, he told them that GT would be very high on the Big Ten list if it decides to go to more than 12. That reported on the board to GT fans ignited a 10 page (and still not ending) thread on GT getting out of the ACC.

One of Durham’s points reported by those in attendance made me recall the warnings of my UGa friend. Durham told the audience that “This is the greatest year ever in Georgia Tech Athletics. The combined winning percentage for all sports is around 75-76%” (posted by marathonbuzz on p. 1). That fact apparently means little to most posters, for rather than at least wonder what role the ACC has played in those successes, GT fans are focused on money. Even the new ACC TV deal, which is easily the third best in the country, is not enough to satisfy the average GT poster. The reported, and unproven, high end Big Ten money of some 22-24 million per year is said by Wes Durham to be within reach, and GT fans covet it. The poser drgoldfinger writes: “GA Tech going from making $6M per year {the old ACC deal in place now – my note} in a division with UVA, VPI, UNC, Dook and Miami, to $24M per year in a division with *perhaps* Penn State, Pitt, Syracuse, Rutgers, Ohio State, Indiana and Purdue.

Road trips would be tough, but along with the money, the neighborhood's a bit better... and it's an easier division than we have today.  I'm warming to the idea.  Here's why:
We end up making $7M more than the UGAg, while giving the now best conference in the US a MAJOR stake in the heart of SEC country, and... we can just tell the mutts {Georgia Bulldogs – my note} to kiss off.”

The logic is precious: if the current ACC Coastal is tougher than would be that assumed Big Ten division (and in most years, it would be), then how could that 16 member Big Ten be the best conference in the country? Would GT mean that much to the Big Ten? Its fans are delusional enough to so fancy, but if GT meant that much, the ACC with GT would be judged better than the SEC.

But more important is the double emphasis: if we can get more TV money, we must take it, and then we will have more TV money than does Georgia. GT is like the man who cannot be happy in his marriage because he cannot stop looking at the girl he dumped in college, planning to outdo her. His desire to stick it to her is so deep that he will ruin whatever he has, even betray that which saved him in his worst hour, in order to try to one-up her. On page 5, BuzzDraft asserts: “I don't see how any school can refuse a chance to join the Big Ten juggernaut and be left in the dust.”

That sums the general attitude of the thread: everybody will sell out, which means we better sell out first to get the jump on all the others. And while BlackWatch on  page 8 says, “I'd argue that the ACC saved Georgia Tech from an athletic abyss in 1980,” most posters seem thrilled at their thought that the NC and VA schools could be left in what amounts to a new and no better BE while GT balls with the Midwestern big boys.

Betting against the ACC is something all kinds of people have been doing to their own disadvantage since the ACC began. It seems counterintuitive that a league handicapped with too many private schools, too many smaller state universities, and too much academic emphasis could add schools with athletics departments that are bleeding money (Miami fits that description, though it was in much better shape than GT was when it was admitted) and even remain viable. It should be almost impossible for such a conference to negotiate, in an economy still down from the collapse, the third richest TV deal in the country – after the two richest deals were signed before the collapse.

Sometimes living right and being helpful to others is rewarded, even when some of those helped turn out to be the type for whom no good deed goes unpunished.

The cynical, money obsessed GT fans cannot see it, but Notre Dame has not sold out, even to the conference that is all around it and now exerts as much pressure to try to force ND to join as it once did to try to keep ND from playing Big Ten schools. And most GT fans agree that UNC, UVA, Duke, NCSU, Wake Forest, and probably Maryland and Virginia Tech would not sell out to any other conference for any monetary gain. But they are rather desperate to see GT get bought.

All of this leads me to this question: have things come to the point that a school in the deep South would join a Midwestern conference just to get more TV money? If so, what does that say about the future of college football?

Or, as my UGa friend was trying to tell me long ago, is it simply that there is something dead wrong about GT and its fans?