ATLANTA — Gary Stokan had a vision at the turn of the century: Make Atlanta the capital of the college football world. The president and CEO of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl has been instrumental in the rise of the bowl game to national prominence and rise of the culture of a city that has become a melting pot of college football fans throughout the country.
His vision will become a reality in 2017. When you pop on ESPN’s College GameDay on Saturday morning of Week 1, the city of Atlanta will be its backdrop. It’ll stay that way until confetti falls from the sky inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium in January 2018 and the 2017 national champion is crowned.
The first of two Chick-fil-A Kickoff Games on opening weekend is being billed as the “G.O.A.T.” by the local staff as top-ranked Alabama will square off with No. 3 Florida State in one of the most compelling season openers in college football history. It certainly will be the biggest neutral-site season opener since the concept’s resurgence a decade ago. The festivities will continue on Labor Day night with an unopposed game featuring No. 23 Tennessee and Georgia Tech, in early December with an SEC Championship Game that historically has at least one team in the national title race, in late December with a Peach Bowl that is in its fourth year as part of the New Year’s Six, and finally in early January with the CFP National Championship.
Here’s how it got to this point.
Evolution the Peach Bowl
Ten years ago, going to the Peach Bowl was considered more of a punishment than a reward. Stokan set out to change that long before it was welcomed into the New Year’s Six.
“We thought that we could get into the BCS in 2006, but they went to a double-hosting model instead,” he told CBS Sports. “When that didn’t happen, we set out to create the BCS on the front side of the season when they legislated the 12th regular-season game.”
Initially billed as the “Daytona 500 of college football,” Stokan’s vision to create a signature event at the front end of the season played a big part in the Peach Bowl itself become a major event on the back end. The success of the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game — which had Clemson-Alabama, Virginia Tech-Alabama and North Carolina-LSU in its first three years of existence, proved to the college football world that Stokan’s group was prepared to take its postseason Peach Bowl to the next level.
When the CFP created a group of six bowls that rotated the two national semifinals, Atlanta was the obvious choice.
A stadium built “from the fan up”
After three hours touring the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium earlier this month, one thing became clear — Atlanta traded a reliable midsize SUV in the Georgia Dome for a top-of-the-line, luxury monster with all of the upgrades. Everything about the new digs — which will host five aforementioned games this season — screams fan-friendly.
It has 1,264 beer taps as opposed to the Georgia Dome’s 30 and has incorporated several local craft beers into the rotation to complement the traditional staples. Food options vary wildly and include the southern-themed Gamechanger concept from Top Chef alum Kevin Gillespie and West Nest featuring local cuisine and employees from the Westside Works program that focuses on creating employment opportunities and job training for residents of the local neighborhood.
What’s more, the prices for standard stadium food like hot dogs, sodas and water won’t empty your pockets. Non-alcoholic drinks with refills, water, pretzels, popcorn and hot dogs at standard concession stands are $2; peanuts and pizza are $3; and a 12-ounce domestic beer is just $5.
The technology within the facility is incredible. A 360-degree, 63,000-foot halo board around the rim of the retractable roof that is visible from any of the permanent seating makes it easy to see the action from anywhere. The 4,000 miles of fiber and access points for all major cell carriers makes connectivity a breeze. A 101-foot video column adds a new dimension to a fan experience that rivals any stadium in America.
“I wondered about the sight lines, and they kept it really tight like the Georgia Dome,” Stokan said. “It’s going to be a special place. When you put two college teams with bands in there, it’ll be an awesome atmosphere,” Stokan said.
Quest for the Hall of Fame
The College Football Hall of Fame had been more of a theory than a facility toward the final years of its stint in South Bend, Indiana. Rumors of its imminent move away from the land of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish had been buzzing since the turn of the century.
In 2009, the National Football Foundation decided to move the facility to Atlanta and a state-of-the-art, high-tech, constantly evolving facility opened in August 2014. But Atlanta’s push started long before an announcement of the move was ever made.
“The College Football Hall of Fame, that started in 2002 or 2003,” Stokan said. “I pulled the concept to move it here off the table when the NASCAR Hall of Fame was being bid out. That started the vision to create the college football capital here.”
The new facility has become home to many college football-related events since its doors open, including the 2016 Home Depot College Football Awards. It is part of a Centennial Olympic Park area that includes the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, old Georgia Dome, Georgia Aquarium, World of Coke museum, thousands of hotel rooms and hundreds of dining options.
This year is the pinnacle.
The combination of a brand new, state-of-the-art stadium in an area that has become the center of a booming downtown, combined with a two-decade-long concerted effort from leaders within the Atlanta sports community to take ownership of a sport that its residents have valued for generations has elevated the city of Atlanta to the capital of the college football world.