College Football Hall of Fame renews Hatchell’s link to Atlanta

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College Football Hall of Fame renews Hatchell’s link to Atlanta

ABOUT THE NFF

What: The National Football Foundation is a not-for-profit organization, based in Irving, Texas, that runs programs “designed to use the power of amateur football in developing scholarship, citizenship and athletic achievement in young people.”

Founded: 1947

Members: 12,000 in 48 states.

Connection to Hall of Fame: The NFF started the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951, owns the artifacts and conducts the annual balloting for inductees. The NFF assigned the right to build and operate the Hall of Fame in Atlanta to not-for-profit organization Atlanta Hall Management via a 30-year license agreement. The downtown attraction is scheduled to open Aug. 23.

Steve Hatchell has held a series of prestigious jobs in a long career as a sports executive: head of the Orange Bowl, commissioner of the Big 12 and, since 2005, president and CEO of the National Football Foundation.

But it was a job with a long-defunct college sports league that brought him to Atlanta three decades ago.

“I had the great fortune in the mid-1980s, as a young commissioner of the Metro Conference, to move our conference office to Atlanta,” Hatchell said recently. “I was here for four of probably the best years professionally that I ever had.”

Fast-forward 30 years, and Hatchell is playing a key role in moving something bigger to Atlanta: the College Football Hall of Fame.

Founded by the National Football Foundation in 1951 and nurtured by the organization since, the Hall of Fame is scheduled to open its new 94,000-square-foot home near Centennial Olympic Park on Aug. 23.

Hatchell won’t move here personally this time — the NFF is based in Irving, Texas — but his endorsement of Atlanta figured prominently in the NFF board’s decision in 2009 to relocate the Hall of Fame here from South Bend, Ind.

“I knew first-hand what this city can do when it gets behind something,” Hatchell said during a visit to the almost-completed attraction this month.

He fondly recalled, as Metro Conference commissioner from 1983-87, being part of a task force put together by Atlanta business leaders. It was called Sports 2000 and was given the hyperbolic charge of making Atlanta “the sports capital of the world” by the turn of the century. The group kicked around such ideas as building a domed stadium and luring a Super Bowl, various basketball tournaments and even the Olympics.

“The whole thing was, what can we bring to Atlanta?” Hatchell recalled.

Back then, his job revolved around basketball, which the Metro Conference played at a high level in the 1980s with members such as Louisville, Memphis State, Cincinnati, Virginia Tech, Florida State, South Carolina and Southern Mississippi. The conference never sponsored football, which its members played as independents.

(The Metro Conference was formed in 1975 and dissolved in 1995, when most of its remaining schools helped form Conference USA. Georgia Tech was a Metro member for three years in the 1970s before joining the ACC.)

Hatchell left Atlanta in 1987 to move to Miami to run the Orange Bowl. He has worked in football since then — except for a stint as commissioner of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. Soon after he became the NFF’s top executive nine years ago, he began hearing from a longtime Atlanta friend, Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl president Gary Stokan, about the possibility of moving the Hall of Fame here.

NFF’s mission

Hatchell enjoys recounting the history of the National Football Foundation. It was founded in 1947, and its early leaders included Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Army football coach Earl “Red” Blaik and sports writer Grantland Rice.

“It’s about promoting amateur football,” said Hatchell, summarizing the NFF’s mission. “It’s to showcase the values you get from football: hard work, leadership, teamwork, dedication to a goal, all of those things.”

The organization has grown to 12,000 members in chapters in 48 states. Its board of directors is chaired by former star quarterback Archie Manning and includes big-name executives from sports and corporate America.

The NFF started the College Football Hall of Fame by inducting an inaugural 51-man class in 1951 that included, to name a few, Red Grange, Jim Thorpe and Knute Rockne. This year’s 16-man class brings the total inductees to 1,155 — 948 players and 207 coaches — out of the 5.06 million who have played or coached college football in the past 145 years.

In 2009, with the South Bend facility struggling to draw fans, the NFF negotiated a 30-year license agreement for Atlanta Hall Management, a not-for-profit organization, to build and operate the Hall of Fame here. Next month’s opening will come two years later than originally projected, mostly because of difficulty finalizing corporate sponsorships in 2010 and 2011.

John Stephenson, who replaced Stokan as Atlanta Hall Management’s president and CEO in December 2011, said the $68 million project is privately funded except for an early $1 million contribution from Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development authority. The $68 million figure doesn’t include $15 million the state paid for a parking deck and a connection from the front of the Hall of Fame on Marietta Street into the Georgia World Congress Center.

Hatchell said the delayed opening has been the NFF’s only disappointment.

“We thought it would be done by ’12,” he said. “But good things are worth waiting for.”

Objectives for Hall

A location in the heart of downtown Atlanta’s tourism and sports district — near the Georgia Aquarium, Center for Civil and Human Rights, World of Coca-Cola, Georgia Dome, Philips Arena and CNN Center — sold the NFF on moving the attraction here.

“The No.1 most important thing is location. Maybe the first three things are location, location, location,” Hatchell said.

After location, the NFF had two overriding objectives for the Hall of Fame’s new home: It wanted a facility that would appropriately honor the Hall of Famers, but also provide an interactive attraction to entertain fans of all ages.

“I think they are two very distinct parts,” Hatchell said. “We wanted to make sure we had a reverential Hall of Fame part, and we do. After that, you get into what is going to bring people back — the fan experience part of it, the sights and sounds of the game. You’re going to see the Hall of Fame, but you’re also going to have a fan experience.”

In recognition of its full scope and largest corporate sponsor, the attraction lengthened its official name to College Football Hall of Fame and Chick-fil-A Fan Experience.

Another issue for the NFF was to guard against regionalism.

“Our biggest thing, which everybody here has been very sensitive about, is that the Hall of Fame is for everybody — it’s not just the SEC,” Hatchell said.

To make that point, the focal point of the building’s lobby is a three-story wall displaying the helmets of 768 college football teams. When a fan enters the facility and registers his favorite school, that team’s helmet will light up.

This will be the Hall of Fame’s fourth home, following, in order, New York, Cincinnati and South Bend.

“Candidly, I think we got it right this time, coming here,” Hatchell said.

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