ATHENS – It was a game-day atmosphere on a non-game day in Athens.

Georgia celebrated its long-awaited national championship Saturday, five days after the Bulldogs defeated the Crimson Tide 33-18 in Indianapolis.

Athens was painted in red, black and white. Some locals insisted it was even more lively than Saturdays in the fall. Downtown was flooded with visitors who came to cherish an afternoon four decades in the making. Sanford Stadium was as electric, if not more so, than usual Saturdays.

While Athens often is placed at or near the top of every “best college towns in America” list, the Bulldogs fans were starved for a title. They last enjoyed a championship in the 1980 season, suffering myriad tough losses and disappointments in the years leading to 2022.

Never short on reasons to party, Athens celebrated in grand fashion Saturday. In the hours leading to the parade, fans covered the sidewalks and pavement on Sanford Drive. The neighboring Tate Student Center had little walking space. The line at the University Bookstore, advertising as the “Championship Headquarters,” rivaled logjams at the Sanford Stadium gates on game days.

» More photos of Saturday’s celebration

Fans adorned creative clothing, from “In Kirby We Trust” pins to “Stetson (expletive) Bennett” shirts. Smart’s No. 16 jersey was a frequent sighting as well. Barking was an accepted means of communication. The aroma of White Claw Hard Selzer and Fireball Cinnamon Whisky filled the air. Bulldogs blankets, beanies and jackets were commonplace; temperature was 45 degrees when the Bulldogs began their parade at 12:30.

One popular pair was James Armstrong and his bulldog Doomsday. The duo attended every home Georgia game and the SEC Championship game in the past season. Doomsday, 3, didn’t wait quite as long for a title as Armstrong, 47.

“Man, I cried when they won,” said Armstrong, who lives in Jefferson. “I watched the whole game through. I had to be at work in four hours, but there was no way I was missing that. It wasn’t just the championship game. It was them beating Alabama. It brought tears to my eyes. We’ve waited a long time for this.”

Cindy McNabb, an artist who graduated from Georgia in 1973, and her daughter, Erin Taylor, who graduated from Georgia in 1999, drove over from Norcross. It was Erin’s first time in Athens in at least 15 years.

“Things sold out so quickly; people were ahead of me,” said Cindy McNabb, and made sure she wouldn’t miss Saturday. “Some might’ve made reservations before the game because they were so sure. I felt pretty sure, but I knew it’d be a tough battle. … We like to have things to do together, and we’ll remember this forever.”

The Bulldogs players, stationed atop buses, started at the corner of South Lumpkin Street and Pinecrest Drive. The traditional Dawg Walk went from Lumpkin Street through the Tate Center parking lot and into Sanford Stadium, where a stage was prepared at the 15-yard line. The field’s middle was covered in chairs, setting up a graduation-like scene where families, support staff and athletic-board members were stationed in the team’s direct view.

Former Bulldogs and current Lions running back D’Andre Swift led the “Calling the Dawgs” chant. It preceded a hype video on the big screen – featuring legendary coach Vince Dooley – that led Sanford Stadium to erupt. It grew even louder as players took their spot on the podium while The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” played.

“There are so many people here,” said Will Whitten, a trumpet player for the Redcoat marching band. “Some people were lined up for the Dawg Walk at least two hours ahead of time. Georgia fans never fail to show up and show out. It’s so much bigger than game day.”

Jake Hobbs, another trumpet player in the band, was a freshman when Georgia lost to Alabama in the 2018 championship game. “This one was a much happier experience,” he said an hour before the band gathered to serenade the masses.

For decades, Bulldogs fans were Charlie Brown and the football was the trophy coach Kirby Smart hoisted Monday. Smart has been validated. Georgia is being celebrated.

“This is the greatest,” Armstrong said, looking at the euphoria surrounding him. “This is where the Georgia fans are at. This is epic. One of the greatest days there is. I’m surprised how big the crowd is, honestly. I knew it was going to be large, but I think there are more people here than a normal game day.”

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey remarked he’d “never seen anything like” the packed, jubilant Sanford Stadium on a Saturday in January. Georgia athletic director Josh Brooks praised the fans’ presence in recent years: “From South Bend to Nashville to Pasadena, we’ve taken over so many stadiums. And then to walk out in Indianapolis on that field Monday, and see 70% of the crowd was Bulldog Nation taking over. We have the best fans in the nation.”

This time, Athens sits atop the college football realm not just for its partying, atmosphere or fan passion, but because its beloved Bulldogs finally captured a national championship.

And by the looks of things, these fans probably won’t have to wait 40 years for another one.