Editor’s Note: Georgia’s first national championship in 41 years will have an impact more far-reaching than the football program. In Sports, we take a look at how the title will impact fans, admissions, recruiting and politics.
By 3 a.m. on Jan. 11, Jeff Dantzler fully appreciated how much winning the national championship meant to University of Georgia fans.
As co-host of the Bulldogs’ postgame radio show, which stretched into the wee hours of the morning following the momentous win over Alabama in the College Football Playoff title game, he had heard from many callers who craved this moment for decades.
“There really wasn’t any of the X’s and O’s talk that there usually is,” Dantzler said about two weeks later. “The talk was of what this means. We had several callers who got emotional and said, ‘I just wish my dad been around to see it.’ The enormity of it hit home for me.
“There was relief. There was joy. There was euphoria. And there was just a great deal of thankfulness it finally happened.”
The emotions felt in the immediate aftermath of Georgia’s 33-18 win over the Crimson Tide continue to permeate Bulldog Nation and presumably will remain strong for a long time to come. UGA’s first football national championship since the 1980 season unleashed a long-awaited celebration, but it also lifted a weight accumulated through four decades of coming up short of that goal — sometimes far short, sometimes agonizingly close.
The Bulldogs’ championship rewarded all of the fan support, emotional as well as financial, poured into the program over the many years. And it surely ensured even more such support in the future.
“There is no way a national championship has ever meant more to a collegiate fan base than this one does – no way,” said Dantzler, himself a lifelong Bulldogs fan.
Until the past few months, this state’s sports teams had developed a reputation of finding ways to lose, sometimes mind-boggling ways, when the stakes were highest: the Falcons blowing a 28-3 lead to lose a Super Bowl, the Bulldogs losing a national championship game in overtime on a second-and-26 touchdown pass, the Braves going 19 years without winning a postseason series, blah blah blah.
Longtime fans perhaps felt the burden of that collective reputation more than the ever-changing casts of players and coaches. Even the local teams with the longest record of sustained regular-season success, the Braves and Bulldogs, had gone 26 and 41 years, respectively, since winning their sports’ ultimate championships.
Then, in the span of just 70 days, the Braves won the World Series on Nov. 2 and the Bulldogs won the College Football Playoff on Jan. 10, a one-two knockout punch to the much-chronicled notion that local teams were cursed — or something — when championships were at stake.
“The psyche of the city and state change now,” said Bob Hope, an Atlanta public relations veteran who is a former Braves executive and an avid Bulldogs fan. He attended the CFP national championship game in Indianapolis.
“I was sitting in the stands with my grandson, and when that questionable fumble happened to (UGA quarterback) Stetson Bennett in the fourth quarter, your first reaction was: Here it goes again,” Hope said. “Same thing when a Georgia touchdown was called back at the beginning of the game. You just felt sometimes like you were destined to lose. You kind of get in your mind things like that, and it affects everybody. Now, I feel like we’ve shaken that.”
A tired old reputation has been eradicated, or at least rendered obsolete.
Significantly, both the Bulldogs’ and Braves’ breakthrough championships required wins over nemeses of postseasons past, Georgia beating Alabama (and coach Nick Saban) in the CFP final and the Braves eliminating the Los Angeles Dodgers en route to the World Series.
At a public celebration of the Bulldogs on Jan. 15 in Athens, defensive lineman Jordan Davis connected the state’s two recent championships, lifting his white windbreaker, adorned with Georgia’s “G” logo, to proudly reveal a Braves jersey underneath.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
That drew one of the loudest ovations of the day as UGA fans, many of them also Braves fans, recognized how dramatically fortunes had turned for their teams.
“I thought it was Hank Aaron in heaven orchestrating the Braves’ championship,” said Hope, a pallbearer at Aaron’s funeral early last year. “And Hank was a Georgia fan, too, a very close friend of Vince Dooley, so he may have been participating in that one also.”
While the Braves expect their championship to result in an attendance boost this year, provided MLB settles its labor dispute and plays ball as scheduled, the Bulldogs have no room to increase ticket sales. They already sell out 92,746-seat Sanford Stadium each season.
“I don’t think that fan base can get any more intense,” said Mike Lewis, an Emory University marketing professor who researches sports fandom. “Think about a few years ago (2017) when they turned Notre Dame Stadium red.
“The Georgia fan base is as good as any out there, even if they haven’t had the championships of some of the other programs,” Lewis said. “They have always been a top-five fan base, and when you look at the economic numbers, that fan base completely supports that school.”
Donations from fans and alumni to fund the program and build facilities likely will continue to grow, and merchandise sales already have spiked. Online sports apparel and fan gear store Fanatics said it sold more UGA merchandise in the first 24 hours after the CFP final than it sold for the previous best-selling national champion in the first 30 days after winning a title.
The celebratory mood doesn’t mean, of course, that Georgia’s passionate fans will become complacent, or less opinionated. You can be sure coach Kirby Smart’s choice of quarterbacks and other decisions will continue to be hotly debated on social media and elsewhere. But the end of a 41-year wait, the shedding of all that baggage, will be felt, too.
“I think maybe we’ll be a little less on edge,” Dantzler said. “I can tell you this: I promised a couple of my former (radio) co-hosts and my wife and my closest friends that if we ever won it, I wouldn’t stress the next season until the Tech game. I’m going to try to live up to that. Along with the joy of winning, you do feel like there’s this huge weight that has been lifted.
“For so many of us, I still don’t know if it has fully sunk in. I think for many people, probably outside of marriages, births of children, things like that, it’s the biggest thing that has ever happened.”
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Georgia’s first national championship in 41 years will have an impact more far-reaching than the football program. In Sports, we take a look at how the title will impact fans, admissions, recruiting and politics.