Once upon a time Georgia Tech was the proudest football team in the South and among the household names in sports. Grant field drew crowds we would love to see today, and the papers followed Tech's every move. Then we left the SEC and began to wander in the desert of open scheduling. Not long after that the SEC began a rise in national reputation while we slipped behind, and soon we even gave up our lead in the series against Georgia. They Bulldogs have been pulling away ever since. Few Georgians respect GT football anymore. In fact, with all the surrounding programs' riches and support, most fans in the South don't respect anything about Tech anymore! The Dawgs, Plainsmen and Tide epitomize modern SEC football-factory-ism with huge stadiums, big visible fanbases, constant media attention, and strong brands. Georgia Tech, with coaches we believe in and an infusion of new talent, finally seems aimed in the right direction to win more games but will that really help us? If there were a formula to rehab the fanbase and fill the stadium again, what would the focus be? How, fellow Jackets fans, does Georgia Tech climb back to respectability, fill our stadium, sell merchandise, turn a profit and control a fan culture the size of an island nation like other historic teams down here in Dixie?
It won't happen in one season, and it may not happen in five season. Getting back to the reputation we once had will take decades. I propose, though, that Tech can do it using this theory: All wins are good, but not all wins boost perception. Program-building wins are those in which you give your fans bragging rights in their home town.
According to this theory not every win matters to our schedule. There are certain games annually which - if we would win them just 60% of the time they're played - would ensure the rapid repopulation of Yellow Jacket Nation. Basically, If we could pick just a few games to win every season which ones give fans their money's worth? And to fans in Atlanta, nothing's more valuable than the gift of bragging rights.
Allow me to illustrate the premise. As a Tech fan in Atlanta you live in an SEC world. Winning the ACC was cool enough, but why wasn't it fun once you got back home from Tampa? Because ALL of your neighbors were barking "we run this state" and declaring they'd won the ACC. The newspapers ran articles about the ACC-CG being bittersweet and even a let down in light of the rivalry loss. And WHO has more National Championships?! Clearly that DOES NOT MATTER! Bottom line is, fans today choose to root for a team they can feel proud of RIGHT NOW where they live! We saw the results of last season's loss of bragging rights with a stadium which didn't fill a single time in 2010. Clearly, not all wins are created equal.
So who are Georgia Tech's key perception measuring sticks? Naturally, we start with teams closest to Georgia Tech by geographic distance. Why? When it comes to local goodwill, every team should look at who its fans have to deal with in church, at work and around town. Tech's neighbors are listed by proximity:
UGA - 70 mi, Auburn - 117 mi, Clemson - 125 mi, Tennessee - 187 mi, Alabama - 205 mi, FSU- 272 mi, Miss State - 287 mi, Ole Miss - 333 mi, Florida- 334 mi
If that seems about right as far as the most visible fanbases in Atlanta, now you know why. In a ~200 mile radius there's only 1 ACC opponent to 4 SEC rivals. Extend that to ~350 miles and the figure jumps to 2 in 9! We're not scheduling most of the closest geographic competitors, so we can't easily be compared to them! That, friends, is one way an old hanger-on like Kentucky (barely .500 all time) can have a bigger stadium and more support in general than once-glorious Georgia Tech. They play their closest neighbors annually, so fans care about the games! The other reason is they beat in-state rival Louisville enough to earn the hearts of their state. The fact is, people want to come watch you play for bragging rights. In the SEC, it's all local. Every game sets the pecking order in their own backyard.
Not being part of that anymore is the downside, but since we can't get back into the SEC let's look at who we DO play every year:
North Carolina, Miami, Virginia, Duke, Virginia Tech, Clemson, Georgia
Of those, who are the biggest names here in Atlanta? Georgia, Clemson and VT by far. If every season we would always beat at least 2 of those 3 (even if we lost most of our other games) we would be winning back a lot of fans and making new ones. Who in Atlanta could resist a team that always beats the Dawgs? You could be puffin your chest out around here constantly! I'll bet that's the reason there are so many Gator fans in this state. Right now they're the Dawg Catchers. Why not us? If we want the support of the locals we have to get there. Sprinkle in the occassional scheduling and beating of other nearby Southern schools and you'd have a Tech team Atlantans could really get behind.
Of course there are other things which would help - The ACC needs a BCS Championship - heck, the ACC would settle for a winning record over the other autobid leagues! But Tech doesn't control other teams. So what can we do to help ourselves other than just beating geographic rivals? We should always win bowls!
Bowls fuel off-season media hype. Win your league but lose to Iowa? Your season was a fluke. Go 6-6 but maul your bowl opponent? Suddenly no one can wait for next year!
In conclusion, if Georgia Tech would follow the "local bragging rights first" philosophy we'd adopt this mantra - Beat Georgia and Clemson no matter what! Focus on beating Southern teams. Always win bowl games!
So, if ten seasons down the road we've beaten the Dawgs 7 times in 10 tries and Clemson more than that and we've made a habit of winning bowl games I'd be willing to bet we could go sub-.500 in that span and STILL grow our average stadium attendence and merchandise sales! Do this regularly and GT logos would be the going trend and the old stadium would need another expansion in no time! Why? Because Atlantans would have the team that gave them the neighborhood bragging rights.