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GT Used to Matter in the CFB World: What Happened?

Unpacking my Georgia Tech football angst, and looking to what could be

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I was three years old, sitting on the living room floor of a condo in Kissimmee, Florida. A babysitter tried to corral my baby brother, my cousins, and me while the TV broadcast the Citrus Bowl. 25 miles up I-4, our parents joined with the throng of some 50,000 GT fans, overwhelming the red-clad Nebraska Cornhuskers. Georgia Tech won the Citrus Bowl going away to secure an undefeated season.

On the drive back to Atlanta, we pulled over on the side of the road with scores of other delirious GT fans after news came over the radio that we had been voted National Champs by the UPI. We were on top of the college football world.

I’m a third generation Georgia Tech alumnus, a life-long fan, and those are my first fleeting moments of GT fandom.

Tech didn’t stay on top, but the spotlight didn’t leave the program. The 1991 season kicked off in East Rutherford, NJ with a top ten clash between GT and Penn State. A heroic Charlie Ward effort thwarted Tech’s bid to win a top 15 showdown with FSU in the middle of the 1992 season. Georgia Tech lost some tough ones in that stretch, but we mattered.

In 1994, Bill Lewis drove a splinter into the locker room, and the wheels came off. But at the same time, that national championship winning coach, Bobby Ross, was leading the San Diego Chargers to the Super Bowl with Ralph Friedgen masterminding the offense. Georgia Tech allusions abounded in the lead up to the game, and it was clear that this was a program that could put people in high places in the football world.

After the 1994 debacle, George O’Leary took over the reigns and immediately reinvigorated the program. A freshman named Joe Hamilton showed flashes in 1996, nearly beat UGA in 1997, and took GT back into the national conversation in 1998.

On October 24th, 1998, College Gameday made it clear how much GT mattered in the CFB world by coming to Atlanta for the first time, as Tech hosted #5 FSU. The next season, Gameday wasn’t there, but Joe Hamilton went back and forth against Chris Weinke during a primetime showdown that turned into one of the games of the year. Despite the loss to the eventual national champions, Lil’ Joe would finish Heisman Runner-Up to the career achievement award of Ron Dayne, and GT would play in a New Year’s Day bowl game for the second consecutive season

Despite Hamilton’s graduation, GT’s stature didn’t wane. College Gameday was in Blacksburg for GT-VT in 2000 before a lightning storm blew up Lee Corso’s car and cancelled the game. The following season, Gameday was headed to Tallahassee for a titanic clash between GT and FSU in 2001 before the events of September 11th changed the whole world.

Tech ended up limping to the finish line in that 2001 season, and changes were once again afoot. George O’Leary announced his ill-fated intention to become the head coach at Notre Dame. Once again, GT showed up as a program that could launch people into the highest places of the football world.

O’Leary’s replacement, Chan Gailey, ultimately earned the scorn of most of the GT fanbase, as people decried the “mediocre years” under Gailey. But at the time, Gailey was just two years removed from taking the Dallas Cowboys to the NFL playoffs in both of his two seasons as head coach. GT got a coach with a pedigree and a track record that was hard to fault.

Throughout the Gailey years, there were frustrating losses and unfulfilled expectations. At the same time, Georgia Tech once again featured on College Gameday in 2005, travelling to Blacksburg as the 16th ranked team in the country to take on 4th ranked Virginia Tech. That game didn’t go well, but later in the season, GT once again captured national attention by taking down #3 Miami in primetime.

I was a sophomore undergrad when the 2006 campaign opened with Gameday on campus, and ABC was on hand to broadcast the thrilling Saturday night battle with #2 Notre Dame. Despite the loss, we knew we had something. Later that year, 13th ranked GT travelled to Death Valley to take on 12th ranked Clemson, and Gameday featured Tech for the second time in one season. Again, the season ended in frustrating fashion, but Calvin Johnson and a ferocious defense kept Tech in the spotlight.

Chan Gailey never beat UGA, but he did produce three one score losses that kept Clean Old-Fashioned Hate on the national radar. After a frustrating 2007 season, Gailey was relieved of his duties, and a fascinating coaching search brought in Paul Johnson. Johnson was coming off of a 5 year run at Navy that included 43 wins, 4 bowl appearances, and even a national ranking. He was a desired commodity, and Dan Radakovich brought him to Atlanta.

I probably don’t need to remind you too much about 2008 and 2009; Tech won in Athens, played in a Peach Bowl against LSU, won the ACC against Clemson, and featured in the Orange Bowl against Iowa.

The next few years didn’t reach those heights, but Johnson kept building his roster and honing his scheme. Everything came together magically in 2014. Once again, there was a thrilling victory in Athens, an ACC Championship Game appearance, and this time a resounding Orange Bowl victory on New Year’s Eve. Georgia Tech had the eyes of the country.

Those eyes carried over to 2015, when GT travelled to South Bend for a highly anticipated top 20 match up with Notre Dame. That game turned into a disaster, and injuries mounted at a terrifying rate for the rest of the year. Still, the middle of the season had GT in the spotlight once again, as the Miracle on Techwood took down undefeated FSU. That team was able to build on a tough experience and capitalize in 2016 with another win in Athens and a New Year’s Day bowl game throttling of an up and coming Kentucky program.

The 2017 campaign opened with a highly anticipated Labor Day night match up with Tennessee to open Mercedes Benz Stadium. The place was packed, and there was more gold than orange. The game was magnificent, ending in defeat only as a Ta’quon Marshall keeper failed on a 2 point conversion in overtime. The next day, I packed my car to drive from Atlanta to my new home in Salt Lake City, UT. I had a number of college football podcasts queued up to help occupy me, and even in defeat, Georgia Tech’s 600 yard performance against UT was the talk of the podcast-verse. A heartbreaking loss to a top 10 Miami team a few weeks later seemed to take the wind out of the sails for the rest of the season. After one more up and down year, Paul Johnson stepped aside.

Something seemed to quietly shift over the second half of 2017 and into 2018. Both years ended with brutal defeats to UGA. 2012 was bad, but those two contests marked the only time that CPJ’s teams looked consistently outclassed by the Dawgs. GT fans eagerly awaited a bowl assignment in 2018 that would send CPJ out with a bang. Instead, we were sent to Detroit to play on December 26th against Minnesota. Many felt disrespected that GT could not secure a bowl bid within driving distance to send out a coach after a wonderful 11 year tenure. Our standing felt a bit more tenuous.

After a mysterious coaching search, up to the microphone stepped Geoff Collins. He talked about the glory days of GT football, although he never seemed to mention the 2 Orange Bowls and 3 UGA victories that his immediate predecessor had engineered. He made lofty promises about restored glory and owning the city that had once belonged to Dodd’s teams until the 1960s.

Now, it’s been 3 years. I’m 34, not 3 anymore. And last Saturday, I sat in my living room, watching the red-clad Bulldog Nation overrun Boddy Dodd Stadium. I saw some 10,000 GT fans endure a humiliating beatdown under the leadership of a coach who has not yet given any indication that he knows what he’s doing.

From the announcers, there was pity. For the GT fanbase, there was embarrassment. For the team, there was heartbreak and frustration. All we could see was the remnants of a football program that doesn’t seem to matter anymore. It makes me sad, and I wonder, will we ever matter again?

Two prominent Georgia Tech boosters went public to Ken Suguira with similar thoughts for a piece that has set off another round of uproar in the GT fanbase. Reading my mind, Steve Zelnak offered this: “We’ve gone from being relevant to who cares? And that’s sad. It’s sad for the players. It’s sad for the fans.”

It gets complicated. Zelnak was the head of the search committee that hired Mike Bobinkski. And Bobinkski was the leader most directly responsible for not giving Paul Johnson the resources he had earned and thought he needed to maintain the gains he had secured. That slowly drove Johnson towards his North Carolina cabin, even as Todd Stansbury entered the picture with a more clear direction on how to properly resource the program.

Now, Stansbury has staked himself to Geoff Collins. Clearly, from Suguira’s reporting, the pair has one more year at most to show significant progress. But if resourced supporters like Zelnak feel this way, things can change. There are almost certainly more wilderness days coming, but the fans who didn’t show up on the Saturday after Thanksgiving are still out there. Scores of people - from former players to coachers to alumni to boosters - who helped make this program what it was still care deeply. A leader is needed to mobilize us. A visionary is needed to capitalize on what GT still is. And then we just might matter again.