This is Part I in Engineering a Program, our series on explaining Georgia Tech’s athletic context to outsiders. If you’d like to read other parts of the series or get a primer on what the series is about, head to its homepage.
To properly understand the current realities of Georgia Tech as a whole — let alone that of the athletic program — it’s best to turn back the clock. Our modern concept of the Institute as an entity is simply an incomplete snapshot based on the last N years, and much like Rome, Tech wasn’t built in a day. There are certainly through-lines from the very beginning of the Institute that guide decision-making on the Hill to this very day, but in the interest of brevity, we should start at the beginning of the transformation that created Tech as the present-day fan would know it.
Midcentury Atlanta and Georgia Tech
Let’s set the scene: mid-century Atlanta, a blooming rose of a Southern metropolis. Figures from mayors William Hartsfield and Ivan Allen and journalists (even sportswriters like Furman Bisher) promoted the city as the cultural and economic capital of the Southeast and therefore its most important city. The Institute became a major benefactor of this swelling civic status: with the entirety of Southeastern milieu running through Atlanta and with professional sports expansion to the South still decades away, attending events at Georgia Tech (particularly Saturday football games) became the place to see and be seen among Atlanta’s elite. Politicians like Ivan Allen, Jr. and business elites like George Woodruff ensured Tech was well-represented in the city’s upper crust. This haute desirability (coupled with spectacular success on the gridiron) made Georgia Tech of interest and desire to a broad spectrum of Atlantans and Georgians (Trutor, 2022).
This access to Atlanta at large also meant that, despite its size, Tech could take and justify a self-aggrandizing pride in its cosmopolitan trappings, especially when juxtaposed against the rest of the fairly-rural Southeastern Conference. From a previous Rearview Mirror column:
It’s important to realize how different the landscape of media, region, and school looked back [in the 1960s]. Georgia Tech existed on a different plane than the rest of the SEC. Not necessarily because it was better on the football field, but it was undeniable that the national conversation ticked through Atlanta, the most important city of the Southeastern Conference. To the extent that a small-ish engineering school could be elitist, Georgia Tech was that. And, well, they were good on the gridiron. That combination - the urban, industrial, somewhat ivory tower, superior sports - coupled with Dodd’s disdain for schools like Mississippi State and Ole Miss meant there was little love left for Tech.
Tech could make the large gate, easy access to the city and its sights, and its name draw worth their opponents’ while, and it flexed this power at every turn. For example, Tech and Auburn played 53 times between 1906 and 1959 (annually, inclusive) and the Jackets hosted 52 of them, while Clemson visited Atlanta 34 times between 1908 and 1974, with Tech never making the return trip. What was once a small public engineering school had shed its humble roots, found those that still had those roots dissatisfactory, and pressed them on those roots at every turn.
But every rose, of course, has its thorns: while mayors and businessmen alike crowned Atlanta as a pinnacle of modern growth, the city itself saw little of said growth. Instead, developers built downtown business towers that were isolated from the streets of the city, and the development and expansion of the interstate highway system facilitated not only the rapid destruction of inner-city (typically minority) neighborhoods to make way for large roadways, but also the rapid movement of (almost entirely white) citizens out of the urban core into sprawling cookie-cutter suburbs. Newly-minted citizens of Marietta, Lawrenceville, and Roswell moved swiftly through Midtown on the newly-minted connector or the widened, one-way Spring, West Peachtree, Juniper, and Piedmont thoroughfares, while Peachtree — Atlanta’s most famous street — remained an anachronistic two-way street with mixed housing and residential buildings, all of which began to slowly deteriorate. As Atlanta’s status soared, its core suffered.
The Institute itself was not innocent of isolation during this era. On the surface, this solo act was largely defined by the obvious and the physical: namely the Downtown Connector, the westside Atlanta Terminal Subdivision railroad lines, and the massive urban renewal Tech inflicted on the southwestern sector of Home Park in the 1960s, all while the northern section of the neighborhood withered as Atlantic Steel and its reliable source of well-paying manufacturing jobs diminished and then disappeared. But while Tech slowly became physically cut off from the city it called home, its athletics program — and most prominently, its football team — still dominated the civic sports psyche.
The SEC Gambit
Given the growth of the Atlanta metro area and its status amongst Atlanta’s elite, Tech saw itself as the biggest fish in a growing pond — one that did not need to be dominated by the politics of SEC schools it saw as antithetical to its institutional and athletic department values. This attitude was best exemplified by the fight over the SEC’s 140 Rule (more on this in a previous Rearview Mirror column). This SEC governance point limited the total number of scholarships available to all of a school’s athletic programs and did little to limit what we would today call roster churn or processing, then referred to by Bobby Dodd and others as “running off.” Tech put the onus on itself when a scholarship was offered: if the player did not pan out athletically, Dodd and his staff had made the error and the player was supported in their endeavor to get their college degree, if able. Dodd summarized his opponents’ position quite simply in a quip about the swim team at Alabama: “Twenty of the biggest swimmers you ever saw. They damn near drowned when they put ‘em in the pool, but they could play football” (Roberts & Krzemienski, 2013).
Thus, Tech came to blows with its conference brethren at a point where both institutional and athletics priorities became intertwined, and many of those conference counterparts, given Tech’s aggression in scheduling, didn’t much care for the Institute in the first place. With the deck stacked against it organizationally and its ideological honor at stake (to an extent), the Institute found itself ensnared in a game of political chicken.
But Institute President Edwin Harrison simply refused to play. In his statement announcing Georgia Tech’s withdrawal from the SEC, Harrison cited not just the 140 Rule, but also Tech’s belief that it was fundamentally different from the rest of the schools in the conference. Reacting to Harrison’s announcement for the Birmingham News, journalist Benny Marshall summed Tech’s position succinctly: “We’re out because, really, we’re better” (Roberts & Krzemienski, 2013).
In leaving the SEC, Dodd and Harrison bet on Georgia Tech as a sporting brand and as an institution, considering the shift in institutional priorities that coincided with the move to conference independence. While the football coach and athletic director banked on the program’s golden age to fund the department via things like greater shares of ticket revenues and bowl game payouts coupled with Grant Field’s status as a hallowed landmark of the sport, the Institute president and his staff placed a more intentional focus on government research, ratcheted up the prestige (and rigor) of the Institute’s academic offerings, and strived to attain a national relevance that transcended its traditional origins as the mechanical engineering semi-for-profit shops of the Georgia School of Technology.
In the years that followed, the newly-named Georgia Institute of Technology, its multiple colleges and constituent departments, and its ever-expanding research arm embodied this evolution of Tech from a state-centric engineering school into an institution of national prestige helped segment it from common citizens in a city that, in the past, would have their chests and boasted proudly about it. As the post-SEC era wore on, Tech became further and further separated from its fanbase, among which it counted not only alumni and mostly white middle and upper class folks that had now moved to the suburbs, but also students from other schools without big-time teams of their own and those who had chosen routes other than college for their education and employment. To the latter of these parties, Tech was simply “in” Atlanta and no longer “of” Atlanta — the Institute existed in its own ivory tower, cut off from the rest of the city by both highway and philosophy. Tech began to find sporting success increasingly evasive, especially after the departure of Dodd. The arrival of major professional sports became a harbinger of the end for Tech’s sporting impact in the city: with the establishment of pro baseball, basketball, and football teams achieving mayor Ivan Allen’s vision of Atlanta a “major league” city, Tech slid far from its perch as Atlanta’s “major league” team.
MacMath, R. C., & McMath, R. C. (1988). Engineering the New South: Georgia Tech, 1885-1985. Univ. of Georgia Pr.
Roberts, R., & Krzemienski, E. (2013). Rising Tide: Bear Bryant, Joe Namath, and Dixie’s last quarter. Grand Central Pub.
Trutor, C. (2022). Loserville: How professional sports remade Atlanta—and How Atlanta Remade Professional Sports. University of Nebraska Press.