This is Part II 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.
After a quick history lesson in Part 1, let’s now trace our way from Tech’s split from the SEC in 1964 to the modern era and discuss how Tech’s position has evolved, especially as Atlanta has continued to grow in stature and sprawl.
Post-SEC Sporting Outcomes
Given that the various changes and controversies surrounding national championship structures in most collegiate sports, the ubiquitous conference title makes for the easiest and most direct semi-modern to modern-day comparison. In the first three decades of the SEC’s existence (starting in 1932), Georgia Tech fielded competitive teams in every sport offered (all of them men’s, as women’s athletics at Tech postdated its departure from the SEC) by the conference at that time, winning at least one conference championship in each of them. Several runs of sustained success — most notably, those of cross country and swimming and diving — were only interrupted by one or more seasons in which the conference championship was not awarded due to wartime measures, and the SEC lacked a golf championship until 1965, the season after Tech departed for the wilds of independence.
Georgia Tech Athletics - SEC vs ACC membership
|Men’s Sport||SEC Titles (1932-1964)||Seasons||ACC Titles (1979/ 1983 [football]-present)||Seasons|
|Men’s Sport||SEC Titles (1932-1964)||Seasons||ACC Titles (1979/ 1983 [football]-present)||Seasons|
|Baseball||1||1957||9||1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2012, 2014|
|Basketball||1||1938||4||1985, 1990, 1993, 2021|
|Cross Country||10||1935, 1936, 1937, 1938, 1939, 1940, 1942, 1947, 1953, 1954||0||N/A|
|Football||5||1939, 1943, 1944, 1951, 1952||3||1990, 1998, 2009|
|Track and Field||3||1944, 1945, 1949||0||N/A|
|Swimming and Diving||4||1942, 1948, 1949, 1950||0||N/A|
|Tennis||3||1938, 1946, 1960||0||N/A|
As the Institute’s current conference affiliation approaches 50 seasons for most sports and while baseball and basketball have seen better fortunes in their stints in the ACC, programs like men’s cross country, track and field, tennis, and swimming and diving have yet to win a conference title, despite combining for 20 in their three decade stint in the SEC.
But given recent movement in conference realignment, it is reasonable to wonder if the size of the SEC at the time played a role in the results — IE: did having fewer members make it easier to win a conference title? But interestingly, during Tech’s time in the SEC, it was one of the larger conferences of its time, ranging between 12 and 13 members. Tech’s entrance into the ACC made them the conference’s eighth team, with the admission of Florida State in 1991, Miami and Virginia Tech in 2004, and Boston College in 2005 bringing the conference to 12 before the second-to-last round of conference realignment in 2011. With this in mind, our comparison becomes more even, making clear that the performance of Tech’s men’s sports have been a mixed bag in the ACC era.
That being said, it’s not like the ACC era has come without any success. As mentioned previously, baseball and men’s basketball, along with women’s sports like softball and volleyball, have all put together periods of regular postseason appearances and won multiple conference titles, while golf has established itself as the conference’s premier program. For many of these programs, the present and the future in the ACC is and remains bright. However, we must remember which sport drives the bus when it comes to college athletics: the lack of overall consistency, the lack of truly top-to-bottom dominance, and the sporadic local, statewide, or national spotlight on Tech’s crown jewel — the football team — has set the narrative for the entire athletic program, exacerbating Tech’s drift from the center of Atlanta’s sporting psyche to its periphery.
The logical end for this football-dominated narrative is the broader question of the ideological alignment of the athletic association and other significant campus stakeholders on the importance of collegiate athletics. Certainly, there have been times where this structural agreement between all parties has ebbed and flowed — notably, almost ending one of Tech's golden eras just before it began. The first major challenge to Tech’s tradition of blending athletic prowess and academic rigor came in 1951, as a vocal movement developed amongst educational leaders to deemphasize athletics at both the University System of Georgia’s schools involved at the highest levels (read: Georgia Tech and the university of Georgia). These critics called for the implementation of several measures aimed to decrease financial costs of sustaining athletic programs in the wake of the implementation of the “two-platoon system” (having different players play offense and defense) and the salacious fallout from various postwar cheating scandals on the court and the gridiron. But this challenge eventually abated, with Tech collecting the 1952 national championship title, along with two other awarded (but unclaimed) national titles in the years that followed.
However, in the 1970s, the doldrums of independence, financial doom and gloom, and the evolution of Tech from its roots as a plucky practical local engineering school into a modern research institution in the model of MIT or CalTech set an increasing number of students, administrators, and (in particular) faculty on the path towards a University of Chicago-style full cessation of the athletic program. As the winds of deemphasis swirled through the decade, Tech’s athletic department faced an existential crisis: faced with the possibility of financial ruin, what really was the future of athletics at Georgia Tech? The answer to that came in the form of a blue ribbon panel, which convened athletic directors from Miami, Delaware, and North Carolina (notably, the latter of whom was future Georgia Tech athletic director Homer Rice). This panel made three key recommendations for returning the department to solvency:
- Athletics should directly solicit alumni for donations.
- Athletics should levy a student fee to help cover operational costs.
- Tech should seek conference membership once again, as television and bowl revenues had only grown since Tech departed the SEC.
Thus, alumni donors were courted to fund the program much to their chagrin (and the constant ringing of their telephones, as the Alumni Association and the Athletic Association often competed for dollars). A student athletic fee was eventually created, and Tech found a willing conference partner in the Metro (McMath, 1988).
However, Tech found the Metro neither financially lucrative nor compelling to fans and general competitive interest, both in part due to the lack of a football association amongst the members, who were smaller, basketball-oriented schools outside of its traditional geographic footprint. The SEC rebuked several Tech attempts at a return, citing both its contentment with its current ten team membership and noting that the institutional memory of both Tech’s arrogance while it had been a member and its controversial departure had not yet and would not soon be forgotten. Without a football partner, Tech was left adrift.
Then the Atlantic Coast Conference extended an olive branch, offering to make the Institute its eighth member. Not only was Tech perceived to bring the benefit of a consistent top football team to the table — despite being essentially a basketball backwater in the hoops-heavy league, historically inconsistent in baseball, and all but irrelevant since the 1950s in the “country club” or Olympic sports that the conference historically dominated — but it also made the conference the preeminent power in television markets from Washington, DC and Baltimore through to Atlanta and Savannah (or so the league thought).
So rather than applying a complete deemphasis of athletics, Tech found itself shifting focus: the football-dominated world of the SEC gave way to a broader base of other sports, especially as Title IX incorporated NCAA-sponsored women’s sports into athletic programming. But this shift didn’t just happen in athletics: in the firm belief of administration and faculty on the Hill, the ACC itself was more academically compelling and compatible with the postwar focus of the Institute as a formidable modern research institution than the SEC had ever been. On the whole, the ACC’s positioning as a collection of holistic academic institutions that simply shared a bond via sports rather than football factories that occasionally provided educations was seen as an acceptable tradeoff, especially considering the call of the late 1960s and early 1970s included calls for Tech to drop to Division III or even close up shop on athletics altogether.
Today, concerns of athletic deemphasis are more intangible, more focused on perception than fiscal reality (Tech’s debt situation aside, but we’ll get there soon enough). One could make the argument that the shift to a more holistic athletic program was not only a necessary compromise, but also one that was historically overdue, given the importance of offering women equal opportunity in athletics. While the number of men’s sports at Tech has fluctuated around nine, the addition of eight women’s sports (with softball and volleyball notably excelling in terms of conference titles) offer some evidence that Tech’s move to the ACC broadened and diversified its athletic base. However, it’s important to mention that this expansion was required by federal law in Title IX and Tech’s position in this explicit measure of equality and implicit measure of program investment remains below par: Tech still does not offer anywhere near as diverse an athletic portfolio as many of its conference peers (most notably, Tech is the only Power 5 athletic department to lack a women’s soccer team). On the balance of individual sport offerings, it’s hard to definitively claim that Tech has properly supported and invested in a diverse athletic base.
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t trying. Usually, the sizable debt yoked to the Georgia Tech Athletic Association wouldn’t be seen as a net positive (certainly not on a balance sheet, mind you), but its scope and size surely indicate that the program has continually done everything it can to finance as best as possible to keep up with the ever-inflating costs of competing at the highest level. And just as an Association, Institute, and support base that do not care about sports don’t spend far into nine figures to stay relevant in athletics, they also do not raise nine figures to keep that program running, either — on top of its debt load, Tech can also point to blowing its recent athletics-specific fundraising goals out of the water and the allocation of a portion of the Institute’s recently-announced $2B Transforming Tomorrow campaign as further signs of continued investment and support for collegiate sports. Further still, the alignment between school administration and athletic department runs deep enough that intercollegiate athletics became a dedicated plank in the Institute’s new strategic plan, with a stated goal of said plan being to “further integrate intercollegiate athletics into our campus life and local community, in the promotion of a culture of well-being.” The Institute sees the value of the athletics department’s longstanding Total Person Program (first developed by the aforementioned Homer Rice) and looks to integrate it into campus life by “embed[ding] a total person approach into every academic program with a focus on the holistic development and physical and psychological well-being of every student.” Given these factors, it’s clear that the Institute and GTAA are now in productive lock-step when it comes to current and future fiscal commitment to athletics.
Atlanta as an Evolving Hub
But what about Atlanta’s cultural commitment to Georgia Tech athletics? As the city’s metro area has grown in population and sprawled ever further into its hinterlands, its historic dearth of entertainment, arts, and professional sports has become a massive glut, and ever-increasing numbers of transplants from around the Southeast and from the cities and towns of the north have further diluted Tech’s share of the college athletic market. The Yellow Jackets now find themselves forced to compete with Big Ten and ACC graduates for mindshare in their own city, while said city also plays host to the SEC’s crown jewel event, its football conference championship game a short stroll south from campus.
The Melting Pot
It’s important that we first lay down some context for Tech’s plight in Atlanta: in a traditional college town (and also in its immediately surrounding areas), the school is its center of gravity, culturally, ideologically, and philosophically. It implicitly holds all the attention, and locals often adopt the school as the one they support, regardless of graduation status.
As we’ve established previously, Tech was Atlanta’s center of sporting and upper-crust gravity during the first half of the 20th century — for the majority of this period, Tech wasn’t just “in” Atlanta; it was “of” it, too.
But as we’ve walked out so far in this series, this paradigm can not be farther from Tech’s current reality. Simply (and almost hilariously) put, Atlanta is not a traditional college town in any sense of the term.
There are 15 or so Fortune 500 companies with major offices in the city and countless other recognizable corporations and places of business in the vicinity as well. That means one important thing: a large influx of college graduates, especially those originating from the surrounding region. Auburn, Alabama, Tennessee, the school in Athens, Clemson, and South Carolina (to name a few) are all within a short driving distance of Atlanta, with the rest of the SEC and much of the ACC within a day’s drive. Graduates from top academic colleges across the country (Michigan, Duke, Vanderbilt, Stanford, member the Ivy League, etc.) also see Atlanta as a desirable destination for jobs in finance, technology, and law. And this is all before we consider immediate hyperlocal competition: the Atlanta area itself is home to several other colleges besides Tech: among them, Georgia State, Emory, Spelman, and Morehouse. This confluence of alumni makes it incredibly hard for Tech to pick up the so-called “sidewalk fans” of the city: they’re often already spoken for, usually by a big-name school that commands a lot of cultural attention. All of these transplants bring their college allegiances with them, much like how older transplants might bring pro sports ones.
There’s obviously a particularly painful expression of this for Tech fans: our biggest rival needs somewhere to send its graduates and there are a lot more of them than there are of us (about twice as many to be exact). The alumni of the school in Athens flock to the career opportunities in Atlanta just like everyone else from the SEC. Even if you attended one of the hundreds of other high education schools in Georgia, there’s a good chance that you still root for the Bulldogs. Maybe your alma mater was small and didn’t have football, maybe you come from an Athenian family, or maybe you married into one — the list of reasons is long and the barrier to entry is surprisingly low! Even if you’re a transplant, you might be convinced that this team is the local one, given the sheer volume of media oxygen it takes up.
The latest talented college athlete we’ve teamed up with for #NIL is one of the best players in the country on the #1 team in the nation, Jordan Davis.— Morgan & Morgan (@forthepeople) October 12, 2021
We are proud to partner with @jordanxdavis99, a great young man with a bright future ahead!#GoDawgs x #ForThePeople pic.twitter.com/aJrM3TVcCE
And that Athenian bias is much harder to escape from within Atlanta city limits than the average out-of-towner realizes. Multiple billboards in town advertise their football program — you can even see some from Bobby Dodd itself. A former running back of theirs is running for a U.S. Senate seat and might win simply off of his name and affiliation alone. The football team has a one hour — again, ONE HOUR — pregame show on over-the-air television (not even cable you have to pay for!) every Saturday. They enjoy first billing over every one of the local pro sports franchises on local news; Atlanta sports-talk radio stations can rarely find time for anything else in their schedules. Even the radio station that carries Tech football and basketball games rarely finds a single extra second to talk about those programs other than those they’re contractually obligated to provide. Other “divided” states (Texas, Florida, and North Carolina come to mind) enjoy more of a balance amongst all rival teams, but the overwhelming population difference coupled with a metropolitan setting leaves us to drown in a sea of red and inky black. It is inescapable and their fans are proud of it.
Differentiation in a City with Everything
Even if you set aside the local collegiate cultural hegemony, there’s still a strong pro sports scene to break through. The Braves, Falcons, Hawks, Dream, and United command a lot of interest from locals, and as such, it’s tough to expect people to add Tech to their rotation unless they have a pre-existing or compelling reason to do so (e.g. their own degree or degrees in their family). The city is flush with sporting options for members of the 18-to-35-year-old demographic to spend their disposable income on. Why should someone spend $50/game on a season ticket or $20 face value on a single-game ticket to watch a struggling college football team in a half-empty stadium when they can spend $30/game for a good-to-great pro soccer or basketball team? Recent Tech football games have featured empty stands, a large away-crowd presence, and general disinterest — a United game has often far and away a better atmosphere to spend your money on (with the notable exception of that club’s 2022 downturn— but that’s neither here nor there).
Outside of sports, there are literally thousands of entertainment options in the city: Events, theater, music, museums, food, shopping, festivals, exhibits; remember, Atlanta is the cultural hub of the South. We’re not even talking about just gameday attendance here; there’s almost an overwhelming number of things the average Atlanta resident can occupy their mind with throughout the year — why should they add a Tech sports following to that list? Better on-field or on-court performance would likely lead to more local attention and turnout, but at this point, Tech’s revenue sports don’t make (and haven’t made for a while) a competitive value proposition for Atlanta citizens. It’s just one more thing that makes it hard to pick up new casual fans, limiting the fanbase to just graduates and family members.
To put it poetically, Tech’s residence in modern day Atlanta is both a blessing and a curse. There’s certainly a lot to gain from being in the cultural epicenter of the South: Atlanta has moved fast over the past 50 years, and Georgia Tech as an institution has largely done a great job of moving with it: the school has expended a huge amount of effort to make itself central and indispensable to the rapid business, technology, and industrial development happening in the city, and that focus has been a boon to its most important audience: its students.
But for an athletics program, that gain comes with built-in challenges. The Institute doesn’t live in a simple college town where it can dominate attention just by existing; it lives in a melting pot of fanbases with a bias towards its biggest rival. Without a massive alumni population to drive broad visibility and culture, it’s left struggling to differentiate itself in a city with a thousand other interests. The cultural and demographic makeup of our surroundings makes it an arduous undertaking to gain a real foothold in the modern city and convert new fans. Everyone is either spoken for or busy with something else.
But let’s be clear: these problems didn’t just appear out of nowhere. In athletic department reports as early as 1969, athletic director Bobby Dodd noted that “we regard the future of the Georgia Tech Athletic Association with concern, even pessimism,” in the face of rapid shifts in the consumption of everyday Atlantans, the proliferation of accessible games of interest to the television consumer, and increased competition for entertainment dollars in Atlanta (McMath, 1988). Even in the 1980s, McMath et al. describe this combination of waning interest coupled with declining football gate receipts, bowl revenues, and mounting debt from a poorly timed expansion of Grant Field as an “impending disaster” for Tech athletics.
So given that the writing was on the wall, it might be tempting to walk out the what-ifs at play for Georgia Tech during this period: primarily, what if Tech had never left the SEC? Would it have avoided all of this institutional strife? Would it have retained Atlantan mindshare? How competitive would it be in athletics today? Would it still be fighting these same battles for attention at home in its own city?
But thinking about these counterfactuals is a double-edged sword: the theoretical wealth and status that might have come from staying the course in the SEC come saddled with the more piercing matter of what could have occurred if Tech had succumbed to faculty pressure and dropped athletics entirely. There are just so many possible ways that Georgia Tech athletics could exist today had things gone differently at any point in the last 60 years, given its position as both a top-level research institution and its desire to be an athletic competitor.
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.