Thursday midnight in the great college town, and the lights in the trees on Clayton Street lend magic, and the students whisking from bar to bar in the frigidity exhibit one of the estimable knacks of their generation: Most wear no coats, a continuing hint that humans might be accruing a fresh evolutionary toughness.
It’s a sparse night out, although not too sparse to witness that familiar collegiate sight of a student falling completely off her elevated heels and onto the sidewalk. (She seemed uninjured.) Apparently a chunk of the students haven’t made it back from winter break that ended Thursday, and, further, it’s not so much 22 degrees as 22 merciless, outrageous, freaking degrees. Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know” chirps out of some subterranean establishment, and the famous pub The Globe has turned out the lights and lifted the chairs onto the tables. There’s a bar alleged to be for freshmen, and it looks about one-third busy.
Something’s coming, though. Something is coming.
Or, as December 2017 graduate Zach Griffin said, “You can just kind of feel it.”
Or, as Athens Mayor Nancy Denson said, “The level of excitement is just palpable.”
Or, as Lisee Pullara, editor in chief of The Red and Black student newspaper, wrote in an email, “The atmosphere is just different in Athens.”
In that sense, Georgia could serve now as a test case for an anthropological study of the weird American habit of college football. There’s a sense in the air you might call a 13-1 sense, which differs from a 10-3 sense or especially an 8-5 sense. The 13-1 sense stems from the presence of Georgia (13-1) in the College Football Playoff national championship game, with the curious arrangement that this bout against Alabama (12-1) somehow will occur only 72 miles away in Atlanta, from which many of Georgia’s 37,000-plus students hail, and where many might be in hiding from classes until Tuesday.
Of course, they might not wind up hiding in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, for which ticket prices listed in a Red and Black graphic this week ranged from $1,910 to $7,475 on Ticketmaster and $1,919 to $25,000 (!) on StubHub. Many will seek the sense of community here, with the campus forever sitting just across the street from downtown and its 80-odd taverns.
“We are expecting larger-than-normal crowds,” atypical for a Monday, said Epifanio Rodriguez, public information officer for the Athens-Clarke County Police Department. He said also, “We are pooling more officers downtown.”
Here in Athens lies a measure, at least, of the feeling unleashed baseball-wise in Boston in 2004 or Chicago in 2016: A sense of long-standing dread has lifted. A self-preservationist pessimism has yielded to a robust trust. For decades since Georgia’s title-game appearance in 1982 that followed its national title of 1980, Bulldogs fans have learned to live with both their self-image as utmost contenders with ballyhooed recruiting classes and with following a program that majored in not quite – or, really, almost not quite.
From 2001 to ’15, Mark Richt amassed a record of 145-51 as Georgia’s coach. The 2002 season brought 13-1, the 2007 season brought 11-2, the 2012 season brought 12-2, but none of those brought any involvement in any title games, and by late November 2015, that thin discrepancy wreaked Richt’s ouster.
Those years also injected fan bloodstreams with a vague gloom, that rare gloom-with-a-high-winning-percentage – mingled, remember, with a college town for which football is humongous but not unchallenged, what with Athens’s rich history in areas such as music (the B-52s, R.E.M., et al.).
“Here’s a good way to put it,” said Patrick Garbin, who has written eight books on Georgia football history and who started turning up in Sanford Stadium in 1981, at age 6. Referring to Monday’s Rose Bowl, when Georgia trailed 31-14 but won against Oklahoma, he said, “In the past, Georgia could have been on the other side of that,” holding a 17-point advantage, and fans would have perceived that such a lead “wouldn’t be safe at all.”
“Every year,” he said, “there are just one or two games where it just seemed Georgia didn’t show up, didn’t play to standard. I think fans got used to that so much that even this year, I think it took until November” for the dread to erode.
Said Griffin, the recent graduate: “I think for the most part it was going into games, and it was saying, ‘Which Georgia team’s going to show up?’ . . . There were some games when it was just like, ‘What happened? What was the team’s mind-set going into that game?’ “
Regarding gaudily ranked recruiting classes, there would come questions such as, Griffin said: “‘What happened to this guy?’ ‘Why didn’t this guy pan out?’ ‘Why did this guy go to the NFL and get so much better?’ “
As a result, Griffin would come across a regular strain of conversation in The Red Zone, the kind of downtown apparel store that aims to sell garb boasting of championships, and where he is a manager. While he, an Athens native, found himself attending school in one era, customers who attended in another, the early 1980s, would speak of Herschel Walker romping around the field, Georgia as a tiptop contender, and oh, the bands that played at the 40 Watt Club and the Georgia Theatre. “It was just a golden era,” Griffin concluded from listening.
In 2016, first-year Coach Kirby Smart, who played defensive back for Georgia in the good-and-tepid 1990s and studied for 11 seasons in three places under Alabama Coach Nick Saban, went 8-5, with losses to Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech and the kind of nut-bag Hail Mary loss to Tennessee that legitimizes dread. Yet faster that anyone expected, in his second season Smart has slain complacency, shooed comfort and gone 13-1.
“The sales really hadn’t exploded until after the SEC championship game,” a 28-7 victory over Auburn on Dec. 2, Griffin said of the store. Then: “The month of December was just mayhem.” And so: “We needed more people to work at times.”
Now, one enters town to an electronic billboard reading “Roll The Tide,” language one perhaps ought not use about a hard Alabamian dynasty.
Now, Griffin said, everyone in Athens is in love with running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, with linebackers Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy, such that, “I think fans certainly have adjusted to a different kind of experience,” and, crazily, “I think there’s a lot of trust.”
Now, wrote Pullara, the student editor, “Even though these last few games were not in Athens, the city still has been so alive after a win. There’s hope in the air, something Georgia fans haven’t had in a while.”
And now, arguably “the most frustrated fan base in college football until this season,” Garbin said, has found its richest enthusiasm “since certainly then,” with everybody knowing what “then” means, and, of course, “maybe ever.”
So the freshmen of the day have entered upon an era of quick gold and further promise. They’ll still have classes Monday and Tuesday, having received from the administration an email claiming to have “consulted the practices of comparable universities that have played in the championship” and found it is “not commonplace to formally cancel classes due to game participation.”
Still, come Monday night, Athens figures to fill, as will Atlanta, and some might even fall off their heels.