You could argue that this all started with a goat.
The pet of UGA student Bob Gantt, the goat was there when Georgia beat Mercer 50-0 in its first ever football game in 1892. Thinking he might have brought Georgia’s newly formed football team some measure of luck, Gantt brought the goat to Atlanta’s Piedmont Park three weeks later for the university’s second ever game.
The goat wore a black coat with the letters “U.G.” sewn on in red and donned a hat with ribbons trailing down his horns. Officially, the University of Georgia’s football program suffered its first ever loss that day, falling 10-0 to Auburn. Years later, one of the men who played that day would tell UGA athletic historian Loran Smith that the official missed two Georgia touchdowns when he ran across the street to buy some booze.
The game played on February 20, 1892 marked the first installment of the “Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry.” Whatever the score was, the events that occurred afterward might be more important to collegiate football as we now know it.
Just as it is now, Atlanta in those days was the biggest destination for UGA alumni entering the workforce after graduation. On that winter Saturday in Piedmont Park, plenty of Georgia alums showed up to take a watch this new thing called football and cheer for their alma mater.
After Georgia lost those fans became disgruntled. Somehow this anger got directed at Gantt’s goat. This would be the first time in Georgia Football history that something would be deemed lucky right up until being deemed unlucky. It would not be the last. (Example: jerseys, black - 2007—present)
Soon the team’s unofficial mascot was being barbecued right there in Piedmont Park. The fans gathered around the now cooked goat with alcoholic beverages and a party ensued. That party was the very first tailgate.
Princeton and Rutgers played the first game of collegiate football in 1869, birthing the sport. Walter Camp, a Yale man, was responsible for the early rule changes that turned the sport into something slightly above a medieval scrum. An injury to Teddy Roosevelt’s son when he was on Harvard’s freshman team lead to the legalization of the forward pass.
The institutions of the North may be where the game of football was invented, but it was the South who brought the circus to the sport. It started in 1892 with a goat roast. Since then the circus has included the hilarious, the absurd, and everything in-between.
The South’s version of college football has a heavy dose of passion. That passion has brought us tree poisonings in Auburn, touchdowns registering on the Richter scale in Baton Rouge, an angry grounds crew with its stadium’s hoses turned on the opposing fans after a Georgia upset of Auburn, boosters buying players, coaches fired for lewd acts uncovered by fans… The list goes on and on. The one thing these stories always have in common is passionate fans.
We had football last year, but the circus never really came to town. With reduced capacity. no tailgating, and many other changes that separated fans from the sport, college football didn’t feel quite the same. We were incredibly lucky to have any games at all, but 2020 was the most joyless season we’ve ever seen. Its completion felt more like a relief than a conclusion. After a year away, the energy is palpable.
I was traveling through Jackson Hole, Wyoming for work this past week and had a few free hours to explore nearby Grand Teton National Park. I happened to be wearing a Georgia shirt on that afternoon. A few folks sought me out to say “Go Dawgs!” A few others sought me out to say “Roll Tide” or “Go Gators.” I even had a chat about the shifting dynamics of the Mountain West with a couple of the natives. Will the exodus of Bryan Harsin be the thing that finally destabilizes the Boise State machine? Wyoming fans sure hope so.
Every one of those interactions ended the same way- two grown men who didn’t know each other giddily telling one another how excited they are for a real college football season.
Josh Pate of 247 Sports has been calling 2021 “college football’s renaissance season.” I’m rather fond of this term, and I agree with Josh’s assessment that we are going to see a rise in attendance and general enthusiasm around the sport this coming season. Human beings aren’t complicated creatures, and most of us take things for granted until we can’t have them. After missing the full experience in 2020, fans are already clamoring to pack stadiums.
The circus is coming back to town and it’s going to feel bigger than ever. Know that acrobat routine that you have grown tired of seeing every year? It’s going to feel like Cirque du Soleil after a year at home.
I can’t tell you when the last time I hugged a stranger was, but I can assure you that I’m going to after Georgia scores its first touchdown of the season in Charlotte. I can’t wait to be surrounded by a bunch of people wearing the same color as I am, and to have my voice become one of many yelling in unison.
The college football circus cranks back up this week with SEC Media Days, and I have never been more ready to read way too much into a random sound bite that has been taken out of context.
With so much stored up angst, there’s already a bit of college football related electricity in the air. Who knows what college football has in store for us in 2021. Whatever it is will be a welcome respite from all that we have dealt with since the end of the 2019 season.
Our sport is special because of the fans. They’re the ones who create the insanity. Hugh Freeze never gets fired if a diehard Mississippi State fan doesn’t comb through his phone records. The “Between the Hoses” game never gets its name without a bunch of enthusiastic Georgia fans being in the stands that night against Auburn.
The circus that is the SEC doesn’t exist without a region full of people who care a little too much about their favorite football team. All that was missing last year. This week we take the first step back towards football as we know it. May we never take the circus for granted again.