By now you have probably heard that our younger brethren and sistren over on North Avenue have reached a blockbuster deal with auto maker Hyundai to sponsor their field.
Under the pact announced earlier this week, Hyundai will pay Georgia Tech around $55 million over 20 years for naming rights to the patch of turf formerly known as Grant Field. The Stadium in which the field is situated will remain Bobby Dodd Stadium. I’ve gotten a good chuckle out of that on eight to ten separate occasions since the deal was announced. It will take me awhile to explain, but stay with me.
The stadium itself was renamed from Grant Stadium to Bobby Dodd Stadium in 1988 in honor of the former Georgia Tech coach and athletic director. Dodd did two memorable things on The Flats. He won a whole lot of football games (165-64-8 overall with a national title in 1952).
Dodd’s Jackets were the closest thing to a pro sports team in Atlanta before the Braves and Falcons came to town. He enjoyed a reputation as a scholar in both the classical and gridiron sense. Dodd was the type of guy addressed as “Coach” by those genuinely seeking to show respect. To be clear, nothing said from this point forward should disabuse you of the simple fact that Dodd outcoached his contemporaries for a solid twenty years, and is a legend not just on North Avenue, but in the history of college football broadly.
But the thing he did which has had the greatest impact on the fortunes of the Trade School was withdrawing the Yellow Jackets from the SEC following the 1963 season, when he had transitioned over to athletic director. Notionally, Dodd was upset that his SEC contemporaries were over-signing, taking players on Signing Day then cutting a significant number over the summer following try-out camps. This was too late for those players to then catch on at another school where their talents might have been useful, and at which they could have gotten an education. It was an unfair practice, abhorrent even. Dodd was right to be upset about it.
For years however there have also been rumors that the gentlemanly Dodd also didn’t appreciate the brutal tactics of newly minted Alabama coach Bear Bryant. The Bear won his first national title in 1961 following a game in which a Georgia Tech player’s career was ended by a late hit from Tide linebacker Darwin Holt. Dodd demanded Bryant suspend Holt for the hit, the Alabama coach declined to do so.
Dodd lobbied and the powers-that-were agreed for the Yellow Jackets to join the likes of Notre Dame and (at the time) Penn State as athletic independents. At the time the move seemed principled, and not necessarily costly. History has shown the decision to be pretty pricey.
A 1990 split national title and some decent years under Nobel Prize and Tony winner* George O’Leary aside, the decision dropped the Tech football program by a solid tier in the college football firmament. The Jackets were 10-4 against Georgia in the fourteen years prior to the Jackets’ exit. They were 4-10 over the next fourteen (the last of those was the beginning of a six year losing streak).
Perhaps there’s a smidgen of correlation in my causation here. Vince Dooley may have had a hand in things, for example. But I believe I could get even a handful of Tech partisans to agree that whatever Dodd may have thought he was doing for Georgia Tech academics, as athletic director he ushered in a steady decline of Georgia Tech football.
After a few years in the wilderness as an independent Tech ultimately joined the ACC, a conference of similarly well-respected academic institutions, and also Clemson. And while the ACC has clearly remained a prestige conference over the ensuing 45 years, it’s not the SEC.
It’s not the SEC on the playing field, and it’s also not quite the SEC in monetary terms. Georgia Tech is still paying off Geoff Collins’ $11 million buyout and owed recently fired basketball coach Josh Pastner $2.5 million. This would be a lot of money for most athletic programs. It puts the Jackets into the category of “cash-strapped.”
Which brings us back to Dodd’s fateful hissy fit, and the name game currently occurring at the Joke by Coke.
Grant Field is no more. So now seems like a good time to ask oneself “How did it come to be?” The answer is that the field was named after Hugh Inman Grant, the deceased son of Tech trustee John W. Grant, who gave $15,000 for the naming rights. That’s a touching story that doesn’t pay the bills of an athletic program with national aspirations stuck in a regional conference.
The ACC distributed $39.5 million to member schools for 2021-22. The SEC schools got $49.9 million, full share members of the Big Ten $58.8 million. If you think the ACC’s current revenue stream appears untenable to the likes of Florida State and Clemson, imagine what it looks like to a school like Tech, which also takes in less revenue from ticket sales, merchandise, and other miscellaneous sources.
I suppose it’s possible the Yellow Jackets would have left the SEC at some point without Dodd. But they certainly were never in danger of getting kicked out. A conference that has kept Vanderbilt around through thick and thin would certainly find room for the gang from Atlanta.
It’s also a bit ironic that in the 60 years since Dodd’s high-minded exit many of the land grant colleges Tech left behind (Georgia, Florida, and Kentucky for example) have grown into world-class research universities the likes of which he would have certainly approved. That’s to say nothing of schools like Missouri and Texas A&M, new arrivals with solid academic pedigrees in their own right.
In short, Dodd turned his back on a conference with classroom bona fides, success on the athletic fields, and cash in the bank to support both. No one can foresee the future. But Bobby Dodd’s crystal ball was more faulty than he or his colleagues could have ever imagined.
Humans have a tendency to look back on our decisions and determine that they worked out for the best, or at least okay. Over a long enough life this regret minimization may be the only way to stay sane. And so if you ask Georgia Tech fans they will tell you that the decision to bail on the SEC was the right one for the Ramblin’ Wreck, a proud institution that just didn’t belong with the hoi polloi of the SEC. They see themselves as coevals of Wake Forest and Duke, not Mississippi State or LSU.
But in reality Georgia Tech isn’t that far from Cal-Berkeley, another top five public university that currently finds itself seeking refuge in any athletic port that will accept it. Objectively Georgia Tech isn’t in a horrible position, but an opportunity cost analysis yields the simple conclusion that they’d be a whole lot more secure in the SEC, a place where they likely would still be had Dodd not thrown one of college football’s more noteworthy tantrums.
Georgia Tech’s financial insecurity makes a multi-million dollar naming deal with a car company a shrewd business decision. There’s no way around that, and the athletic department should be lauded for doing what they need to do on behalf of students and fans. But there’s a real irony to the fact that the man who arguably put them in the position to have to do it will still have his name on the stadium. At least until a better offer comes along.