The Peach Bowl celebrates at 50

There are a million ways to tell this story and all of them, we are glad to report, have a happy ending.

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It is the story of a sporting event—a college football bowl game to be precise—that began its life some 50 years ago this month. For those of us of a certain age, the fact that the Peach Bowl has been in Atlanta for a half century elicits two responses: The shake of a head with ample gray around the temples and a very wry smile.

The gray, of course, comes with Father Time, who is still undefeated. The smile comes from those who were here at the beginning, who were told that for reasons ranging from bad match-ups to truly dreadful weather (not BAD, but DREADFUL), to a lack of cold, hard cash, that the Peach Bowl would always be stuck on the outside looking in at the Big Boy Bowls who dominated the post-season landscape: Cotton, Sugar, Rose, Orange.

That’s just the way it was. At least that’s what the critics said.

Well, well. Just look at the Peach Bowl now. It is now one of the prestigious New Year’s Six bowls and every three years hosts a semifinal game in the four-team College Football Playoffs. Thanks to generous sponsors like Chick-fil-A and the support of a community that has been second to none, the Peach has become one of the best bowl experiences in post-season college football. The Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl is very much in the big leagues.

Don’t take my word for it. Ask the players and coaches who strapped it up for this game. That’s what they tell Gary Stokan, the visionary President and CEO of the game since 1998.

“We always knew that Atlanta had everything that was necessary to make the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl among the very best in the business,” said Stokan. “Bowls don’t become great without community involvement. And this is Atlanta’s game. It always has been. Our volunteers are second to none.”

So what’s the best way to tell this incredible story? Simple. You do it through the people and the events that moved the ball down the field to success.

With your permission I’ll jump in first with a personal memory.

The first Peach Bowl was played on Dec. 30, 1968 at Georgia Tech’s historic Grant Field. LSU, coached by Charlie McClendon, held off Florida State, coached by Bill Peterson, 31-27.

My first Peach Bowl was the last of three played at Grant Field in 1970. A bunch of my teammates from Greene County High School joined me in the upper deck to watch undefeated Arizona State, led by future NFL stars like J.D. Hill, outscore North Carolina and the great Don McCauley 48-26. Those who were there mostly remember the weather because in the span of a few hours it rained, sleeted and eventually snowed. But it was my first bowl game and I was going to stay until the bitter end.

I didn’t know it at the time, but there were two people on the field who would play a big part in my life and my career.

North Carolina was coached by Bill Dooley. His older brother Vince, the head coach at Georgia, was there as a show of support.

“But when it started snowing and the game got out of reach I decided it was time to go,” said Coach Dooley, who would bring his 1973 team to the Peach Bowl. “I waved to him on the field. He understood. At least I think he did. At that point he probably wanted to go with me.”

Dooley is in the Peach Bowl Hall of Fame as both a coach and an administrator. Bill Dooley is also in the HOF.

One of Bill Dooley’s players on the field that night was John Swofford, a quarterback/defensive back from North Wilkesboro, N.C. Swofford would go on to become the director of athletics at North Carolina and eventually the commissioner of the Atlanta Coast Conference, a post he still holds today.

Swofford is also in the Peach Bowl Hall of Fame.

The bad weather of 1970 would become a familiar theme throughout the first 25 years of the bowl. But that didn’t keep the Peach from having some great, great games:

1973: Georgia’s defense gave up only one touchdown and beat Maryland 17-16.

1975: West Virginia’s Don Kendra threw a 50-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter as the Mountaineers beat N.C. State 13-10. It would the last game for N.C. State coach Lou Holtz before he left for the New York Jets.

1984: Virginia, coached by George Welsh, rallied from a double-digit deficit at halftime to beat Purdue 27-24. It was the first bowl game ever for Virginia.

1985: The worst weather day ever for the Peach produced one of its best games as Army stopped a two-point conversion with 34 seconds left to beat Illinois 31-29.

1986: Virginia Tech, coached by Bill Dooley, drove 57 yards and kicked a field goal on the last play of the game to beat N.C. State 25-21.

1991: In the last Peach Bowl played at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, East Carolina, coached by Bill Lewis, rallied from a 17-point deficit to beat in-state rival N.C. State 37-34.

A side note on this game: The late Robert Dale Morgan, the executive director at the time, called and asked what I thought of the all-North Carolina matchup before he announced it. I had worked for a newspaper in Greensboro, N.C., before coming to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1984. East Carolina-N.C. State was one of the bitterest rivalries I covered in my time in North Carolina.

“Robert Dale, you’ll sell it out in an hour,” I told him.

The game drew 59,322 fans, the largest crowd in Peach Bowl history up to that point.

Then things started happening off the field that would change the course of the Peach Bowl forever.

**--In 1991 ESPN become the exclusive TV partner for the game. That was huge and the ratings reflected it, especially when the game was played on New Year’s Eve, which became a semi-permanent home.

**--In 1992 there were two important events. The Georgia Dome opened and thus weather would never be an issue again. The bowl also became an ACC vs. SEC matchup. Not surprisingly, a string of sellouts followed as most fan bases were within an easy drive to Atlanta.

**--In 1996 I sat in a meeting room at the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce building as Stokan and Steve Robinson of Chick-fil-A laid out the plans for the restaurant chain to sign on as a title sponsor. That multi-million dollar commitment of money and promotional resources positioned the Peach Bowl for the climb towards the top of the post-season football pecking order.

“Chick-fil-A and college football was the perfect fit,” Robinson told me at the time. “College football fans have been our customers for a long time.”

And from the mothership that was the Chick-fil-Peach Bowl the following things were launched: The Chick-fil-A Kickoff games, which Stokan accurately calls “The Daytona 500 of college football” because it kicks off the season with big-time matchups.

The College Football Hall of Fame built its new, state of the art facility in Atlanta. That doesn’t happen without the support of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.

In 2013 the cherry was placed on top of the sundae as the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl is named one of the six bowls (Sugar, Rose, Orange, Cotton, Fiesta are the others) to be a part of the new College Football Playoff.

But, as is always the case with any great success story, it happened because of great people:

**--The 50th anniversary team reads like a Hall of Fame class: Jim Kelly (Miami), Ron Sellers (Florida State), Matt Stinchcomb (Georgia), Jason Witten (Tennessee), Don McCauley (North Carolina), Randy White (Maryland), Reggie White (Tennessee), Mike Singletary (Baylor). The list is just incredible. Here is the entire 50th anniversary team.

And the coaches? How about Vince Dooley (Georgia), Bobby Bowden (Florida State), George Welsh (Virginia), Lou Holtz (N.C. State), Phillip Fulmer (Tennessee), Jerry Claiborne (Maryland), Johnny Majors (Tennessee), Frank Kush (Arizona State), Don Nehlen (West Virginia ), Pat Dye (Auburn), Steve Spurrier (South Carolina), Danny Ford (Clemson)?

All the people who gave their time and talents to this success story are too numerous to be listed here. Here are just a few:

**--George Crumbley started the game as a fundraiser for the Lions Lighthouse of the Blind and was the executive director of the Peach Bowl for the first 18 years of its existence. We lost George in 2009.

**--Robert Dale Morgan, who brought his business expertise and dynamic personality to the game, served as executive director (1986-98). He passed away at the age of 50.

**--So many volunteers like Bob Coggin and Ron Allen of Delta Airlines. Albert Tarica, who was there on day one, was fittingly, on the podium for the trophy presentation for the CFP semifinal game between Alabama and Washington last season.

“It is hard to believe how far we have come,” said Tarica. “It has been a real dream come true.”

**--When I think of this game I think of Patti Young, who has been the pleasant and welcoming voice on the other end of the phone at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl offices for 47 years. She is now Stokan’s executive assistant.

**--Stokan’s sports marketing expertise and vision came at exactly the same time the popularity of college football was exploding. There is no way to measure his contributions to this story.

“In many ways it’s been an amazing journey but we are not surprised,” said Stokan. “We have the best city in the world to host big events and the best corporate community and volunteer organization you can find anywhere.”

And yes, others have noticed. The Chick-fil-A Peach bowl will have its regular game on Jan. 1 when Auburn faces UCF as the lead-in game to the Rose Bowl, the first of two CFP national semifinals.

But seven days later, in the bright new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta will host the CFP National Championship game. There are a million people to thank on that one but, without question, Atlanta does not get the CFP championship game without the groundwork laid by the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl for half a century.

So congratulations to all of the volunteers, some of whom went door to door to sell tickets in the early days. Congratulations to all of the staff and all of the Atlanta business community who shared the vision of what this game could become. This belongs to you.

The Peach Bowl has come a long, long way since that cold, snowy night in the upper deck of Grant Field.

I can’t wait to see what the next 50 years will bring.