By George Somerville

George continues his College Football road trip with a visit to Athens, home of the Georgia Bulldogs.

I would very much like this to be a thoroughly unbiased report on my trip across the Deep South of the United States and not for it to seem to be written by a fan boy. But I cant. It was just way too much fun.

The last part of our trip was a full circle return back to Georgia. Athens, GA to be precise to see UGA Bulldogs play those Texas Aggies in a classic SEC shoot out.

Journey From Hell

We arrived late into Athens, GA on the Thursday night in what was a simply horrendous road trip from Jacksonville. Five and a half hours from Jacksonville, not including stops (we stopped off in Gainesville – see previous article), making it close to a 8 hour drive into Georgia – was not fun. While Athens is a 90min drive from Atlanta, coming from the South means you spend quite a bit of time on single track roads, which was pretty unappealing. Checking in to our hotel on Campus, there was no time or energy for food. It really was a drive and flop, especially given the early start required the next day.

On Friday morning there was no time or sympathy for driving hangovers or any lack of energy. Earlier in the year I made contact with the UGA Sports Information Department to arrange an interview with star kicker Rodrigo Blankenship. When I said back then I was coming to Athens for the game, the guys at UGA said they would be delighted to invite me on campus and to have a look around the team’s practice facility. Leland Barrow met us at the doorstep of the Butts-Mehre facility to give us the tour. Leland met us with a big southern smile and a firm handshake.

How Y'All Doing?

Now, this is where I have to introduce Southern hospitality. People in the Southern states are friendly. Real friendly and I was welcomed with open arms in Athens, generally – but none more so than at the Butts-Mehre facility. From the cleaning lady (who sadly I cannot recall her name) to the Head of Strength and Conditioning, everyone stops to say hello and asks “how y’all doing?”.

Leland is as welcoming a host as you will find in this part of the world, an UGA alumni and Bulldog through and through he has stories he could tell all night. And it was fascinating stuff. I couldn’t get enough.

State Of The Art Facilities

The facility, costing in excess of $30m is simply incredible and must be the envy of many NFL teams. I have seen nothing like it. Of course it serves many purposes and aside from having the team prepared (mentally and physically) for games, it is also a massive recruiting tool. When recruits and parents see the standard of the facilities, they want to come to Athens. This means the quality of recruitment improves, the team gets better, the team wins, more money comes into the University, more recruits want to join… get the general drift of a successful team. As a result, the University as a whole thrives from the money which comes from athletics. And while UGA is very successful in other sports (Gymnastics, swimming and tennis spring immediately to mind), it is football which brings in the huge bucks.

The indoor practice field is now 4 years old and is still state of the art. It also saves the team travelling to the Atlanta Falcons facility, which was the previous alternative in poor weather, involving the busing of the team for an hour each way – not ideal preparation, especially when the student athletes still have to find time to study.

This is no longer required and in fact, if truth be told I wonder if the Falcons aren’t just a little bit envious of the facilities at Butts-Mehre.

Rodrigo Blankenship

George & his brother with Georgia Kicker Rodrigo Blankenship

While I was touring the facility, Leland dragged Rodrigo Blankenship away from something important to come say hi. Hot Rod was about to play his last game at Dooley Field (at Stanford Stadium). He was excited about the prospect of playing his last game in front of the home crowd and looking forward to a good victory which would likely propel the Dawgs into the Championship Playoffs. While the game would be the last game at Dooley field, it would essentially be the start of the stretch of games which will take the Dawgs to a National Championship appearance.

If you saw the game you will know that Blankenship led the team out on the day and had the honour of breaking the banner – not something which is usually bestowed on a Special Teams player. But Rodrigo is different. He is, and backed by the crowd reactions, by some distance the most popular player on the team. He is also the all time leading kicker at the School and he will be missed at UGA.

A Game Of (Locker) Numbers

But back to the tour. The practice locker room had just been used and while was very impressive it smelled like, well a locker room. Thankfully my writing skills are nowhere near good enough to describe the smells of a locker room but at least it was authentic. And here is a good opportunity to touch on the professionalism of the facilities. Nothing is left to chance. It is a professional set up in all but name. Hydration areas, rest areas, play areas, eating areas – everything is there for the team. In fact the only reason they have to leave the practice facility is to go to class.

Interesting story here. The lockers are numbered with low numbers being assigned to key players on the team and higher numbers reflecting the status of walk on players (the exception being Blankenship who wears #98, but was who originally a walk on) – meaning the players sit in that order in the locker room. When Jake Fromm arrived his current number (#11) was taken and he was allocated #100. He soon after received his current number, however chose to continue to sit at locker 100, which I think tells you a lot about his maturity and his outlook on the team as a whole.

The facility has three outdoor practice fields. All grass and of the same type and cut as Sanford stadium. The grass had just been relaid on the main field, which is impressive given that they are so close to the end of the football season, but reflects the focus that Kirby Smart and the rest of the coaching staff have on finishing the season with a National Championship.

Georgia Bulldogs Indoor Facility

Samford Stadium

The indoor facility, which really is the jewel in the crown can be adapted for use by track & field and baseball if the weather turns, but is by far most used by the football team. It is hugely impressive and allows the team to prepare in all weather (hot or cold).

Back at reception my host asked if we were pressed for time as he was keen to show us the stadium. I mean, what else could I possibly be doing that I wouldn’t want to see the stadium? And off we sped in his car to Sanford stadium.It is impressive, with a capacity of just a little over 93,000. We saw the hedges (if you dont know the history of the UGA hedges during the olympics, just google it…), we saw team mascot UGA’s kennel (air-conditioned in the summer, heated in the winter), the UGA cemetery (where all previous UGA’s are buried) and the locker room.

Samford Stadium

And wow, the locker room. The locker room is huge and cost c. $63m which is a staggering sum of money in anybody’s terms.

I was lucky enough to visit the brand new NFL locker rooms at Tottenham earlier this year. They are impressive but not on the scale at Samford. They are massive. And again serves as a statement to any recruits getting a tour of the facilities prior to committing.

Samford Stadium Locker Rooms

SEC Nation

And then we were finished. It was a superb insight into the day to day running of a successful football program like Georgia. I have known for some time how big the SEC was, but in all honesty, behind the scenes it really was an eye opener.

Wondering what to do next, we found out that SEC Nation had set up on the lawn next to the stadium and would be broadcasting live on the Friday from 3pm.

So, full transparency here. I am an SEC football geek and I listen to the Paul Finebaum show whenever I get the chance. So to find out his show was coming live from the lawn was just too good an opportunity to miss. Rocking up that afternoon was quite the pinch yourself moment to see the man himself on set taking those wacky calls. It is pure theatre and I love it.

He had a collection of guests including Tim Tebow and Laura Rutledge from the SEC Nation main show. I got talking to Laura after who was knocked over by the fact that SEC Nation has viewers in the UK (Laura has Scottish heritage, so we talked a lot about Scotland) but mostly about why I had on embarked on this crazy trip around the South in search of football. And this was a general theme about the trip. People wanted to know why this part of the world, why college football and why SEC football? As you may already know, Laura is the anchor on the show and an accomplished journalist, so it really was a thrill to talk about college football with her.

George with Laura Rutledge

"What'll Ya Have?"

Last up was Kirby Smart who was running late and arrived like a rockstar by police escort. Coach Smart is every inch the King of Athens and arrived and left like he was the President. In fact I saw him the next day on the Marty & McGee show arriving exactly the same way, so I am inclined to think that the Head Coach rolls this way all the time.

And this leads me on to perhaps my favourite duo on Southern TV. If you haven’t seen the dynamic duo that is Ryan McGee and Marty Smith, please get yourself a stream. And please do yourself a favour and watch the section Hillbilly headlines. It is classic viewing.

And as I have said in prior articles about the trip, some interactions have just been completely sporadic, unintentional but mostly bizarre.

An Athens icon, the Varsity hamburger joint was across from our hotel. Being both tired and lazy, we decided to dine at the Varsity that night. It is a simple concept. The server yells at you – “what’ll ya have”, you get a burger (or in my case the excellent chilli dog) and you sit down to eat after some more verbage from the serving staff ( truth be told I have no idea what was going on…). As an establishment it has been in existence for over 90 years, so there must be something to this thoroughly rude service. But this detracts from the purpose of this story. The restaurant was packed and we chose to sit all the way to the back where only one other table was. It felt somewhat anti-social but it had been a long day. When we sat down the other table was occupied by Ryan McGee (of Marty and McGee, see above) and his daughter who he later introduced. And this is the thing about Athens you are as likely to bump into mostly anyone on the eve of a big SEC game. For the record Ryan McGee is quite simply a Southern gentleman.

Never Settle

The next day, the fan boy in me came out. I have been a huge fan of Marty Smith from when I first saw him on College Gameday. On Gameday, Marty would typically be holed up at one of the team hotels on the eve of a big game or the College Play-Off’s. I loved his slightly mayhemic style which was certainly unlike anything I had seen before.

While in Tuscaloosa (stop #1 if you have been keeping track), I headed to a local bookstore to get a copy of Marty’s autobiography, “Never Settle”, which sadly seems unavailable in the UK. So armed with book in hand I headed back down to the library lawn to watch the Marty & McGee show live on the Saturday morning. It was a miserable start to the day, as forecasted with heavy rain which was set to fall for most of the day. The show was as entertaining as ever and once over both took the time to chat to their fans afterwards. As down to earth and as Southernly as they come across on TV.

George with Marty Smith

Reading Marty’s book you can tell that this fame which has rightly come his way doesn’t come easy to him but he was as charismatic and genuine as I hope he would be. It was a pleasure.

And then it was on to the game, which I am going to write about separately.

Athens was as good fun as I experienced on the trip. As I have said often, the people were great, the food was fantastic and the town itself lovely. It’s a quintessentially American town which has an eclectic mix of old town and hipster USA. I liked it a lot.

I was sad to leave Athens, but I’m pretty sure it won’t be my last time there. While I saved the best to last, I suspect this is just the start of a long relationship with Athens, GA.

#Go Dawgs #RespectTheSpecs

Feature Credit Image: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports 

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george somerville

College football writer