Gary Stokan peered out of his downtown Atlanta office toward the Georgia Dome a year ago, wondering which two teams would play there to open the 2011 college football season in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game.
Through a series of actions, his long-sought matchup had fallen apart. And now, the fact that the property’s chief executive didn’t have a matchup in place less than a year before kickoff caused Stokan his fair share of heartburn. He billed the annual game from its outset in 2008 as the Daytona 500 of college football and there’s considerable pressure on him to deliver a matchup compelling enough to sell out the Georgia Dome and attract a prime-time slot in ESPN’s lineup.
Gary Stokan (left), with LSU’s Les Miles, faced hurdles on the way to Georgia-Boise State.
“A year away from kickoff, scheduling-wise, means you’re down to the last minute,” Stokan said. “Most schools schedule years in advance. It was definitely more of a challenge this time than what we’ve had in the past.”
It took several months, and by November of last year, Georgia and Boise State had been secured to open the 2011 season this Saturday night, extending the game’s four-year streak of featuring two ranked teams. Getting to this point, though, required the help of six schools, all of ESPN’s scheduling acumen, and a series of dominoes that had to fall just right.
“It’s hard to appease everybody,” Stokan said. “The challenge in scheduling these games year to year is that you have to schedule pretty far out and at the same time you have to have two teams that can sell out the Georgia Dome. The closer you get to the date, the more moving parts you have to deal with.”
The scheduling process started more than a year ago with Southern California, a team that offered a different profile from the SEC and ACC teams that had filled the Atlanta-based games previously.
Stokan found those talks promising until a change at athletic director — Pat Haden was hired in July 2010 — led to a change in scheduling philosophy and wiped the Trojans away as a candidate. Haden wanted more home games.
Georgia Tech appeared to be a willing opponent and had even agreed to move its 2011 season opener against Western Carolina, but when USC pulled out, the Yellow Jackets decided to stick with the sure thing and play the Catamounts at home.
So last August, barely a year away from the game’s kickoff, Stokan was left without any teams. High-profile TV games like this are often scheduled two to three years in advance. Stokan, for example, currently has Kickoff Game matchups secured through the 2014 game.
Once Southern Cal and Georgia Tech fell through, Stokan found himself starting from scratch to get the 2011 game scheduled. That same month, though, another AD change, this one at Georgia, created a new opportunity. Greg McGarity, the Bulldogs’ new AD, came on board. Stokan had known him since the 1970s, when McGarity was a tennis coach at Georgia and Stokan was an Adidas rep.
The Bulldogs didn’t have a date available on their 2011 schedule, but McGarity liked the idea of opening on a big stage in Atlanta against a marquee opponent. He also preferred not to play the types of home-and-home series that Georgia engaged in with Arizona State, Colorado and, starting this season, Louisville, because he wants more nonconference home games.
If Stokan and Dave Brown, the former college football scheduling czar at ESPN, could get Georgia out of the Louisville game, the Bulldogs would agree to play in the Kickoff.
The problem, from a public relations standpoint, was that McGarity didn’t want to be the type of AD who starts his tenure by canceling football games. So Stokan, knowing there was an opportunity to get at least one team into the Kickoff, volunteered to do it for him.
Stokan paid Louisville $500,000 out of the Kickoff Game’s coffers for Georgia to exit the contract. Brown, meanwhile, found Louisville an attractive home-and-home replacement in North Carolina, with the likelihood that the UNC-Louisville games would wind up on an ESPN platform.
“One thing we have to do is keep our ear to the ground on what people are trying to accomplish,” said Brown, who has since moved to the Longhorn Network, where he is the vice president of programming. “We’re always looking to make schedules better, and getting Georgia was a good starting block for us.”
The next chore was to find an opponent for the Bulldogs. Stokan again began working the channels he has developed in 30 years of being in the college business.
Stokan had a close friendship with John Hartwell, a former associate AD at Georgia State who recently had taken a job on the Mississippi staff. Ole Miss was scheduled to open the season against Boise State. Stokan initiated talks about moving games around and Hartwell brought his AD, Pete Boone, into the discussion.
Stokan proposed that Ole Miss and Boise move their game into the Kickoff’s next available slot, in 2014, which would free up Boise to play Georgia this year. The Broncos will fill Stokan’s desire to have a team from outside the ACC-SEC footprint for this year.
Once both schools agreed, with a little financial incentive from the Kickoff Game, Stokan had his matchup by mid-November. The game’s total payout will approach $4 million, with $2.2 million going to Georgia (including the $500,000 buyout to Louisville) and $1.4 million going to Boise. The Bulldogs get a little more because they took a ticket allotment of 53,000, compared with the Broncos’ allotment of 7,500.
The game announced a sellout last month for the Georgia Dome, which has a capacity of more than 71,000.
“To move that many games around and still make everybody whole, that’s pretty unusual,” Stokan said.
The last hole that had to be filled was a season opener for Ole Miss. Again, Brown put his contacts to work.
He knew that BYU, as a new football independent this season, would need games and he pitched Ole Miss on the idea of an attractive matchup that would be televised nationally. So Ole Miss subbed out Boise for BYU this year, and along the way gained a spot in the 2014 Kickoff Game against the Broncos.
“There’s all sorts of things you put on the board and they never happen,” Brown said. “You’ve got to have a unifying principle, something that makes it work for everyone, and I think we’ve got that here. Once in a while, it all comes together and it works.”