Gary Stokan, master of acronyms, spent the summer calling it “The GOAT game.” He wasn’t kidding.
Officially known as the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game, “The Greatest Opener of All Time” occurs Saturday night in Atlanta’s new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, matching top-ranked Alabama and No. 3 Florida State.
Stokan, a 1978 N.C. State grad in business management, insists “statistics are wonderful” and that “every number eats, sleeps, breathes for a reason.” His research confirms this is the highest-rated pair ever to meet to inaugurate a football season.
Duly impressed, USA Today declared the contest “one of the most anticipated season openers in recent memory, if not in the long history of college football.”
Combine the attention-getting annual opener with the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, recently added to the CFP rotation and host of the national championship game on Jan. 8, 2018; the 2014-vintage College Football Hall of Fame, lured south from Indiana; and the first-of-its-kind SEC title game, and Atlanta’s status as the country’s unofficial college football capital is tough to dispute.
The high-profile Chick-fil-A games and the presence of the $68.5 million, interactive museum trace directly to Stokan’s efforts, including a “fun” interlude as a registered lobbyist at the Georgia legislature. The low-key CEO and president of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl is now among the more influential and best-paid neutral parties in college football, a bit of an oddity for a former Wolfpack point guard whose heart still yearns for the basketball court.
His signature creation, the Chick-fil-A Kickoff, was launched after the Peach Bowl failed to break into the BCS championship rotation a little more than a decade ago. “We’re going to flip the season,” Stokan recalls of his response, “because I’m as competitive as they come. I don’t like losing.”
Stokan arranged what he characterizes as “a BCS game at the front of the season,” in essence resurrecting the annual opener staged for two decades at New Jersey’s Meadowlands but discontinued after 2002. The idea has since been emulated by a handful of other cities, among them Charlotte, where N.C. State takes on South Carolina Saturday at 3 p.m. in the third Belk College Kickoff Game at Bank of America Stadium.
Atlanta’s kickoff contest, biggest of the bunch, offers a 71,000-spectator sellout, a large national TV audience, and a $5 million payout per school. This season, as in 2012 and 2014, a second game is scheduled for Monday, Labor Day, when Georgia Tech faces Tennessee.
Alabama won the first Chick-fil-A Kickoff in 2008 against higher-ranked Clemson. Nick Saban’s club, appearing this weekend for the fourth time in the event’s nine years, is also scheduled to meet Duke in the 2019 edition. North Carolina took on Georgia last year.
According to salesman Stokan, his Kickoff provides the benefits of heavy media exposure in Georgia’s rich recruiting territory; national attention during the off-season; a motivational target through grueling summer practices; and a test against a tough nonconference opponent that’s sure to please CFP voters. The various payoffs for participants draw schools to contact Stokan, much as Clemson’s Dabo Swinney found consecutive trips to the national championship game led top recruits to seek out the Tigers.
But, like Swinney’s talent hunts, Stokan’s lineups are hardly left to chance. The stat man examines league schedules, recruiting-class strengths, program trends, coaches’ job status and relationships with competitors. Sometimes friends will play against friends; sometimes they won’t. Alabama’s Saban and FSU’s Jimbo Fisher, both West Virginians and formerly on the same LSU staff, didn’t mind a faceoff to start the ’17 season. “It’s a little bit of a Rubik’s Cube,” Stokan says of building his Labor Day weekend rosters, currently set through 2020.
Basketball folks periodically discuss creating a comparably impactful game or series to launch the college season, so far with little luck. Maybe the hoops horde should consult Stokan, a 1975 N.C. State basketball walk-on. “He was a smart player,” recalls fellow Pittsburgh product Eddie Biedenbach, then a Wolfpack assistant coach. “He was a real good player, but he was not an ACC-caliber winner. Guys like him have played in the ACC before, but not on winning teams.” A six-foot guard, Stokan earned a scholarship despite limited athleticism and appeared in 19 games during his career. He started once.
Stokan became a graduate assistant under Norman Sloan in 1978, then a full-time assistant until the head coach departed for Florida following the 1980 season. At that point, Stokan went into sports marketing.
“I will tell you, I have one regret in my life, really only one regret, and that is that I’m not still coaching basketball,” Stokan says. “I miss coaching basketball every day of my life. I miss the smell of the gym, I miss the competitiveness. And so what I’ve done is translate that competitiveness into the business side.”
Stokan’s work brought him to Atlanta, where he volunteered at the second-tier Peach Bowl. In 1998 he was hired to run the bowl; at the same time he served as president of the Atlanta Sports Council. Approaching its 50th year, the Peach is now top tier. Stokan is quite proud of the money the game generates for charity – $22 million since 2002, $1.7 million in 2016 alone.
Then there’s the annual outing for both bowl teams to the national historic site where Martin Luther King senior and junior preached. Stokan’s polished description of player reactions to talks the bowl arranges at the church by aging civil rights leaders can bring a tear to a listener’s eye. “To me it’s the greatest thing we do,” says Stokan, 62. “The game is the game. You’ve got to play the game. But the Ebenezer Baptist Church thing is the most powerful thing we do because it’s education.”
Yet it all happens because of the game, part of a loose structure Stokan doesn’t see going away, noting the huge revenues and viewership generated by the 40 bowls played in 2016. Sixteen enjoyed larger TV audiences than the finals of the ACC men’s basketball tournament, which had its best showing (3.6 million viewers) since 1998.
Stokan also can expound on likely changes in the sports broadcast landscape, why the championship playoffs won’t expand anytime soon, or project the evolution of a unified “autonomy consortium” as the Power Five conferences dwindle to four. Careful scrutiny, unobtrusive networking, and those statistics he studies tell him what he needs to know.
No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 3 Florida State
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta
No. 25 Tennessee vs. Georgia Tech
When: 8 p.m. Sept. 4
Where: Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta