Georgia's championship celebration was a special reminder that they don't make 'em all like that
ATHENS, Ga. — Irrelevant was the fact that temperatures were in the 40s and cloudy on a mid-January afternoon. On Saturday, the sun shined on Georgia.
Four decades worth of buildup brought out tens of thousands to Athens to celebrate. There were people like longtime Georgia fans Mark and Kimberly Rooker, set up shop by the railroad tracks on the southeast side of the stadium a mere 4 hours early with lawn chairs, a Georgia fold-up table with built-in cupholders and of course, a propane-powered space heater. The stage 4 cancer to Mark’s mother prevented the couple from attending Georgia’s national championship victory in person, “but I wanted to come here today,” Mark Rooker said, “because it’s a historic day.”
Other Georgia fans like Angela and Ryan Ross brought the whole family out to take in the championship celebration, including their bulldog who bears a striking resemblance to Uga, but instead goes by “Chubb” after the great Nick Chubb. Yes, Chubb was awake for the closing moments of Georgia’s first national title in 41 years. “We went crazy, he went crazy,” Ryan Ross said.
Generations of Georgia fans chanted “Kir-by! Kir-by!” before he could even speak in front of a cold, but loaded Sanford Stadium.
It could’ve been rain, sleet and snow with the threat of a tornado. UGA fans weren’t missing a chance to raise a glass — figuratively and literally — to the 2021 Georgia Bulldogs.
My bad. That’s the College Football Playoff National Champion* Georgia Bulldogs.
There was the occasional reminder that this whole “championship celebration” thing wasn’t exactly familiar for the UGA faithful. Whether that was athletic director Josh Brooks struggling to place the crystal football on the AFCA National Championship trophy or SEC commissioner Greg Sankey saying “I have never been in a stadium this full on a Saturday in January,” nothing was run-of-the-mill on Saturday (don’t forget that Sankey has been to his fair share of championship celebrations as the SEC commissioner).
Well, let’s rephrase that. Jordan Davis didn’t even have to hear his name called by emcee (and former UGA quarterback) DJ Shockley to grab the mic. Davis showing off his Braves jersey underneath his white championship sweatshirt was, in many ways, fitting.
I think I found my tattoo? pic.twitter.com/xc4FoUZZAG
— National Champenship (@Wes_nship) January 15, 2022
The Braves’ drought-ending title celebration of this past November might’ve been the only bit of familiarity with Saturday’s events.
“Don’t wait that long again,” Sankey said.
Yeah, that’s the plan.
The plan for UGA’s next title celebration won’t be a bunch of guys in their 60s raising the banner. To be fair, they weren’t random 60-year-olds. They were the senior class from the 1980 squad. Now, one would hope, those UGA greats can fade off into the sunset and not have to deal with a flood of media requests every time Georgia threatens to win a title.
The 1980 jokes are dead and now a new narrative can begin. Saturday was perhaps the last moment of innocence that Georgia football will get for the foreseeable future. From now on, every year in which Georgia is waking up for 6 a.m. sprints in mid-January instead of hosting a parade will be questioned. That’s reality.
That’s what Smart wants. This is the guy who chews out his quarterback up 27-3 in a Playoff semifinal game because he didn’t show enough urgency to set up an extra field goal attempt. It’s Smart who lives by the phrase “you’re either elite or you’re not.”
The word “elite” is now reserved for title-winners in Athens. Anything less than that? Well, those teams will still be appreciated. They just won’t own a place in Georgia lore like the 2021 team.
“They never embraced the success. They never acknowledged success,” Smart said. “They just kept chopping wood.”
For the 4 UGA captains — Davis, Nakobe Dean, Zamir White, Jamaree Salyer — they’ve chopped their last wood for Georgia. They, along with plenty of others, are off to the NFL. For Smart, the first year of the post-title era begins.
Everything will be different now, including Smart’s bank account. Nobody should be surprised if Smart soon has a 9-figure contract to work on. On Saturday, Brooks called Smart “the best football coach in the country.” Nobody needs to tell Brooks that getting an extension done with the prodigal son is priority No. 1 on the offseason to-do list.
However lucrative that deal is, Smart shows no signs of slowing down. He hit the recruiting trail in between the title and Saturday’s celebration. But make no mistake, Smart soaked in every bit of his team’s coronation.
“It’s moments like this that allow us to look back and allow us to look forward,” Smart said.
Smart’s legacy should already be safe. On a field named after Vince Dooley, Smart’s tenure at Georgia shouldn’t be defined by whether he reaches Nick Saban-levels of success. Saturday wasn’t about that; it was about bringing joy to a fanbase who waited far too long to exhale.
Kids climbed high up on trees, college kids sat 20-30 feet high on ledges of parking garages and Georgia fans of all ages barked like they’ve never barked before. Saturday in Athens was a scene unlike any in recent memory, and perhaps it’ll never feel quite like that again. That’s OK. Even if winning a title never quite matches the significance of the 2021 season, nobody can ever take that away.
The banner has been raised. And soon, Georgia fans hope, it’ll have some more company.
“We’re burning the boats,” Smart said, “we’re comin’ back.”