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DALLAS, Ga. — Ricky Clemmons picked up the phone, ready to dial up some revenge.
A few days earlier, Mississippi State had snapped Alabama’s 28-game winning streak. Shortly after the loss, Clemmons, a fan of the Crimson Tide, received a postcard from Athens. Sent by Boyd Austin, his former student, it was not a sympathy card.
Now Georgia trailed Florida late. Clemmons started to call the funeral director.
“I was gonna have him send his ambulance by Boyd’s house,” Clemmons says, recalling what might have been. “But then he caught that pass.”
Buck Belue connected with Lindsay Scott for a 93-yard touchdown, sending the Bulldogs to improbable victory. Clemmons put the phone down, a good prank spoiled.
“I think he’d have done it,” says Clemmons, noting the funeral director, a friend, was a Georgia Tech fan. “He would have loved it.”
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Thirty-seven years later, Clemmons has retired from a career as a coach and principal at Paulding County High School. Austin is in his 22nd year as mayor of Dallas, a town that in recent years has exploded as one of Atlanta’s farthest exurbs.
The friends’ “teasing and cajoling” relationship, as Austin puts it, isn’t unusual in this small community in northwest Georgia, where a temporary geographical quirk only confirms what they’ve long assumed: They’re living at (or at least, very near) the epicenter of college football.
Y’all may have heard, but this fourth edition of the College Football Playoff is a very Southern affair. With Oklahoma as the outlier — though it could be argued that Norman, Okla., is a pretty good regional and cultural fit — the other three teams in the four-team bracket form a narrow wedge of pie. The total area is a little less than 5,500 square miles, which sounds like a lot until you realize the continental United States contains almost 3.2 million square miles.
The midpoint of the triangle is somewhere in Paulding County, Ga. And without looking at a map, focusing on Dallas makes some sense. About 10 years ago, at about the time Dallas Cowboys were preparing to move to what would later be named AT&T Stadium, a letter arrived in the mayor’s office, addressed to Austin. The author apparently was seriously confused.
“He wondered how in the world a town our size could support the Cowboys,” Austin says, chuckling, “and he wanted to know how we funded the stadium.”
But no one wonders how the folk around here support their college football teams, or questions the idea that this Dallas, not the one in that part of north Texas with the actual Playoff headquarters — might just be college football’s actual epicenter.
“We’ll name that,” says John Grant, a lifelong resident, “and claim it.”
There’s a legitimate debate to be had about whether this geographic concentration is a good thing for college football. Whether choosing the “best” teams, as is the selection committee’s charge, actually is possible and then preferable to choosing the most accomplished. Whether leaving the largest portion of the country out of the postseason tournament is wise.
But that argument isn’t had much down here.
“I’m kind of glad none of the northerners are in it,” says Lee Segars, a retired high school principal.
Van Spence, the football coach at Paulding County High School, followed the mild Playoff controversy — Alabama in, Ohio State out — which meant for the first time, a conference got two teams into the four-team bracket.
“There’s a lot of SEC bias down here, of course,” Spence says. “They think there might as well should have been four SEC teams.”
Segars might disagree. He’s a diehard Clemson fan, which is a more common affiliation than you might think in northwest Georgia. But while the majority of folk here are Georgia fans, it is not a homogenous populace, but more of a hodgepodge — as befitting a community that has grown perhaps sevenfold in a couple of decades, from 2,500 to near 15,000 (Paulding County’s population has grown from 15,000 to nearly 160,000 in roughly the same time). Although it retains a small-town feel, a majority of residents commute to work (downtown Atlanta is about 35 miles, or in moderate traffic, maybe an hour’s drive). And Dallas, the Paulding County seat, is less than 40 miles from the Alabama border; Alabama and Auburn fans are highly visible, and everybody knows somebody who’s pulling for the other guys.
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At nearby Paulding County High School, Spence is a lifelong Georgia fan. But several of his football players are Alabama fans — unsurprising, he says, because “they brand themselves better than anybody.” Hanging in the fieldhouse, posters with motivational maxims are accompanied by a familiar orange paw (“Clemson sends great recruiting packets,” Spence says). Even in his own family, there’s division. Bode, his 9-year-old son, loves Alabama. Brady — “As in Tom,” Spence says — loves Clemson.
“That’s kind of how life is,” he says. “The kids just pick their — everybody loves a winner.”
Along with his wife Kelly, John Grant owns and operates Grant’s Gatherings and Gifts, just down from the old courthouse on Main Street. They’re Georgia fans. But among the hot-selling items before Christmas were a variety of items with logos from Georgia, Georgia Tech, Alabama — and surprisingly, a lot of Tennessee gear, too. Their daughter, a Georgia fan, is engaged to marry an Alabama fan.
“He works hard,” says Kelly Grant by way of explanation. “He’s got a good job.”
And John Grant adds: “We try to overlook his flaws. We have to take the whole person. We can’t just shave that part off.”
Says Austin: “It’s kind of like being in a big family where everybody fights and fusses over their football teams.”
All kidding aside — and there is kidding, and those occasional pranks, and sometimes actual hostility — while loyalties are divided, they’re united by one thing:
“Everybody’s got a team,” Spence says. “But there is no, ‘Oh, I don’t care about football.’ ”
And while he says Friday nights are “special,” Spence also notes the primacy of college football over all else, including, say, the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons.
“Saturdays mean a lot more than Sundays as far as ball goes,” he says.
Saturdays mean plenty on Sundays, too. Todd Gaddis, the pastor at First Baptist Church a block from the center of town, grew up in Kentucky. As a Wildcats fan, he’s an outlier. He jokes that he pulls for Georgia wins because, a day later, the offerings seem to be better. He’s serious when he roots for 3:30 p.m. kickoffs, though.
“It’s just a foregone conclusion you’re gonna have a few empty seats on Sunday because they’ve traveled to Athens on Saturday,” he says. “But if you have one of those 7:30 games?”
And while Gaddis tries to avoid references to football from the pulpit, he knows what the conversation is in the hallways, and during Sunday school. It’s deer-hunting, the preacher says, and college football.
“We talk football for about 10 minutes before we get into the Sunday school lesson,” acknowledges Segars, a member at the church, “or sometimes longer than that. It depends on what the games were like.”
Segars, you’ll recall, is a Clemson fan — “but not one of those ‘get in your face’ kind of fans,” he says, which is a good thing. Austin, who teaches the Sunday school class, might be a little more passionate.
“You’ll get a couple of barks from him,” Segars says.
There’s no mistaking Austin’s allegiance in his office at City Hall, a half block off Main Street. The mayor is wearing a red tie decorated with multiple Georgia “G” logos — and when he insists it isn’t a special occasion, the office décor testifies. Along with his diploma from Georgia, his office features a ceramic bulldog and an old Georgia helmet.
He cashed in frequent-flier miles and booked a trip to Pasadena. Spence, the coach at Paulding County High, plans to be there, too. And they both know of many others who’d join them if, when the epicenter shifts a few miles southeast, Georgia is playing for a national championship in Atlanta’s new Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“It’s a good time to be a Bulldog,” Austin says.
It’s the best time to be a Bulldog since, well, his time as a student at Georgia in the early 1980s, when Herschel Walker brought the Dawgs a national championship. “The glory years,” Austin calls them — which brings us back to that postcard he sent to Clemmons after Alabama’s winning streak was snapped all those years ago. He does not recall sending the postcard — but he does not deny it.
“I have no idea what I might have said, but it might not have been something that could be printed,” he says.
Fair warning: If Georgia were to meet Alabama for the national championship, there could be repercussions.
“He can still dish it out pretty good,” Clemmons says of Austin, which is why regardless of what happens, he doesn’t plan to rub it in. “I’ve learned what goes around comes around.”
But even as Austin laughs about the prank that wasn’t all those years ago, he isn’t surprised to learn Clemmons wanted to send the undertaker by the house in the hearse. He knows of people who have had coffins delivered to rival fans. As Austin ponders the possibilities, he can’t help himself:
“That’s a good idea!”