The process oriented head coach pursued a high-risk, high-reward schedule strategy. BamaMag.com sat down at the 2015 SEC Media Days in Hoover for an exclusive one-on-one interview with Gary Stokan, president & CEO of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl to reminisce about the seminal decision and discuss the future Crimson Tide visit to Atlanta. Alabama will play Florida State on September 2 to open the 2017 campaign.
Stokan said, “Nick said, ‘I have got to play in this game because we have to recruit Atlanta. If we can beat a ranked team like Clemson it would be a great way to start the season,’ Nick always wants to play against the toughest competition.” Twenty-fourth ranked Alabama dominated the ninth rated Tigers 34-10.
“If Nick was sitting here today, you just ask him. The Kickoff Classic Game of 2008 started Alabama’s run. They won that game and that week were on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the title, “Alabama’s Back”. Nick said that started the run and they haven’t looked back since.”
Alabama has signed up four times to visit the city of Atlanta for a neutral site game against a Power Five non-conference opponent. Three ACC schools and a Big 12 newcomer were the opening game sacrificial lambs. The Tide defeated Clemson in 2008, Virginia Tech in 2009 and 2013 and West Virginia in 2014.
The Tide and Seminoles will square off for the fifth time with Alabama holding a 2-1-1 advantage in the all-time history of the series. Florida State won 21-14 in the most recent game held in Jacksonville, Fla., on September 29, 2007.
Stokan said, “It’s interesting. We have been working on it for a lot of years. I think Jimbo (FSU Coach Jimbo Fisher) felt comfortable with his contract and the team that he has at Florida State. They brought in very good recruits so he can compete at the highest level. They won the national championship and were in the semifinals this year. He got more comfortable playing against Nick (Saban) because sometimes friends do not want to play against each other. Nick was comfortable with it so at the end of the day it worked out. Florida State had an opening in 2017 because now the ACC brought in Notre Dame and they still have to play Florida every year. So they had to work it out where it wasn’t in the same year they were playing Notre Dame and when they have Florida at home.”
Furthermore, Stokan said, “Jimbo and Nick have respect for each other and the game of college football. They knew this would be a good game for college football. They are happy to play in Atlanta where they both recruit and in the new $1.4 billion stadium. All those things were special to them and their programs. After a lot of conversations I think both Jimbo and Nick have been around us and our staff. They understand we put on a first class event. It all made sense. (Alabama Athletics Director) Bill Battle wanted to play the game and they had an opening in their schedule. Stan Wilcox the new AD at Florida State, was comfortable with the idea.”
Nick Saban had a preference to match up against an ACC team. Clemson and Florida State are the two standard bearers for their league. The Seminoles were the first option since the Tigers and Tide had met in 2008. A plethora of persuasive reasons lured Alabama again in 2017.
Stokan said, “Players win because they want to play against the best competition. They want to play against a ranked opponent with national exposure, which we give them. The coach wins because it’s a great recruiting base. Georgia is number one per capita for FBS recruits and number four overall.” Over 30 Peach State prospects inked with the Tide in the 2007 through 2015 signing classes.
Opting to schedule heavyweight opponents bears fruit at the conclusion of the season. Stokan said, “The coach also wins again because the College Football Playoff says, hey if you’re going to play a neutral site or tough game on the road, you will be rewarded for it like we saw this year. The coach also wins because of the exposure.”
A contract to play a Power Five non-conference opponent remedies the chance of lethargic preparation. Stokan said, “What we learned from Nick, Les (Miles), and Frank (Beamer) is when the players are playing against a ranked opponent in the first game of the year the preseason workouts reach a whole new level of intensity.”
Guaranteed seven-figure revenue allows for the off-campus matchup said Stokan. “The director of athletics wins because they net more money than a home game. If they have seven home games they have already made their budget so it’s a financial windfall what we can pay out to them.”
Tangible rewards are a by-product of the meeting. “The president wins because we endow a $50,000 scholarship to each school that plays in our game,” Stokan said. “Lastly, the fans win because we give the school 30,000 tickets to distribute. Even if they don’t come to the game, they see a great game on television to start the season. It’s a multiple win all the way around.”