ATLANTA – The valets at the InterContinental Buckhead Hotel were hustling Wednesday evening. The 5-star hotel on the ritziest stretch of Peachtree Street was bustling with activity around suppertime as luxury cars pulled up, one after another, onto the brick, circular driveway to attend an invitation-only event inside in the main ballroom.
They were there to hear Kirby Smart speak.
It was yet another sign of how times have changed at UGA. Hearing the Georgia football coach give his preseason spiel and getting the chance to ask him some good pointed questions used to be a much less formal and much more public affair. Not so long ago, about this time of year every year, Bulldogs’ fans would show up by the thousands at Cobb Galleria Mall or the Colony Square Hotel or the Gwinnett Arena, drink beer and liquor from a cash bar, and bark every time they heard an encouraging word from a coach or even the university president.
I think it was at the Colony Square that I actually witnessed former UGA President Michael Adams bark like a Dawg. It was hilarious and everybody loved it.
It may have been at the same meeting — I can’t be sure — that former football coach Jim Donnan boldly proclaimed that he’d been “waiting 55 years to coach a team like this” and guaranteed that the Bulldogs were going to “get it done” that season. Of course, Georgia got it done only to the tune of 8-4 that year, which ended up being Donnan’s last at the helm of the program.
One of the chief differences in those meetings and the one that was held last night is I was able to attend those then. Those meetings were open to the general public, which included the media. These are not. You have to be invited, and that invitation depends on how much money you have and whether or not you’ve donated any of it in the past to UGA.
This is now a fundraising event, pure and simple. And it’s not something about which Georgia is wishy-washy or apologetic.
“I understand the argument [that regular fans are being left out], but we also understand to make things work at the university we have to generate philanthropic gifts,” Georgia Athletic Director Greg McGarity said beforehand, outside the Intercontinental’s ballrooms. “We’ve got a huge drive going on for the West End project [at Sanford Stadium] and Kirby will talk about that tonight. That’s definitely part of what we’re trying to accomplish. We need them to help, and we need their friends to help.”
The fact that this format has been implemented since Smart took over as coach is a mere coincidence, he insisted.
“It was a not a philosophical change for me,” Smart said in a 15-minute news conference before the meeting. “It was a philosophical change in fundraising and ways to generate revenue. That didn’t necessarily come from me. That comes from a lot of people that are paid to do that professionally. For me, whatever the event is, I’m fine with. I want what gives us the best opportunity to raise money.”
“Fundraising,” “revenue” and “money” were all included in that brief statement. That’s what it’s all about now.
Indeed, this change has been steady in coming. The Bulldog Club meetings that were once the popular brainchild of the late Dan Magill had morphed in recent years into what they called UGA Days, which were more fundraising in nature and always prominently featured the school president. But those gatherings remained opened to media and anyone who cared to attend. And they were usually worth the visit. They always closed with a colorful Q&A between the football coach and the fans, and that’s where you’d usually hear the best stuff.
That was followed by a long receiving line in which the coaches signed autographs and posed for pictures, sometimes for more than an hour.
“We got a lot of goodwill out of that, but we needed to think about a better use of their time,” McGarity said Wednesday. “We’ve tried something new every year. We’re trying to utilize our resources in the most efficient manner.”
On Wednesday, there were about 250 people in attendance. They were treated to dinner, then McGarity spoke briefly, followed by President Jere Morehead and finally Smart. Afterward there was a reception in another room where they had drinks and hobnobbed.
Smart did get around to talking about football, we’re told by some folks in attendance. He shared that Andrew Thomas, the tackle from Pace Academy, may be the most competition-ready freshman offensive lineman at the moment and that the SEC East-favored Bulldogs have very good front-line talent across the board but are still lacking in the area of high-quality depth.
Smart ended, of course, with a pitch to the well-heeled attendees to please donate to the Magill Society and/or the West End construction project.
Officially, last night’s event was called Champions for Scholars and was designed to raise money for both athletics and academics. The university is in the midst of the $1.2 billion Commit to Georgia fundraising campaign that began in November 2016.
It seems to be going well on that front. McGarity reported this week in the McGarity’s Minutes newsletter that he sends out monthly to donors that athletics received $55 million in gifts and pledges and that the UGA Foundation as a whole raised “a record” $227.8 million in the 2017 fiscal year that ended June 30.
I’m assuming that Georgia added to those totals Wednesday night or will in the near future at Smart’s urging. Whether checks were written on the spot is unknown.
In the meantime, there will be other opportunities for Smart to visit with fans who limit their check-writing to four digits or less. The Bulldogs will host Fan Day on Aug. 5 at Sanford Stadium, where they will be allowed to watch a practice and then get autographs and take pictures with players and Smart — and the mascot Uga X, of course. And there also will be two events of the old Bulldog Club ilk — Dawg Days, they’re calling these — on Aug. 9 in Valdosta and Aug. 10 in Columbus.
Men’s basketball coach Mark Fox and women’s basketball coach Joni Taylor will be on hand for those outings, but Smart will not. He will send his special assistant, Mike Cavan, to handle the football questions and answers as Smart will be otherwise engaged getting his team ready for the season in preseason camp.
Probably a good idea. As we all know, winning more than eight games will be the best way for Georgia both to raise money and goodwill from its fan base.