ATLANTA – Fran Tarkenton and Nick Saban are friends. They have houses near each other on Lake Burton. They visit and hang out there every summer.
And both being former jocks, they’re very competitive. Tarkenton, of course, played college ball at Georgia before an NFL Hall of Fame career with the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants.
Saban, you may have heard, still coaches at Alabama. He’s making about $11 million a year as the Crimson Tide’s coach. You may have also heard that Alabama has won four national championships since Saban took that job. His teams played in a couple of more title games, and he won one at LSU, too.
With Saban’s four, Alabama now claims 16 national championships as a football program. Some of those could be debated, but there’s no denying the ones under Saban. They all came in the BCS era.
This, my friends, drives Tarkenton bananas. He gives Saban heck about it every chance he gets.
“I say, ‘How in the world? Why? You’re in the third-world country of Alabama,’” said Tarkenton, as if he were razzing Saban right there in the room.
You have to get the picture here. As Tarkenton enters what soon turns into a rant, he’s sitting at his big desk on the 23rd floor of the Tower Place building in Buckhead. Behind him is nothing but glass, which offers an unimpeded view of Buckhead, downtown Atlanta in the distance and pretty much everything else for 100 miles in that direction.
“He’s over there,” Tarkenton said, pointing to the uninhabited green expanse to the west, toward Alabama and Saban. “I said, ‘How do you have 17 (sic) national championships over here, and over here at Georgia we have one?”
Well, Georgia actually has two. It has a few other tainted ones it can claim, but nothing close to Alabama’s stake. Tarkenton’s point was made.
This wasn’t the reason for my visit with Tarkenton. I went to see him last month for the series I’ve been working on – called Georgia Greats – that will begin publication in October. Tarkenton is, of course, the consummate Georgia Great. He might be the greatest quarterback ever to don the red and black.
Tarkenton led Georgia to the SEC championship in 1959 when it hadn’t won one in more than a decade. The Bulldogs played in the Orange Bowl that season and beat Missouri to finish 10-2. But they didn’t contend for a national championship then either.
No, Georgia’s only national championships, the consensus type recognized by the NCAA and other such officious organizations, came in 1942 and 1980. Other than those last two years with Herschel Walker, UGA hasn’t played for one since.
The Bulldogs have had some very good teams during that span, mind you. Those other two Herschel Walker-led teams had a chance. But for whatever reason, they’ve never been able to get back to the big game.
Alabama, meanwhile, has been in the mix a bunch, particularly under Saban. Even when the Crimson Tide haven’t won it all, they have played for it. Like last year, when they lost to Clemson in a dramatic finish.
Again, this makes Tarkenton bonkers.
“How in the world does that happen?” he ranted. “Alabama can play for more championships than us? I take great affront at that. They shouldn’t. None of these other schools should. We should be among the elite of the elite. … We’re sitting in the state of Georgia, where we dominate the state, right?”
Tarkenton drills down on a subject a lot of other college football observers hit when it comes to this topic ― recruiting. The state of Georgia, and metropolitan Atlanta in particular, produces one of the highest per-capita percentages of college football recruits in the nation. There were 97 last year and around 100 every year. Not coincidentally, only Florida, California and Texas produce more NFL players.
What’s more, most of those players are raised in and around Greater Atlanta. Tarkenton’s thinking is, Georgia should be raking in the talent.
“Texas, California and Florida have more [high school players] than we do, but they have multiple colleges there, right?” he said, emphatically. “They’ve got 10 big-time colleges in Florida. We’ve got Georgia Tech. I’m a fan of Georgia Tech, but they can’t compete with us. They can’t recruit against us. And we’re not winning national championships? We’re not even playing for SEC championships? We’re winning nine, 10 games a year. That’s great. You know what? I could coach them to nine or 10 games a year.”
Anybody who has been around these parts for a while won’t be surprised to hear this from Tarkenton. He went to high school in Athens, Ga., and has lived in Atlanta since retiring from the NFL in the 1970s. A former NFL commentator who worked on Monday Night Football for several years – and some other less-successful television shows – Tarkenton has never been shy about sharing his opinion.
And when it comes to Georgia football, one can sense the passion on his face and certainly hear it in his voice. He’s always believed the Bulldogs should be a powerhouse program. And he has thought about this – a lot.
Before, he complained that Mark Richt wasn’t the man to bring the elusive national championship back to Georgia. Today, he heartily believes Kirby Smart is just the coach to do it.
“That’s the expectation,” Tarkenton said. “Kirby Smart’s the right guy. I think that we picked the right guy. He’s a Georgia guy. I think that’s important, but not necessary. We really got him because he’s a great coach. And he’s got a great background working with Saban, nine years, 10, whatever he worked there. He’s accomplished, he’s a recruiter, he’s smart, he’s energetic. I think he’s gonna do great.”
Georgia’s season had not yet started when Tarkenton and I had this discussion. He was surprisingly confident about the Bulldogs prospects even then.
Tarkenton also offered a strong opinion on the Bulldogs’ quarterbacks. Quite presciently, he said to not count out the freshman Jake Fromm in the competition with Jacob Eason. Of course, he didn’t know Eason was going to get hurt, but he did say Georgia “has to play Fromm.” I wrote about that the day I left Tarkenton’s office.
As for these latest predictions, Tarkenton emphasized that he’s not this disengaged UGA alum who just sits inside his Buckhead office and makes these pronouncements. He said he was among the many donors who stepped up and contributed to the recently completed $30.2 million indoor athletic facility.
And Tarkenton said he and the rest of the UGA alumni base has to continue to step up. He said he’s also contributing to the $63 million addition to Sanford Stadium. The project is supposed to add a new locker room for the team, a recruiting lounge and a West End plaza and grandstand improvements.
All those things, Tarkenton said, are necessary to compete with the Alabamas of the world.
“Kirby won’t do great if the administration’s not behind him,” Tarkenton said. “I think the administration is totally supportive, but if the alumni base doesn’t get off collective asses and give money to this program and support this program, then we won’t compete against Alabama. To compete against Alabama, we’ve gotta give Kirby the resources, and we’re starting to do that. We got a long way to go there, we really do. But Kirby Smart, I think he’s going to be our Vince Dooley of this generation.”