ATHENS – It pays to attend seminars in the sports business. That would be at least one takeaway from the chance encounter that led to Georgia and Notre Dame brokering a home-and-home football series.
The storied programs – which haven’t met since colliding in the Sugar Bowl for the 1980 national championship – will play the first of those two games this Sept. 9 when the Bulldogs travel to South Bend, Ind., to face the Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium (NBC, 7:30 p.m.). Notre Dame will return the trip when it comes to Athens in Week 4 of the 2019 season.
So how exactly did this once-a-generation matchup come together?
Well, a lot of things had to happen for Georgia even to be in position to schedule a game in these seasons in particular. But the whole concept was born out of a casual conversation between two of the schools’ respective lieutenants during a Sports Management Institute seminar on the Georgia campus in 2013.
At the time, Josh Brooks was assistant athletic director for internal operations for UGA. He was representing the Bulldogs at a twice-yearly meeting of the SMI, a coalition of six schools (UGA, Michigan, Notre Dame, North Carolina, Southern Cal and Texas) that provides professional education to individuals active in the field of sports management.
Brooks had gotten to know Chad Klunder, who holds a similar position at Notre Dame, when they served on the Rose Bowl advisory committee. So they started to talk shop between sessions of the SMI seminar that summer. Inevitably, the conversation turned to scheduling – a big part of both of their jobs – and they started to brainstorm about the possibility of their respective teams being able to play at some point down the road.
“He actually started it,” Brooks said Klunder broaching the subject. “Of course as soon as I heard it, it excited me. At that time we had sort of moved away from playing those (major non-conference opponents) and started playing more home games right during that time. So we knew we hadn’t played a big road game in a while. We didn’t have one on the books at the time and that’s why it was exciting.”
Brooks immediately alerted Georgia Athletic Director Greg McGarity about the possibility. He pounced on the idea and took it up with Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick.
“When Josh mentioned that opportunity to me, I said, ‘absolutely,’” McGarity said this week. “I mean, it was a no-brainer for me. That was a very exciting conversation to say the least. Discussions followed on that and we were able to come to an agreement. That’s kind of how all of this started.”
The deal was finalized and announced in June of 2014. The only financial repercussions at this point would be if the Irish opted out of coming to Athens in 2019, which neither team anticipates.
Interestingly, Brooks and Klunder’s original brainstorming started with this being a three-game series. They considered playing home-and-home, then another game at a neutral site. Ultimately that proved impractical, especially with the team’s respective television affiliations.
“That never got off the ground,” McGarity said. “We talked about it in the beginning. They had interest in a three-game series. They had something called the Shamrock Series they wanted us to get involved in. But anytime you talk about a neutral site game you get television involved and, from a conference standpoint, who’s going to get the game? If it’s home-and-home it’s cut-and-dried.”
The Shamrock Series is a concept in which the Irish play one opponent per year in a “location-driven” game at a neutral site such as New York City, Washington, D.C., Dallas, Boston, etc. But drawing quality opponents has proven problematic, along with television ramifications. The series was shelved this year and there is speculation it won’t return.
Meanwhile, in order for the Georgia-Notre Dame home-and-home series to happen, a lot of other potential games had to fall through. And many did in the months and years leading up to this deal being finalized.
At one point, Georgia had games “on the books” against Oregon and Ohio State. The Bulldogs were supposed to play Oregon in Eugene in 2015 and in Athens in 2016. They were also set to play the Buckeyes in 2020 and ’21. Those games eventually were canceled without penalty in mutual agreement between the respective schools.
That continued a trend that began soon after McGarity’s arrival in 2010. One of his first acts as Georgia’s new AD after arriving from Florida was canceling a home-and-home with Louisville. He replaced it with a date against Boise State in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game.
“We’d just gotten off road games at Oklahoma State, Arizona State and Colorado,” McGarity said. “We basically did not want to play the game because we felt like we didn’t gain anything by going to Louisville. Plus we were in Lexington the same year. So ESPN brokered a deal that allowed us to play Boise State in the opener in 2011.”
A few years later, Georgia was ready to enlist some more high-profile games. It worked hard to get one going with a Big Ten opponent. The Bulldogs were close to having a home-and-home on the books with Penn State. But scheduling conflicts with dates complicated and bogged down the talks. Eventually, Auburn came in negotiated a home-and-home deal with the Nittany Lions.
“The goal was to go to Penn State and Happy Valley in ’20 or ’21,” McGarity said. “And (Penn State AD) Sandy Barbour and I had lengthy discussions on that possibility. Then they had a coaching change [hiring James Franklin] and that game was not appealing to Penn State once the new coaching staff came into place. So we lost that series.”
In the midst of all this, Georgia landed its upcoming home-and-home series with UCLA. The Bulldogs will open the 2025 season in the Rose Bowl against the Bruins, who will return the game the next season.
“In other words, we wanted to go to the Rose Bowl, Notre Dame, Happy Valley or Atlanta,” McGarity said. “We felt that over a 10-year period that would be dynamic. And so we’re going to play in Atlanta, we’re going to play Notre Dame and now we’ve got UCLA on the books. In ’20, we’ve got Virginia (in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game) in the new stadium (Mercedes Benz). Some things didn’t work out, but Notre Dame and UCLA did.”
Landing the Irish has proven a grand prize. Not only is this year’s game in South Bend nicely sandwiched between home games against Appalachian State and Samford, it also happened to fall on a weekend in which the Chicago Cubs are at home at Wrigley Field and the Chicago Bears are hosting the Atlanta Falcons at Soldier Field on Sunday.
Chicago is a two-hour drive from South Bend. Hundreds of Georgia fans are staying in Chicago and attending all three sporting events.
“It’s a game that our fans are extremely anxious about and excited to witness and be part of the environment, whether they’re in the stadium or outside the stadium,” McGarity said. “Throw in the fact that the Cubs are playing on Friday night and the Falcons play at Soldier Field on Sunday, that’s a great weekend. It’s a happening. It may be the only chance in our lifetime to play a home-and-home with Notre Dame.”
Neither McGarity nor Brooks would say if they’re close to brokering any other similar series in the near or distant future.
“We’re always looking at that,” McGarity said. “We have not made any other plans past ’25-26 or in that area between ’20 and ’25. We haven’t moved on anything in there, not at this time.”
But anything could happened. The SMI is actually meeting again in 10 days on the campus of the University of North Carolina. And, as we’ve seen, whenever you get a bunch of internal ops sports executives together in one room, anything can happen.
Brooks is just glad he gets the opportunity to witness firsthand the fruition of his previous work. He left UGA to become athletic director at Millsaps College in 2014, then eventually left there to become the No. 2 administrator at Louisiana-Monroe.
But Brooks returned to UGA this past December and is now executive associate athletic director for internal operations for the Bulldogs.
“I came just in time for the game,” Brooks quipped. “I couldn’t miss that.”