Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl still defying the college football bowl odds

Inaugural 1968 Peach Bowl at Grant Field, Georgia Tech Campus    Image courtesy of and used with permission by College Football Hall of Fame   Frank Beamer in the 2010 Chick-fil-A Bowl, Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images   2016 Peach Bowl, Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Inaugural 1968 Peach Bowl at Grant Field, Georgia Tech Campus Image courtesy of and used with permission by College Football Hall of Fame Frank Beamer in the 2010 Chick-fil-A Bowl, Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images 2016 Peach Bowl, Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images /

Its name isn’t Cotton, Sugar, Orange, or Rose. It wasn’t a bowl game to which most teams really felt great about being invited to play. In 1968, then simply known as the Peach Bowl, its humble beginnings and struggles were no indication of what was to eventually come for this little bowl game that could.

It’s 1968 in Atlanta, and big-time sports are just becoming a thing in the south’s capital city. The Atlanta Falcons and Braves are in their second seasons in the city, the Atlanta Hawks have just moved in from St. Louis, and on December 30th, a little unknown bowl game christened as the name of one of Georgia’s biggest crops makes its debut at Grant Field on the Georgia Tech campus.

Welcome to postseason college football, Atlanta. The Peach Bowl had arrived.

Originally started as a fundraiser by the Atlanta Lion’s Club, the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl (as it’s now known) has evolved from an unheard-of dink bowl game to part of the most important group of postseason college football games in the nation.

But how did it happen? How did a bowl game which has faced shutdown and bankruptcy more than once in its 51-year history become a sought-after destination for the top college football teams in the nation?

The story of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl is as bizarre as it is inspirational.

I’ve been either watching, attending or covering the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl since 1973, and to see what this former Atlanta New Year’s Eve tradition has grown into has to be one of the best sports stories the city has ever seen – short of Atlanta United FC’s MLS Cup championship in only their second season.

Since its inception, the Atlanta-based bowl game has known four venues, four different names, and a payout that barely covered travel expenses for teams, but which now tops $12 million in total to the participating teams.

As with many things that blossom into greatness, it all started with an idea in a meeting.

A six-man committee appointed by the Atlanta Lion’s Club sent their proposal for an Atlanta-based bowl game to the NCAA. Twice, they were rebuffed, but on the third attempt they were granted certification, and thus, the Peach Bowl was born.

For three years the bowl was played at Georgia Tech’s Grant Field and then moved to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, both venues subjecting fans to the fickle winter weather in Atlanta. The combination of an unknown — and frankly, at that time, undesirable — bowl game, and everything from wet and frigid to icy conditions surrounding the game caused financial struggles and difficulty sustaining the Peach Bowl.

Finding the right audience was key, and in the early years, that audience was tapped as the ACC. Seven of the first ten meetings featured a team from the ACC against an at-large opponent, which would at times be a team from the SEC.

A foreshadowing of things to come? Perhaps.

1968: Louisiana State 31, Florida State 27

"“LSU’s Mike Hillman passed for 229 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Tigers to a comeback win in the first Peach Bowl Classic. The Seminoles jumped to a 13-0 first-half lead in cold, rain-swept Grant Field before LSU unleashed its attack which featured Hillman’s TD passes. Bill Cappelman tossed three touchdown passes for the Seminoles.”"

There was no shortage of things to do in Atlanta during the New Year’s holiday during the late 1960s and on into the 1970s. Underground Atlanta (the first incarnation) was hopping with a nightlife which had been compared to Bourbon Street, the Buckhead area was beginning to develop, and now the Peach Bowl — which by that time had moved to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium — was added to the mix.

While some questioned the logic of having a lesser bowl game played around New Year’s Eve, competing with more prestigious bowl names, it turned out to be a wise move. Atlanta football fans are always football fans, and if you give them an intriguing matchup in a postseason bowl game, they’ll pay attention.

In 1973, it was a matchup of No. 18 Maryland — the bowl’s ACC tie-in — against an at-large opponent with some familiarity in the area, the Georgia Bulldogs. This was Georgia’s first trip to the Peach Bowl and my first exposure to the game.

It turned out to be one of the most exciting Peach Bowl games in its then-short history.

1973: Georgia 17, Maryland 16

"“Georgia defeated Maryland behind its defense which gave up 461 yards but only one touchdown. Georgia stopped the Terps five times inside the Bulldog 15-yard line, allowing Maryland’s only touchdown on a 68-yard bomb. Georgia broke a 10-10 tie on an eight-yard drive following a Maryland fumble and held on for the win. Maryland’s Steve Mike-Mayer kicked three field goals.”"

There was even a celebrity element attached to the Peach Bowl at times. But unlike modern sports, where television, recording, and movie stars regularly attach themselves to a program or game, the celebrity whos-who you’d see taking in a Peach Bowl was more of a, well…southern flavor.

In 1976, as my parents and I took in a New Year’s Eve dinner at W.D. Crowley’s Scotch House (which was only minutes away from Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium) we noticed a bit of a buzz surrounding one of the other tables in the restaurant. My father, who had a keen eye for celebrity, knew exactly why.

North Carolina native, and championship NASCAR driver, Benny Parsons had come to see North Carolina take on Kentucky that afternoon in the Peach Bowl. Unfortunately for Parsons, he got to see what was the second straight shutout in the Peach Bowl, with the Tar Heels being ultimately overwhelmed by the Wildcats.

1976: Kentucky 21, North Carolina 0

"“Led by a bruising defense that limited North Carolina to 108 yards of total offense, Kentucky shut out the Tar Heels. The Wildcats, making their first bowl appearance since 1951, were led by FB Rod Stewart’s 104 rush yards and three touchdowns. A sellout crowd of 54,132 attended the game despite a temperature of 28 degrees.”"

But despite some quality teams, desireable matchups and the occasional celebrity element, the Peach Bowl struggled to find its audience. It was clear a change was needed.

During the 1980s, many smaller bowl games began to flounder through a combination of an economic downturn, more television coverage availability for fans, and rising costs of advertising and overhead for keeping bowl games afloat.

The Bluebonnet Bowl, which had been in operation since 1959, was shut down after the 1987 game. The Garden State Bowl, which only saw four games, ceased operation in 1981. Even the bowl game named after the great Grantland Rice didn’t make it into the 1980s, coming to a halt in 1977.

The bowl game system — then or now — simply isn’t set up for the success of lesser games, even with corporate sponsorship. As the audience for college football became increasingly glued to their television sets during the holidays, many other bowl games found themselves in trouble – the Peach Bowl among them.

During a more tumultuous time in the Peach Bowl’s history, when threatened with shut-down and failure, the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce decided to step in. Long-time Atlanta sports and news anchor Jeff Hullinger reminisced about it with me.

“In 1985, the Atlanta Chamber was flirting with assuming control of the game (from the Lions Club) or it would end. The Bowl was a mess. Nobody cared, including local businesses. The game was sparsely attended. The Chamber requested a meeting inside the old Commerce Club off Broad Street.

“They invited Atlanta Journal-Constitution legends Furman Bisher and Jessie Outlar, along with an AP columnist and me. The Chamber made a 15-minute presentation and then asked politely what was our opinion of The Peach Bowl. There was deathly silence for about thirty seconds. Then, Mr. Bisher growled in his rich southern baritone, ‘I think they ought to kill the (expletive). It’s a useless, miserable (expletive).’ We laughed.

“The Chamber guys looked like they needed a Heimlich or maybe at the very least, a couple of Heinekens. Mr. Bisher then followed with a blueprint of how to make the game and event work. Thirty-four years later he looks like Nostradamus.”

That plan may have not only saved the Peach Bowl (or the “New Peach Bowl” as it was touted at that time) from certain doom but also laid the groundwork for creating enough momentum to bring in partners like ESPN — who became the exclusive TV partner in 1991 — and Chick-fil-A, who became the game’s only title partner in 1996.

With the Metro Atlanta Chamber taking over in 1986, more marketing and solid positioning of the Peach Bowl became possible, and for the first time in the history of the game, it began to experience growth both in funds and in the audience.

But it was a move in 1992 that really changed the path of Atlanta’s bowl game. The Peach Bowl reached an agreement with the SEC and ACC to form a permanent matchup between the two conferences in the game. This was at a time when conference loyalty was just beginning to bud and the bad blood between these two conferences with southern roots had really begun to boil.

It was a setup similar to what had worked for the Rose Bowl Game for decades, pitting the Big Ten and Pac-12 against each other in a yearly clash, and the results were just as successful for the Peach Bowl. Fans who normally would have been soured by the idea of not being invited to one of the “big name” bowl games suddenly salivated at the chance of defeating the rival conference.

The first matchup of this new era, which also happened to be the Silver Anniversary of the game, featured two teams whose fanbases travel well and which gave them some much-needed national exposure.

1993: North Carolina 21, Mississippi State 17

"“The Silver Anniversary Peach Bowl was the first played in the Georgia Dome, and a sellout crowd of 69,125 established new Peach Bowl and Georgia Dome records. In the first quarter, Mississippi State jumped ahead 14-0, but the Tar Heels tied the game at 14 with a returned blocked punt touchdown. A fourth-quarter interception return score proved enough to cement the Tar Heels’ win.”"

During a time when both the ACC and SEC were providing some of the top teams in the nation, there was never a shortage for quality, ranked opponents, or colorful coaches, to be featured in the game. One of those coaches was former Virginia Tech head coach, Frank Beamer, who shared a few thoughts and memories with me.

“Anytime you were in that game it was a well-run organization,” Beamer told me as we chatted. “The best I ever worked with, and we went to a lot of bowl games. It all starts at the top with Gary Stokan and Derek Martin, but that’s the way we remember the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.”

Beamer’s Virginia Tech teams played in two Chick-fil-A Bowls; 2006, a loss to Georgia in a 31-24 comeback by the Bulldogs, and 2009, a 37-14 win over Tennessee.

“Playing Georgia, there were a lot of fans there who were rooting against us,” Beamer mused. “When you’re playing a quality program, and of course, a quality coach like Mark Richt, I think it brings out the best in you. We just didn’t quite get it done that night.”

But Beamer maintained that win or lose, the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl stood out among other bowl experiences for both his coaches and his players.

“They really ran a fine-tuned organization, and they were wonderful to work with and got teams everything they needed. The staff was sensitive to knowing why we were actually there — to prepare for a game and win a game, and to have our team experience parts of Atlanta — and along with the administration and all the volunteers, it was a tremendous experience.

“It was especially enjoyable for all our guys, and for our fans going to Atlanta. It was a great attraction to be able to play in a bowl like that and to go to a city like that.”

The Hall of Fame coach also agreed that bringing in the SEC and ACC as permanent matchup partners for the bowl game played a big role in it becoming more than just another also-ran postseason game.

“As a member of the ACC you always had great respect for the SEC and you wanted your program to be of that caliber. So I think having them there on the other side brought out the best in the ACC programs, and gave the fans a real reason to look at the game as a battleground.

On top of that, we were always provided with some great food from Chick-fil-A, one of our favorite parts of the trip.”

From the time the SEC vs ACC matchup with announced in 1992 until 2013 when the bowl game was selected to be part of the prestigious New Year’s Six games and as a rotating host of one of the National Semifinal Playoff Games, the two conferences split the victories in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl at 11 wins each.

Those 22 years proved to be the most important in the history of Georgia’s long-standing bowl game.

2013: Texas A&M 52, Duke 48

"“The 2013 Chick-fil-A Bowl was the first time meeting between Duke and Texas A&M, as well the inaugural Chick-fil-A Bowl appearance for both teams. In a contest dominated by both teams’ offensives, Duke scored first and stayed ahead of the Aggies for the majority for the game. Going into halftime, the Blue Devils led the Aggies 38-17. Behind the arm of Heisman winner, Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M staged an epic second-half comeback in the highest-scoring game in the Bowl’s history. Twenty game records were tied or broken including points scored, total offense and first downs over the course of the game.”"

A bowl game that had once struggled to find both money and an audience was now poised to move past the cloud of possible bankruptcy and shutdown and into a new era where the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl would challenge the titans of the college football postseason.

Having Chick-fil-A as a title partner and the two arguably best football conferences in the nation as permanent matchups meant growth was now possible. Every season the payouts to the teams increased, and every year the game grew in both ticket sales and television ratings.

By 2010, Peach Bowl Inc. had dissolved the game’s partnership with Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce to become a standalone sports event management company.

The audience, which started as a few thousand fans suffering in wet, windy conditions at Grant Field, has now grown beyond what anyone — even the late Furman Bisher — could have imagined.

By 2007, the game became the best-attended non-BCS bowl and had a string of 17 straight sellouts until the College Football Playoff announcement was made for the bowl in 2013.

From 1991 to 2018, more than 173.8 million viewers watched the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on ESPN, and 2018’s Top 10 game between No. 10 Florida and No. 7 Michigan was seen by an audience of 9.3 million viewers, making it the most-watched non-Semifinal for the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl in the College Football Playoff era.

The money, which during the 1960s and 70s was in the red most years, has become an embarrassment of riches for the Peach Bowl.

Florida and Michigan received $6 million each in team payouts for playing in the 2018 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. The Bowl has now distributed $185.2 million in team payouts in its 51 years, and Peach Bowl, Inc. has disbursed a total of $261 million in all-time team payouts over all of its events, including the bowl game and the Chick-fil-A Kickoff games.

But Peach Bowl Inc. didn’t stop at making sure its participants were well-paid, they are college football’s most charitable bowl organization, having contributed a record $10.1 million in charitable and scholarship donations.

In 2013, when the College Football Playoff had become a reality, and six bowl games were to be selected as rotating hosts of the national semifinals, it was clear the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl had to be among those included. From near ruin to a powerful player, the journey of Atlanta’s bowl game had reached its peak.

Over decades when other bowl games found themselves nothing more than distant memories, and sponsorships were changed like daily socks, the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl found the magic formula to not only keep their game afloat but to have its name mentioned in the same breath with some of the oldest and most meaningful postseason games ever played.

They not only defied the postseason bowl game survival odds, but beat them quite solidly.