This artist rendering shows the centerpiece of the College Football Hall of Fame, a 45-yard indoor football field that doubles as event space.
ATLANTA — As he strolls through a room of archives at the Georgia World Congress Center, John Stephenson pauses to crack open a musical instrument case.
Inside is one of his favorite pieces, a trombone. It’s not just any trombone, though, it’s the one carried famously by Stanford band member Gary Tyrrell on Nov. 20, 1982, when California football player Kevin Moen trucked Tyrrell in the culmination of one of the most memorable game-endings in college football history. It capped a lateral-filled kickoff return that finished with Moen weaving through the prematurely celebrating Stanford band, a sequence of events known from there on as “The Play.”
The trombone is just one item on shelves filled with helmets new and ancient, gaudy trophies, game programs and other memorabilia. Hidden for now, the items will be in full public view in the near future when the highly anticipated College Football Hall of Fame opens its doors.
The eye-catching, $66.5 million hall of fame building lines Marietta Street, adjacent to the World Congress Center on what was formerly the Green Lot. It has been in the works since the 2009 decision to move the permanent display from South Bend, Ind., to the South. Stephenson, the president and chief executive officer of Atlanta Hall Management, has watched the process with the prideful eye of an Atlanta native.
“It’s amazing. Seeing it on paper and renderings, now going out and seeing it, it’s amazing,” said Stephenson, a University of Georgia graduate and an attorney for Troutman Sanders prior to his new gig. “That’s all I can say. Now to see it come out of the ground is thrilling.”
A sizable chunk of the hall’s memorabilia, accumulated over the years by the National Football Foundation (NFF), already has made its way to Atlanta. Other items are in Dallas, where the NFF is located, for restoration work. The rest are in Seattle at Pacific Studios, the company hired to build displays around certain pieces.
“The National Football Foundation really has gathered some amazing memorabilia,” Stephenson said.
The hall plans to open in August, in time for the early-season Chick-fil-A Kickoff Games, but it hasn’t set an official opening date.
The lure of Atlanta
The College Football Hall of Fame has moved around a few times in its history, spending time in Ohio before finding its way to South Bend in 1995.
After some early success, attendance didn’t meet expectations in the location. It continued to operate in South Bend until the end of 2012, when it shut down and preparations began for another move.
“It’s just a bigger stage here,” Stephenson said. “South Bend’s a great town and there was nothing really wrong the building. But it was hard to get to South Bend. You’ve got to really intentionally go to South Bend to see the College Football Hall of Fame. It’s not like it was close to Notre Dame. It wasn’t that you walked out of Notre Dame and there it is. It was in downtown South Bend.
“Access is the main thing. We have the world’s busiest airport. We’re a two-hour flight from 80 percent of the country’s population. And we’ve got a lot of passionate college football fans in our state and surrounding states. There are great college football fans everywhere and in the Southeast, college football is king.”
The passionate Southern football fans made Atlanta an attractive options, but so did the mix of supporters from other college programs. Stephenson pointed to a significant number of universities whose largest alumni clubs, outside of their home state, are based in Atlanta.
Dallas, because it’s home to the NFF, also made a strong push for the hall of fame. But it didn’t have the diverse mix of fans that Atlanta. More importantly, it didn’t have the ideal location.
The College Football Hall of Fame’s Atlanta home will have 20,000 hotel rooms within a five-minute walk, along with the Georgia World Congress Center’s three million convention visitors per year next door. Centennial Olympic Park and other attractions like the World of Coca-Cola, the Georgia Aquarium and CNN Center are a short walk away.
That doesn’t include the traffic from major football events like the Southeastern Conference Championship Game, the Chick-fil-A Kickoff games and the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl’s new involvement in the new BCS National Championship playoffs. The city’s football stadium, currently the Georgia Dome and soon to be the new Atlanta Falcons stadium, also is extremely close, something other contenders couldn’t match.
“There are tons of college football fans coming to this exact area to go to a football game and they literally have to walk past our front door to get to the stadium and on the way out,” Stephenson said. “Those other locations didn’t have that.”
The hall organizers compared notes with two nearby attractions, the World of Coca-Cola and the Georgia Aquarium, and discovered that the majority of their visitors are out-of-town tourists. But there are a good number of metro Atlanta visitors, too, so the hall of fame expects a healthy mix of both.
The hall’s projections include $11.8 million in taxable sales annually, as well as an annual economic impact of $12.7 million.
“This is a tourism destination,” Stephenson said of Atlanta. “People in Atlanta and Georgia are slow to realize that Atlanta is a real destination for a lot of people. They come here for vacation, which for me as a native Atlantan is odd to think of that. But because we have all this going on, we have a lot of people coming here for vacation and business travel.”
The main attraction
Members of the College Football Hall of Fame — past inductees with local ties include Georgia’s Kevin Butler and Terry Hoage, and Georgia Southern’s Tracy Ham — will be honored appropriately within the traditional definition of a hall of fame.
But Stephenson and others tied to the project are quick to point out that fans will get way more than what they expect from a hall of fame display. The hall of fame display is a small part of a much larger, state-of-the-art attraction.
Attraction is the word Stephenson leans on most heavily when promoting the venue locally. It’s 94,256 square feet and roughly 30,000 of it is exhibit space.
“The building around the hall of fame is really a high-quality, world-class attraction that’s themed around college football,” Stephenson said. “There’s lots to do in this building around college football in addition to celebrating the hall of famers. Once people see that, they get really excited. … This is an attraction in the true sense. You’re going to have fun in this building even if you don’t know or care to know when you walk in the door, who’s in the hall of fame.
“It’s a fun place to be. There’s lots of things to do in here. There’s light touch. Touch for kids. We celebrate mascots, bands, cheerleaders, traditions, tailgating, stadiums, radio calls, rivalries. It’s a total immersion of all the things people love about college football in addition to the hall of famers.”
One of the highlights is a 150-seat theater on the second floor of the building’s rotunda. It features a 40 feet by 10 feet screen and a 10-minute video narrated by hall of famers.
The piece was produced entirely in 4K, or 4,000 pixels, — the videographers shot 20 games over a three-year period with the new technology — and the visual is impressive. The theater itself can serve as an event space, whether it’s a local alumni club watching its team play or a business conducting a conference.
“Remember when you saw an HD TV for the first time, and said ‘My life is changed?’” Stephenson said. “That is going to happen again. The clarity on this is ridiculous.”
The largest and most eye-popping feature of the hall is its 45-yard indoor football field, which can be seen from overlooks throughout the building. Fans can kick field goals and throw the football during regular business hours there, then it converts to event space capable of hosting 1,000 or more people for awards ceremonies, banquets and the like.
“Unique event space is in high demand here in Atlanta,” Stephenson said. “The aquarium has the marquee location in their ballroom with those huge tanks you can see. We don’t have that. We don’t have whales swimming around in our building. But we do have cool event space. The field is the centerpiece of the building.”
Upon entry, fans will be greeted by the massive helmet wall. It will include 760 helmets, one for every college football program in the country.
Those fans enter the venue with a ticket or credential, each with a chip that makes for a unique experience simply by indicating whether you’re a Georgia Bulldog, an Ohio Wesleyan Battling Bishop, a Pacific Lutheran Lute or a backer of any other obscure or well-known program. By registering as a fan, their team’s helmet lights up on the helmet wall when they enter and 14 different interactive and media experiences throughout the building are catered specifically to their team.
It’s a small touch, but likely what will be a popular one for the hall, which is eager to finally unveil its big attractions in a few short months. In early May, the exhibits will begin entering the new building.
“It’s an exciting time and we think people will love it,” Stephenson said. “We want them to feel like this is their home away from home for college football.”