The big stage
Visits from royalty and the Olympics have highlighted the non-football events
ATHENS, Ga. -- Vince Dooley served as Georgia's football coach and athletic director for decades and never gave much thought to how infrequently Sanford Stadium was actually open for business.
Not until a conversation with FIFA president Sepp Blatter -- who was then general secretary of international soccer's governing body -- opened Dooley's eyes during their preparations for Olympic soccer's medal rounds to be held at the stadium in 1996.
"So it just blew his mind. He couldn't imagine it. I'd never thought that much about it until I saw that reaction from him."
Those with at least a working knowledge of Georgia's football history know that the stadium opened to much fanfare when mighty Yale traveled South for the first time to face Georgia on Oct. 12, 1929. But in the ensuing 84 years, Sanford has hardly served as a multipurpose facility.
As Dooley noted, it has mostly hosted the Bulldogs' home football games, summer commencement and little else -- although that will change on Saturday when country music superstars and outspoken UGA fans Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan will headline the first full-fledged concert between the stadium's fabled hedges.
And Dooley views that as a sign of progress.
"I'm one for adjusting to the times and I think this is an example," Dooley said.
Concert promoters approached UGA officials in the past about staging concerts inside the stadium, but they reportedly passed on hosting shows featuring the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Athens' own R.E.M.
However, the field technology hasn't always been available to protect the stadium's playing surface. Now by placing a field covering known as Teraplast over the grass, Georgia's field management crew can minimize the damage to the field.
"With our experience with what graduation has done for laying down that Teraplast-type surface, it protects the grass really well," said UGA associate athletic director for internal operations Josh Brooks, who helped organize the concert. "It almost makes like a little hot house and that grass is actually a little greener when they pull it up than the grass around it."
With that concern alleviated, it was a matter of Georgia actually showing the interest and identifying the proper artist to make the endeavor a success.
Athletic director Greg McGarity worked at Florida when the Rolling Stones performed before a packed house at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in 1994, so he understood the enthusiasm that SEC football fans might show over a concert in their stadium.
"That idea had never been allowed to really grow until we just said, 'Why not? Let's do it,' " McGarity said. "So once we saw the excitement and the way people reacted to just the simple fact of being on the field, perhaps we saw how cool it would be to do a concert in there and utilize the stadium a little bit more."
Brooks and assistant equipment manager Kevin Purvis helmed an informal committee to explore the possibilities. They reached out to promoter and UGA grad Peter Conlon, the president of Live Nation Atlanta, and the ball was soon rolling.
"Kevin Purvis had the idea from the beginning that it needs to be country and it needs to be Georgia artists and Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan would be a perfect fit for it," Brooks said. "Although I'm not a country music fan, I got that and I understand that. How cool is it that these guys love Georgia athletics and they're from Georgia?"
The concert will not feature the first musical acts to perform in the stadium. But previous performances have typically been the secondary attraction alongside a football game.
Legendary soul singer James Brown performed at a number of Georgia games in the 1970s and '80s, often performing his hit song "Dooley's Junkyard Dawgs."
"He came several times to games and would get the whole stadium rocking," Dooley said.
Among other performances were Andy Griffith performing his famous monologue "What it Was, Was Football" at the 1954 G-Day game and UGA grad Bill Anderson performing "Rocky Top" of all songs with Georgia's Redcoat Band at halftime of the 1972 Tennessee game.
Aside from Olympic soccer in 1996, among the most notable non-football events in the stadium were when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke at the 1938 summer commencement and received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree, and when Prince Charles visited for the homecoming game against Kentucky in 1977.
"I had a football that I gave him and so Fran Curci, who always chewed gum, took a piece of gum and folded it out and looked at him and said, 'Gum, prince?' He was kind of shocked and said, 'No thank you,' " Dooley recalled.
Georgia approached the stadium's first concert with a conservative approach to minimize financial risk. Live Nation paid a $250,000 operational fee to cover security, ticket takers, ushers, first aid, cleaning staff, venue concessions and merchandise sellers, police and fire officials and scoreboard operators, but keeps the ticket revenue.
However, UGA controls the concessions sales -- no alcohol will be sold -- and will receive 10 percent of merchandise sales. The university also controls all parking, with approximately 10,000 spots around campus available for between $10 and $100 for bus parking.
"There's a little bit of a carrot out there for us," Brooks said, "but at the end of the day, the goal of this was never, 'Let's think about how we can make some money.' It was, 'Hey, let's do something cool and if we make a little money off of it, great. We'll use that money to offset some field improvements we need to do.' "
The Aldean-Bryant show could lay the groundwork for a springtime concert becoming a semi-annual occasion at Sanford. If all goes well on Saturday, Brooks and McGarity both expressed interest in that possibility.
"We knew we could get to 60,000 with a Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan because they're popular in country music and popular in Georgia, but I think you can probably shoot for 40 to 45,000 and go with a mid-level act and get something that connects to more of the Athens area," Brooks said.
"Maybe you could go that avenue, with something that fits that grouping or just change it up in general where it's not just one thing every year."
That's the beauty in the new venture for UGA, McGarity said. At this point, all future options are on the table.
"We're just entering this kind of like the idea started with an open mind and let's just see how things progress and who knows what the future might hold. But of course there's an opportunity," McGarity said. "& I think it certainly opens our eyes up to other potential streams of revenue that we can generate to maybe offset some of our other expenses here on campus."
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