By Parrish Alford
ATLANTA – It looks like the College Football Hall of Fame has finally found its home.
It’s been in a small, largely untraveled section of New York City. It’s been by a theme park in Ohio. It’s been in the same city as one of the game’s most storied programs but in the downtown of South Bend, Indiana, and not on the Notre Dame campus.
Now it’s in the heart of SEC country in a $66.5 million state-of-the-art facility on 2.7 acres in the middle of downtown adjacent to CNN Center and Centennial Olympic Park.
“People love their football everywhere. That’s not to take anything away from the Midwest or the West or the Northeast, but people really love their football in the Southeast, particularly college football,” says John Stephenson, executive director of the new College Football Hall of Fame. “Atlanta is in the middle of this hotbed of football passion.”
The Hall of Fame opened on Aug. 23, five days prior to college football’s opening day.
It tells the story of a game that dates back 145 years with a 21st Century approach. Gone are the busts and plaques that honored each member of the Hall of Fame. They’re around but in storage.
Each member’s story is told now with video on touch screens as visitors swipe their way through overwhelming amounts of information.
All of that is on the third floor.
Before you ever get to the most quiet and revered level of the building the game is celebrated with color, motion and in high volume.
Fans enter the building walk into the “Quad” where they stop to find their team on the helmet wall which is covered with 768 helmets representing every college football team at every level of play.
The first floor also includes the hot and sweaty portion of Hall where fans can kick field goals, run through tackling dummies and hit a blocking sled on a 45-yard indoor field.
During their break they can buy concessions and watch whatever football is being shown on a massive high def screen above the field.
The Hall’s second floor is an interactive experience telling stories of players and coaches for sure but also bands, cheerleaders, stadiums, traditions and more.
Guests can sit in a radio booth and “call” some of the biggest plays in history, enjoy fight song karaoke or sit with ESPN’s Chris Fowler and Desmond Howard – They’re there in video only – on the Game Day set and pick their winning team. The ESPN experience is complete with video head gear that magically appears over the guest’s head during the segment.
The entire experience can be personalized and revisited on the Hall’s website if visitors register electronically upon entry. Registration also allows software chips in the exhibits to read their tickets and present their school’s information first as they approach.
“Our exhibit designers, we just gave them a blank sheet of paper and said you’ve got 2.7 acres to build a giant attraction that has the Hall of Fame in it. What would you do?” Stephenson said.
Thus began the process of accepting some ideas, disbanding others.
Ole Miss has 11 members in the Hall of Fame, Mississippi State six and Southern Miss has two.
Ole Miss lineman Frank “Bruiser” Kinard was a member of the inaugural class in 1951, and the Rebels have a member of the 2014 class, named earlier this spring, in Pontotoc’s Wesley Walls.
It’s important not only that the stories of these players and coaches be told, says Ole Miss legend Archie Manning, but also that people are around to hear them.
“It just needs to be wherever there’s football traffic. That’s what we need. Our first one was in Kings Island, Ohio. It was close to a theme park. A lot of people went to the theme park but didn’t go to the Hall of Fame,” he said.
Perhaps more people will go now. Organizers project a half million annual visitors for the new facility.
Manning, a 1989 Hall of Fame inductee, is presently the chairman of the National Football Foundation. The group’s mission is to promote amateur football. It also oversees the Hall of Fame selection process.
Other regions of the country could also have been good hosts, said Manning, including Dallas and the West Coast, who also had interest in the Hall of Fame.
South Bend officials lobbied, to some extent, to keep the Hall, but ultimately the decision to move was about telling the stories to more people.
The Hall of Fame had been in South Bend since 1995, having moved there from Kings Island, Ohio, its home since 1978.
“The people in South Bend were wonderful and made it pleasant for us to come,” Manning said. “There’s just so much going on in Atlanta and in the Centennial Park area. There’s a lot of college football in the area … up the road in Athens, Georgia Tech right there, SEC championship games, the Kickoff Games, the Falcons. There are a lot of football fans in the area, and we hope they’ll go see it.”