GREENSBORO, Ga. -- Every spring, the Chick-fil-A Bowl celebrates its relationship with college football with a charity golf tournament at a beautiful lake resort about 90 minutes east of Atlanta. Coaches from around the country participate in a competition that earns hundreds of thousands of dollars for scholarships and charities.
This year the celebration has an extra dose of energy and the wine glasses are clinking a little louder. The Chick-fil-A Bowl, started in 1968 as the Peach Bowl, has done something not even its most ardent supporters thought possible.
Last week the new College Football Playoff officially selected six bowls to form the rotation for its national semifinals. It came as no surprise that the Rose, Sugar, Cotton, Fiesta and Orange were chosen. All five of those bowls have hosted national championship games in their history. Four of the five were founded before 1938.
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But the sixth bowl chosen to host a national semifinal once every three years was the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta.
"I know it's true but I'm still having a tough time getting my arms around the fact that we have actually done it," said Albert Tarica, who has been a volunteer for the bowl for 44 years. "Very few people understand how close the bowl came to going under several times. But the people who believed in it just kept working. And here we are. It's amazing."
The Peach Bowl was started for the same reason all bowl games are created: As an attempt to generate tourism in the dead travel period in December. But in its first 25 years of its existence, the bowl could rarely catch a break:
• A recent story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reminded us that in 1978, the Peach Bowl between Georgia Tech and Purdue was played on Christmas Day. Advance ticket sales were so bad that Janet Rodgers, the wife of Georgia Tech coach Pepper Rodgers, put together a ticket drive. Attendance was only 20,277. Just imagine if there had not been a ticket drive.
• The first three Peach Bowls were played at Grant Field, on the campus of Georgia Tech. The infamous 1970 game between North Carolina and Arizona State featured rain, sleet and finally snow before it was over (I was there shivering in the upper deck). Arizona State won 48-26. Arizona State officials were less than enthused about the experience. It is not a coincidence that the Fiesta Bowl, played in Sun Devil Stadium, was created one year later.
• In 1971 the game was moved to Atlanta Stadium (later Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium), home of the Braves and Falcons. It was a round, cookie cutter facility built in a hurry to get the Braves to move south from Milwaukee in 1966. It was ill-suited for football with horrible sight lines. And the weather was almost always bad.
"There was something about that field that if it got one inch of rain it would turn sloppy," Tarica said. "It seemed we could never catch a break on the weather."
• There were so many empty seats (announced attendance 29,857) for the 1985 game between Army and Illinois (played in a quagmire of mud) that CBS pulled its national television contract.
"I've spoken to a number of people who felt that was the bottom," said Gary Stokan, current president of the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. "Everybody who cared about the game knew some things were going to have to change."
But four big events came together over the next 12 years to set the Chick-fil-A Bowl on its current path to membership in the College Football Playoff.
• In 1986 the city decided to take ownership of the game, which was moved under the umbrella of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. It was a signal that Atlanta's business community needed to get on board and support the bowl because it was, frankly, good for business.
"That changed everything," Tarica said. "Atlanta had great ambitions as a sports town. We didn't need for our bowl game to fail."
• In 1992 the Georgia Dome was built for the Falcons. It also solved the Peach Bowl's weather problem once and for all.
• Also in 1992, the Peach Bowl made the decision that its game should be regional, not national. In the past the bowl had always tried to get a national team to please television. No more. It signed contracts to provide an annual ACC-SEC matchup. Since then it has consistently been one of the highest-attended bowls outside of the BCS and is currently working on a string of 16 straight sellouts.
• In 1997 came the biggest step of all when Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A signed on as the game's first and only title sponsor.
"We simply looked at our target customers and college football and it appeared to be a perfect match," said Steve Robinson, vice president and chief marketing officer for Chick-fil-A. "It has been a great relationship and we are really excited to be a part of the college football playoff."
The marriage between Chick-fil-A and college football has been so successful that it also sponsors the Chick-fil-A Kickoff, a season-opening game at the Georgia Dome. This season's game features Alabama vs. Virginia Tech on Aug. 31. Chick-fil-A is also stepping up to help as the College Football Hall of Fame moves to Atlanta for the fall of 2014.
There are still some issues to work through. From 1997 to 2005 the title of the game was the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. The Peach was dropped in 2006 when Chick-fil-A increased its sponsorship. The College Football Playoff will require that like the Rose, Sugar, Orange, Cotton and Fiesta, the Atlanta bowl must return the title to Chick-fil-A Peach or include some kind of symbol in the title so that the bowls are consistent.
Early reports have said that "Peach" will be added back to the title but that, said Robinson, is one of several options being discussed.
Now that the Atlanta bowl is in the exclusive club of six, there is one more goal to reach. With a brand new retractable roof stadium for the Falcons set to be completed for the 2017 season, Atlanta has now set its sights on becoming a host for a national championship game. Those will be bid out independently of the six playoff bowls.
The Chick-fil-A Bowl will host a national semifinal on Dec. 31, 2016. So the goal is to host the national championship game on Jan. 8, 2018.
Tarica, now 71, knows that at some point he will have to step down as a volunteer. But now he sees one more hurdle to cross.
"That's what I want to see," said Tarica, an Alabama graduate and the owner of his own accounting firm. "I saw this game during the worst of times. Now I want to be here because we're getting ready to have the best of times. It's pretty neat."
ABOUT TONY BARNHART
Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and CBS Sports Network. He is the host of The Tony Barnhart Show on CBS Sports Network. Before joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.