Seeing as how college football is just around the corner, we here at Sparty and Friends thought it would be great to get an interview with a well-known college football writer. We feel as though we hit the jackpot when Tony Barnhart agreed to speak with us. Barnhart has been an institution in the South for the last 30 years, and is without question the college football writer in the South. Formerly of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution – he took a buyout last year – Barnhart maintains his college football blog (Mr. College Football) for the AJC while doing some television work for CBS and CSS. Barnhart talks about the current state of newspapers, Tim Tebow’s legacy and how those of you who are in favor of a plus-one format might not have to wait too much longer to see that happen.
When did you know you wanted to be a sports reporter?
Well, I didn’t start out wanting to be one because I had made it out in my mind that I was going to be a high school football coach. I played football but I was small but I compensated by being exceedingly slow, but I was going to college and I was going to major in physical education. I loved football and I loved being around it. I was very close to my head coach and that was what I wanted to do, but I got to college and one of the things that you had to do was you had to take education courses and I’ll never forget the first educa-tion course I took. Outside the door of the class room was a salary chart of what first year teachers in the state of Georgia made and I took a look at that and I said I don’t know if I want to be a high school football coach or not. I had always done a lot of reading and writing growing up. My mother was a big time reader and she taught me to love reading and writing and stuff like that. The student paper at Georgia Southern (George-Anne) had a note on the bulletin board saying they needed some help in their sports department, and I thought that was something I could probably do. They sent me to a Georgia Southern basketball game and I get to the Hanner Fieldhouse and I got to the table on the front row and their was a seat that had my name on it. I sat down and waited a little while and a pretty girl came by and gave me a game program and another pretty girl came by and gave me a coca cola and I said I think I am going to like this sports writing thing. I transferred to Georgia because I didn’t want to go to journalism school and I went to work at the Red and Black (student newspaper) and that’s when I really got busy. When I transferred to Georgia I knew that’s what I really wanted to do. How I was going to get there I wasn’t sure, but that’s how it all kind of got started.
What keeps you in the business?
More than anything is being in the stadium on Saturday. To me, for everything else that goes on in the business that maybe you don’t like and you struggle with, it is being there on Saturday because Saturday never changes. It’s bands, fall colors, two teams, tradition; it’s all those things and I started my love affair with college football when I was 13-years-old and it never stopped.
As you are well aware, the AJC, like many major dailies, is in trouble. What do you think newspapers will look like 5 years from now?
I think the printed product is going to continue to be small because you just can’t justify the printing and distribution costs. Advertis-ers have found different ways. To me the biggest mistake that newspapers made — and it’s easy for me to say this now because I’m saying it in hindsight — is that they knew the internet was coming and they knew that news was going to be on the internet. They knew all of that. I think the big thing that newspapers didn’t see coming and didn’t react to was the advent of stuff like Craig’s List where you can have a searchable database of classified ads to find anything you want. Why would you hold up a big sheet of classified ads when you can search a database? I think had newspapers gotten ahead of the curve on that I think they’d be in much better shape. To answer your question I think the printed product is going to continue to be small and limited in space, but I think the online has incredible potential as blogs and everything continue to grow. The only thing they have to do is generate the revenue and I think there are a lot of smart people and they will eventually do it, but going through this transition right now is very difficult.
You have one of the better blogs of any of the mainstream reporters. What is it you like most about blogging?
Several years ago [the AJC] came to me and told me that they wanted me to do a blog. I said, “Hey, that’s great, but what’s a blog?” They sort of explained to me what they were looking for and I said, “Ahh, what you want me to do is to write something to get people to argue amongst themselves.” I said I can do that. I really enjoy the blog. There is a certain freedom that comes with it. Now, there is not a license that goes with it, but you are free to mix news and opinion as long as you make it clear that is exactly what it is, because it is opinion. The interaction with the readers is something that I really like. I don’t get to go back to my blog and interact as much as I’d like to because I’ve got other things going on, but I love reading, with a few exceptions, what the readers have to say. I haven’t read every college football blog out there but I’d have to believe that the folks that I hear from are some of the most knowledgeable football people around. They take the sport very seriously and I like that. Getting that immediate feedback can be a little intimidating, but for the most part it’s a lot of fun.
Are we in the midst of the best college football era in terms of talent and coaching in your opinion?
I think we are. I said this not long ago that I think we are going to look back at this time as really the golden age of college football. There have been a lot of great eras in college football and I’ve written about them and studied them and all that, but when you think about the popularity of college football, how ultra competitive it is, the interest in college football has always been high – particularly in the South – but right now it’s a year round thing. People that I hear from cannot wait for the season to get here. They get to July and they start going nuts. When you look at how competitive college football is and the interest — like it or not the BCS has created a lot of that interest from region to region — I think right now we will look back and say that this is the golden age of college football.
In the last few years the SEC has really staked its claim as the premier conference. Why has this happened?
You have to remember that back in the 70’s and 80’s, television was a low-impact thing on college football. There was one game on each week and it just simply did not have that great of an impact. I think things began to change in 1984 with the Supreme Court case that basically said that schools owned there own television rights and could strike their own deal. What happened with the explosion of college football, to me, that allowed a program like Florida State, who was a regional program, to be able to quickly turn that program into a national program because of the explosion they had on television. Now a kid who grows up in South Georgia can envision himself playing at Southern Cal so it really shrunk the world. I think more of the great players, particularly in the South, stayed home because Notre Dame couldn’t come down here and say if you come to Notre Dame you’re going to be on television. Just about every game is on television and I think the great players in the South have stayed home, and the other thing that has really helped the SEC is the resources. When you look at the resources that that SEC has now, even back as far as 1990 when Roy Kramer first became commis-sioner, I think in 1990 the 10 SEC schools shared $16 million in revenue. This year it was over $125 million and it is only going to go up with the new TV contracts. So having the resources and having the money is a big part of this.
Do you think there is truth in the thought that people just care more about college football in the South?
Oh there is simply no doubt about it. I always tell people — and I did my first book Southern Fried Football on this — college football in the South is not a game, here it’s a way of life. People live it. Pat Dye told me one time that people enjoy football in other parts of the country , but down here it’s a part of our life. It’s a big part of who we are. I think college football in the South, obviously I am prejudice because I grew up in the South and I’ve spent my entire career in the South, is more engrained in the culture here than it is anywhere else because we talk about it 365 days a year. There’s no off season for college football in the South. Here’s a great example: In May of 2008, spring practice had been over for well over a month, the Braves were playing, the Falcons were in mini camp, the Triple Crown was going on and the NBA was going into the playoffs, but the No. 1 blog at the AJC was Mr. College Football. And that’s not because of me, that’s because of the subject matter. People want to talk about, read about and think about college football 12 months out of the year. I think the people at the AJC were really surprised, but I wasn’t because that’s the depth that people care about college football in the South.
You can’t talk about the SEC without discussing Tim Tebow. Is he about to become the greatest college football player of all time?
I think he’s got that possibility. The best college football player I’ve ever seen was Hershel Walker as a freshman at Georgia . This kid [Tebow] is so extraordinary. Not only for the kind of person that he is because there is not a phony bone in his body, but he is ultra competitive. The brighter the spotlight and the tougher the competition, the more he likes it. Last year at the SEC Championship game I wrote that Tim Tebow should win the Heisman trophy. I said forget the numbers. Bradford and those guys have the numbers. If this is about numbers than you need to vote for one of those guys, but if it’s about something more than that [you should vote for Tebow]. Tim Tebow literally, right before our eyes, willed his team to win that football game. He made sure they were going to win that game. Alabama had the game right where they wanted it, and I’ve talked with the Alabama coaches. When the third quarter of that game had ended, they had put together two long drives against Florida , had taken the lead, and they were ready to apply the knock out punch. The game was going exactly the way the Alabama people had wanted it to go, but what they couldn’t account for was Tebow. If they can win another national championship and he can win another Heisman trophy, which I certainly think is possible, you’re talking about a kid who played on three national championship teams in his four years of college and has broken every record you can imagine. So, yeah, I think you would have to call him, if he does all of those things and I understand that’s an if, the greatest. People wonder what makes him tick and they wonder about this and that. About a year-and-a-half ago I said quit wondering about this guy and enjoy it while he’s here because he’s going to be gone and we are going to look back and go, man, that guy was really something. Here’s a kid who came out of high school, and I don’t follow recruiting so I didn’t know anything about Tebow until he got to college, but I had all of these people telling me how great this kid was and I said I’ll wait and see. He’s one of those kids, like Hershel Walker, who lived up to the hype the first day he walked on to campus.
Outside of the big three of Florida , Texas and Oklahoma , who is the most likely to make a run at a national title?
After those I think you’d have to go with Southern Cal simply because of the talent that is there. They’re going to have a new quarterback for a second straight year, and that’s unusual, but they always seem to have somebody who can play the position. Given the conference that they’re in, overall talent base and looking at their schedule they have a chance to do it, but I personally think it is going to be just like last year. It’s going to be the SEC champ and the Big 12 champ. Maybe one of the teams from the Big 10. Right now a lot of people are picking Ohio State, but I’m picking Penn State in the Big 10 because they get Ohio State at home. Maybe one of [the Big 10 teams] can slip through…but I would be surprised.
What do you think the Big 10 needs to do to get back to a level that they can compete with the best SEC teams?
Well, they need speed. I think that’s been the big differential and you’ve seen that in the national championship games when the SEC would line up against Ohio State. I mean, Ohio State is a great football program, and I think Jim Tressel is one of the top five coaches in all of college football, but the fact of the matter is they simply do not have the athletes, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. To me that’s the biggest difference between the SEC and everybody else. Everybody’s got wide receivers that can run, running backs that can run and quarterbacks who can throw and all of that, but to me the thing that separates the SEC — and this is not my idea, Pat Dye told me this 20 years ago —is defensive linemen who can run. We saw it a couple of years ago when Florida played Ohio State. Troy Smith sprints out to his right and he gets chased down from the back side by Derrick Harvey and he looks around and goes, “What is this?” I mean, the defensive linemen in the SEC can run as fast as running backs and they can certainly run faster than most quarterbacks. To me that is the biggest difference. Ohio State has got a player like that in Cameron Haywood, who by the way happens to be from Atlanta, Ga. So the Big 10 has got to come South where these kids grow up. For whatever reason they’re down here, and to me they have to come South and find speed, particularly on the defensive line.
What was your most memorable moment covering college football?
December 2, 1989. That was the day that Alabama played at Auburn for the first time in history. You have to understand the history in that Alabama under Bear Bryant had always played the game in Birmingham. Birmingham is an Alabama town. Bear Bryant always swore that the Alabama-Auburn game would always be played in Birmingham and it would never go to campus. Well, coach Bryant retires, Pat Dye comes on as head coach and athletic director at Auburn and it took a while to negotiate, but it finally happened. It was by far the most emotional day I’ve ever spent at a college football game. The people there were so emotional. All of the sudden, with everything else going on, Alabama coming to Auburn for the first time after swearing they would never come, Alabama shows up ranked No. 2 in the nation and they’re undefeated. If they beat Auburn they win the SEC championship and they get to play for a chance at a national championship, and all of that was on the line in this incredible, emotional drama. I’ll never forget they had the Tiger walk at Auburn where they walk down the street from Sewell Hall to the stadium and the state patrol told us there was at least 30,000 people lining the street and there were grown men crying because it was such an emotional day when this finally happened. Then for Auburn to beat Alabama, knock them out of a shot at a national championship and share the SEC championship was just incredible, and I’ll never forget being there.
Who is your sleeper pick to make a run at a national championship?
It would have to be somebody from the Big 10, because it is just hard to see anybody else getting there. I think Oklahoma State is going to be a really good team, but their defense is still not very good. I think LSU is a team that you have to watch and I think Alabama is a team that you have to watch if they get on a role. The only other dark horse out there is California. I like California; I’ve got them at No. 10 in my preseason poll. Javid Best is the best player not named Tim Tebow, Colt McCoy or Sam Bradford. He’ll be the fourth guy who can get in the Heisman race, but he’ll be a distant fourth because of those three guys. I’ve got like five magazines that I use for research, and all five of them in some order have Florida, Texas, Oklahoma and USC [as the top teams]. I have not seen any kind of a preseason poll that did not have those four teams in some order, and I think when all is said and done, I think one of those teams will win it. I’m not on the Ole Miss bandwagon, by the way. I think Ole Miss is a good team, but given what they’ve lost and given the unusual situation they’re in — that everybody is loving on them — I just think it’s going to be difficult for them to win the division.
Do you think Paul Johnson will have Georgia Tech competing for national championships in the next five years?
I don’t know about national championships because it’s difficult to get the kind of depth you need, but I don’t think it’s not a question that they are going to be competing for an ACC championship. This is just a personal viewpoint of mine, but I don’t talk about national championships that much because there is just too much luck and too many variables. To me, I evaluate coaches on their ability to compete for the conference championship that they are in. If you win the conference championship, you know, and a few things fall right, you’ll get a chance to play for something else. But I never evaluate coaches on their ability to win national championships. There is too much luck involved.
Who was the best coach you’ve ever covered in terms of giving you stuff to write about?
That’s [Steve] Spurrier. I mean, Spurrier was the whole package. He was an offensive genius who came to Florida. If you think about what Spurrier did, and I’ve said this before, Spurrier, next to Bear Bryant who is the seminal figure of our time when it comes to coaches, had the greatest impact on the SEC of any coach who’s ever been in the league. If you think about it, when he came to Florida in 1990, Florida had never won 10 games, Florida had never won an SEC championship and had never even sniffed a national championship. He wins six SEC championships — seven if you count 1990, like he does — and is consistently a 10-11 win team. He had an incredible number of athletes and he was entertaining as all get out. You could call him and he would invariably, if he was in the mood, say something that would really entertain you.
What is the best game day atmosphere in college football?
Wow. There are so many good ones that people ask me what’s my favorite stadium to go to and I say you’re asking me to pick among my children. That’s the neat thing, particularly about the South, is every game day has it’s unique qualities. I’ll always love going to Georgia, that’s my alma mater. Sanford stadium, sitting there on a fall Saturday, there’s just nothing like it. It’s just the best. After that, I love going to Ole Miss and sitting in the Grove with friends, that’s something unique. Tailgating by the Tennessee river for a Tennessee game and the Vol walk and all of that kind of stuff is special. I don’t get to go there much more, but I used to love to go to Chapel Hill, which is one of the most beautiful stadiums I’ve ever been to. That’s the neat thing about the South. We have a lot of fun places to go. Baton Rouge in Saturday night, there ain’t nothing like that. Two years ago when Florida played at LSU — that was the game that Les Miles went for it on fourth down like 97 times and made it — Verne Lundquist at CBS is a very good friend of mine, and it was the first time that he had been there for a Saturday night game, and he said, “Tony, that was the most incredible atmosphere that I’ve ever seen.” When LSU is good, there ain’t nothing like it, and we’re going to have the same atmosphere on October 10 [when LSU hosts Florida]. That was one of the first ones that I put on my schedule when the time came.
Do you think Utah was jobbed by the BCS last year?
Well, no is the short answer, but you have to understand what we are arguing about. I’ve tried to pose this to other people: Are you arguing that this system jobbed Utah? If you are than you can’t say Utah got cheated out of a chance to play for the national championship because they had as much of a chance as Texas, Florida and Oklahoma and everybody else. The 175 people whose job it is to vote in those polls, they picked Utah seventh. So is the argument that Utah should have gone over Florida, Oklahoma or Texas? I mean Utah had their opportunity. Now, if you want to argue that the system should include more than two teams, and if it did, Utah would have gotten an opportunity to play for it, to me that is a totally different argument, and we can have that argument. The problem I had about everybody talking about Utah was that everybody was showing love to Utah after they beat Alabama. They needed to show the love to Utah after they finished 12-0. They should have showed the love then. Utah’s own coach only voted for them at No. 5 in the coach’s poll. The point is a lot of people look at this thing with revisionist history, and after they beat Alabama they were like, “Oh, well they should have gotten a chance to play for it all.” Well, that’s not the way it works. You have to make that call in December. You don’t get to make it in January.
Three years from now is Urban Meyer still coaching at Florida?
I think so, I think so. As a matter of fact I spoke with coach Meyer and I’m going to blog about that conversation. At the end of the day, and I’ve said this before, is that Notre Dame might be his dream job because of all of the heart strings and pulls, and I get all of that. But you have to talk about your real job and living in the real world, and let’s face it, Florida — and all of my Georgia friends don’t want to hear this — is one of the top three jobs on the planet. It just is. It’s not arguable. Given where they are located, given their resources, which are considerable, and the players that they’ve got within a 100-200 mile radius I just think it is right up there with Texas and USC. Now, if Meyer wins four or five national championships, maybe he gets bored. I’m not a coach so I don’t know how that works. I just think that he is going to stay there because when it comes right down to it he is saying do I want to go somewhere else and struggle when I’ve got it going here? I think in three years he will still be there. Now, we’ll still be talking about it, but he’ll still be there.
If you could fix one thing about college football that you feel is broken, what would it be?
I’m kind of radical when it comes to that kind of stuff. If I were the Czar freshman would be ineligible. You still get four years of eligibility, but freshman would be ineligible. I think too many of the problems we have comes from the pressures of trying to recruit guys and tell them they are going to play. There are too many games that are played in recruiting. I think the kid needs to get on campus, learn where the library is, get himself under a solid academic footing and then start worrying about playing football. I think the game would be healthier all the way around. I think it would clean up a lot of recruiting because if you knew you weren’t going to play the first year— and I’ve never been a college recruit so I don’t know — my guess is that the recruiting process would be totally different. There are a lot of things I’d like to change, but that’s the one thing I think would make the game a little more healthier and a little more balanced and help these kids academically.
What do you think the future holds for college football fans who are dying for a playoff? What will college football’s championship mechanism look like five years from now?
I’m on record as saying this. We’ve got one year left on the Fox contract and four years left on the ESPN contract after that. I do not believe that the current format will be in place for the next contract that begins with the 2014 regular season. You know, college football is no different than any other product that goes to the marketplace. Sooner or later you have to change the product and improve the product to keep it strong, you know? There’s still some things that may keep that from happening, but I think there is a reason Mike Slive of the SEC put out that idea of a seeded plus one this year, because I think he was looking down the road to get us talking about it now. I think we will have a four-team playoff, with teams being seeded 1-4 will be the next evolution.
Do you want to see that evolution?
Yes. I’ve come around on that. Because one of the things I did is I went back and researched the 10 years of the BCS and I think with one exception, and I don’t recall what it was, a four-team playoff would have addressed every controversy that the BCS has had. It wouldn’t have helped Georgia in 2007 because they would have finished fifth — Georgia fans don’t like to hear that — but for the most part the teams that got screwed were at 3 or 4. Miami in 2000, when they beat Florida State on the field and didn’t get in and Auburn in 2004, which is the most egregious problem. I’m not saying that Southern Cal and Oklahoma didn’t deserve to be there, but if you go 13-0 in the SEC, holy cow! You’ve got to get a shot there. Now, are we going to argue about 4 and 5? Of course we’re going to argue, but even if you have a 16-team playoff we’d be arguing about 17. [Former] Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese told me this, and he’s right. He said that as you go up in the number of teams in a playoff, the arguing really becomes exponential. By that what he meant was that there are only a few teams who can argue that they should be No. 2, but there is a greater number of teams that can argue that they can be No. 4 and there is a greater number of teams that can argue that they can be No. 8, so you have to un-derstand that going in. But to me, I just think the marketplace is going to dictate that they come up with a new product and I think that’s what they come up with.
When you are not watching football what do you like to do?
I enjoy reading and I enjoy golf, though I wish I was better at it. My routine is I get all of my golf in between May 1 and August 1. I like to travel,. We just go back from Europe in January and I’m probably going back next January. For the last 23, 24 years I’ve been getting my daughter through college and through law school. She’s through college and law school, married and she’s a big-city lawyer. I’ve got more time on my hands now than I used to. My wife and I enjoy going to the local theater and stuff like that. I try to get away from football when I can, but it’s funny how it pulls you back in this time of the year.