April 28, 2012
By Jon Cooper
Reynolds Plantation on Lake Oconee in Greensboro, Ga., should be a fun place over the next three days.
In that time, 16 of the nation’s top college football coaches, representing schools within the ACC and SEC, as well as one wild card (Ohio State), are paired with a famous alumnus, paired against a rival school and alumnus then put on the golf course to play for thousands of dollars in scholarship money.
Football coaches, already a competitive breed, would gladly try to beat a rival for free. But, throw in a $125,000 first-prize to be donated to the winning school’s scholarship fund (that’s in addition to each school receiving a share of the $$25,000 scholarship purse) and you have a recipe for fun and excitement.
It’s called the Chick-fil-A Bowl Challenge.
“It’s a fun event and we’ve been able to secure a pretty good amount of money for the school, for the scholarship fund,” said Georgia Tech head football coach Paul Johnson, who will team with former Yellow Jacket basketball and NBA star, and current ESPN NBA analyst Jon Barry. “So it’s been good.”
Johnson and Barry, a two-year starter (1991, ’92), a third-team All-ACC performer in 1992 and a first-round Draft pick of the Boston Celtics in 1992, will represent Georgia Tech for the fourth straight year, and this year, enter the event with the added prestige of being defending champions.
Last year, they shot 11-under, one stroke off the all-time event record, and won by a record three shots over Tennessee’s team of head coach Derek Dooley and his partner Stanley Morgan.
“We’ve been fortunate. I guess this will be the fourth time we’ve played and we’ve kept getting better. We’ve kind of moved up the line,” said Johnson.
Johnson, a six-handicap, and Barry, a zero-handicap, have never finished lower than third in the event, which is played in a two-player scramble format.
Tech tied for third with Alabama’s Nick Saban and his partner Johnny Musso in 2009, two shots back, then, in 2010, were runners-up, one shot behind Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher and Terrell Buckley.
“I think Jon’s a good player. That’s the best thing,” Johnson said. “It’s tough because they handicap it, but last year we played well and we made some putts. That’s what you’ve got to do, you’ve got to make some putts in those things to have success.”
Tech’s team has had individual success as well as team success. Johnson won the “Closest to the Pin” competition last year, while Barry won the “Long Drive” contest in 2010. This year, they will be paired with Ohio State, which fields new coach Urban Meyer and former Buckeyes All-Big Ten first-team running back Jeff Logan, in what is called “The Coach Rivalry Pairing.”
While Johnson knows Meyer, he insists there is little actual rivalry between the two — Meyer even has ties to Georgia Tech, as his daughter, Nicki, is a senior on the Yellow Jackets Volleyball team.
“I’ve played golf with Urban. Other than that, no,” he said. “We’ve never played each other in football.”
The same can’t be said of the rest of the field, which includes ACC rival-coaches Fisher, Dabo Swinney of Clemson, Randy Edsell of Maryland, Al Golden of Miami, Larry Fedora of North Carolina, Tom O’Brien of NC State, Mike London of Virginia, Frank Beamer of Virginia Tech and Jim Grobe of Wake Forest.
Participating SEC coaches include Saban, Dooley, South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier, who won the inaugural Challenge in 2009 with Sterling Sharpe, Dan Mullen of Mississippi State, and Hugh Freeze of Ole Miss.
So, which tandem is the defending champs keeping an eye out for this year?
“You just play. You can’t zero in on any one group. You’ve got to try to shoot a certain score if you’re going to get near the top,” Johnson said. “You don’t ever really know until you see how many shots everybody gets. A lot of it depends on the handicaps. We generally have to give several shots and when you do that, you don’t know because guys that you don’t think are going to play well all of a sudden miraculously appear on the scoreboard. Coach Spurrier and Sterling [Sharpe] always play pretty good. They’re both pretty good players. There are a lot of guys who come in, there are several new guys this year so I don’t know some of them.”
Johnson has gotten to know Barry well over the first three years of the event and believes their relationship is an advantage.
“I think we have a pretty good relationship,” he said. “We cut up and get on each other. I think we both get along well, so that’s probably a good thing.”
One thing he expects to not hear much of is football talk.
“Very little. Not much football talk goes on there.”