n a previous life as a writer at Sports Illustrated, I visited more college towns and got the grand tour of more campuses than I can count.
I had an audience with Bear Bryant in Tuscaloosa, attended Father Hesburgh's private mass at Notre Dame, discussed writing in John McPhee's attic at Princeton, dined with Dean Smith in Chapel Hill, and spent a glorious, sun-baked afternoon on hippie-laden Sproul Plaza at Berkeley. I heard the Wiffenpoofs in New Haven, listened to Bobby Knight rant and rave in Bloomington, marveled at Boulder's valley of the sun, and wondered aloud whether Westwood, Calif., home to UCLA, was a real town or a Hollywood set. I'm still not sure.
KU/UK. Been to both. ASU. FSU. KSU. MSU. Seen 'em all.
I mention this memory-lane stuff to establish myself as a credible witness to the fact that no other college town in America can hold a candle to Athens, Ga.
I came to that realization one May evening in 1978 while relaxing in my in-laws' pool on the east side of town. I'd flown in from New York to see John McEnroe win an epic NCAA singles championship match against N.C. State's John Sadri 7-6, 7-6, 6-7, 7-5and I remember thinking as I was swimming laps that evening . . . Wow, cool stuff happens here.
Drawn South by Athens' weather, its interesting people, the explosion of flowers during Masters weekand a North Campus-downtown district that has evolved over the years into a mini-Greenwich Villageour family of four moved to Athens in 1979 and set about living what we thought would be a simpler, calmer existence than we had known in the Big Apple.
But in 1980, our first year as football season-ticket holders, Herschel Walker burst on the sceneand Athens has seemed an incredibly exciting place to live and work ever since. The Dogs won the National Championship in '80the same year R.E.M. played its first gig at St. Mary's Episcopal Church on Oconee Street. Stipe & Co. are still headquartered here, as is America's most successful touring band, Widespread Panic, which brought 100,000 people into our streets for an outdoor concert in '98.
Athens is the semi-permanent home of the NCAA men's tennis tournament, which is great for a tennis freak like me. The NCAAs are played in a facility that bears the stamp of Kenny Rogers, who gave the money for the College Tennis Hall of Fame that adjoins court one, and Dan Magill's former ball girl, Kim Basinger, who donated the lights.
The list of distinctionsboth in and out of sportsgoes on and on: Uga V on the cover of Sports Illustrated, Ramsey Center touted by SI as the nation's best on-campus sports facility, Hodgson Hall regarded by the Atlanta Symphony as a favorite venue. And no one was happier than I was when the Classic Center opened in downtown Athens. Prior to that time, the only way to see Broadway touring shows or major pop music stars was to drive to Atlantaand, in those days, there was no Highway 316. With the advent of the Classic Center, Athens has seen everything from "Cats" to Dylan.
Oh, yeah . . . the '96 Olympics. You know, that great big sporting event where the world drops in for a 17-day stay . . . and they didn't just drop in on Atlanta. Athens/UGA had not one, not two, but three Olympic venues.
But beyond all this entertainment and big-event stuff, there is something intrinsically special about this town and the way it makes you feeland about this University, which, in many ways, is Athens' heart and soul.
As our cover story points out, this is more than just a college town; it's an artists town, a writers town, an entrepreneurs town. It's also a great place to be a kid, as my son and daughter can attest. It's a great place to raise kids, as my wife and I can attest. And it's a great place to go to college, as many of youand many of our kidscan attest.
Happy 200th birthday, Athens!