Editor Kevin Riley: Capturing a team, and state’s, run

It’s been almost a week, but whether or not you’re a University of Georgia football fan, you can probably still sense the lingering disappointment of the devastating loss in the college championship game.

(And just for a moment here, I will acknowledge that we have plenty of Georgia Tech – and Alabama – fans among our customers, who clearly aren’t troubled by the loss. My favorite comment from a Tech fan: “Rooting for UGA just because you’re in GA is like rooting for the devil just because he is in the Bible.”)

At the AJC, we covered UGA’s season every step of the way, and when the Bulldogs made the college football playoff, we made following the team our highest priority. After all, the team was pursuing its first national championship in nearly 40 years.

Then President Trump decided to attend the game, which was played in Atlanta purely out of coincidence in the rotating location of the championship game each year. So a big story got even bigger.

I’ll let you in on a secret about newspapers: when one of our major sports teams positions itself to win the championship, with us there’s no waiting to see how it comes out. We assume they are going to win, and plan accordingly.

For us, that meant sending a large contingent to California for the Rose Bowl, and getting detailed and ambitious plans together for the national championship game.

Editors devoted countless hours to organizing and deploying staff. They made plans for special coverage leading up to the game, creating a week’s worth of keepsake newspapers, and an impressively large amount of online content that fans could find at AJC and MyAJC.com. Operating on the assumption of a Georgia victory, we planned even more, including one-of-a-kind keepsake editions.

So, honestly, we were disappointed too. But I’d like to give you an inside look at what really goes into the process of covering a big game.

Multimedia journalist Erica A. Hernandez summarized it best.

“My job consisted of giving those who couldn’t attend the game a look behind the curtain,” she said. “From being able to bring Bulldogs fans inside the room at media day on Saturday to giving our audience a 360-degree view of the field on Monday.”

“It was many long days and nights spent at and around Mercedes-Benz stadium, braving the uncharacteristically cold weather. Being able to bring the excitement of this experience to Georgia fans everywhere made it all worth it.”

Hernandez was part of a large contingent of the staff covering the game, and everything around it. For some, this is a block they’ve been around before. Sports columnist Mark Bradley, for example. He’s documented many big sports stories, including last year’s Super Bowl.

“I actually had a harder time writing this one than I did the Super Bowl because this just felt so weird,” he said. “You see a loss like that maybe every 20 years. I’d seen essentially the same loss twice in 11 months. On a rational level, I know that what happened in Houston had nothing to do with what happened here Monday night. But sometimes I do wonder.”

Of course, all hands were on deck for the college national championship, but some of our journalists had other big games to cover – and managed to overcome big logistical obstacles.

It started with the Falcons game on Christmas Eve for visual journalist Curtis Compton and sports columnist Jeff Schultz.

“Jeff and I had driven together to New Orleans for the Falcons game on Christmas eve, so we could drive back to Atlanta,” said Compton. “After the game, arriving at 3 a.m. Christmas morning, we spent a few hours at home, then flew out for Rose Bowl coverage the next day.”

Of course, our journalists love covering a story as important to you as the Rose Bowl. But we never like a West Coast game that inevitably leads to tight deadlines. Recall that the Rose Bowl went into double overtime. But then things got even more complicated for Schultz and Compton.

I’ll let Schultz explain what he did once he left the Rose Bowl – and it wasn’t packing up to come home.

“I changed hotels to one near L.A Rams’ facility in Thousand Oaks and worked from there,” he said. He stayed in California to cover the Falcons-Rams’ playoff game, another tough deadline because that game started at 8:15 p.m. eastern time.

After that, he moved to a third hotel near the airport and flew back to Atlanta the next morning, which was the day before the college national championship game.

And he describes the night in the press box at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“I had a nice column started but refrained from writing the lead,” he said. “I learned not to assume anything in my career – and that was reaffirmed in the Super Bowl.”

Eventually, though, he had to commit.

“The lead changed twice: Alabama wins. Georgia wins. No-no-Alabama wins,” he said.

Schultz drove home and booked a flight to Philadelphia and a hotel room at 3 a.m. so he could cover the Falcons’ playoff game on Saturday.

Compton was pretty much on the same schedule. And Georgia’s run at the title meant a lot to him. That’s where he went to school. So an inspired guy was even more inspired.

“Just a very disappointing finish to a fairy tale season for the Dawgs,” he said. “I am a journalist first, but also as an UGA alumni I can’t say the finish wasn’t painful — even if I nailed the game-winning play.”

Compton took the picture of Alabama’s game-winning catch, once again capturing an historic moment. His picture dominated the first page of the AJC’s sports section the next morning.

It broke his heart, but he loves the work.

“Twenty-five years with the AJC and I don’t recall a more-electric football season,” he said.


Jeff Schultz column: Georgia comes close to title but falls to Alabama -- it’s Atlanta’s curse

Mark Bradley column: Jacob Eason was a Darn Good Dog

Steve Hummer: Traumatically injured against Bulldogs, Devon Gales cheers them on to title game now

Souvenir field edition captures UGA victory in Rose Bowl

360 video: Georgia Bulldogs enter Mercedes-Benz Stadium

Read more AJC coverage of UGA

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