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High school football: GHSA’s decision to move championship football games to Mercedes-Benz met with swift approval from coaches in Hall County
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Gainesville coach Josh Niblett calls plays against Winder-Barrow during the preseason game Aug. 12, 2022 at City Park Stadium. - photo by Bill Murphy

A decision that seemed inevitable is now official.

The Georgia High School Association’s championship games in each classification for football and girls flag football will move across Atlanta to Mercedes-Benz Stadium, beginning next year.

The move, which was announced at a joint press conference conducted by the GHSA and the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, will be for at least the next three years.

And it’s drawn a variety of reactions among coaches from around the state, including Hall County.

A major issue that has been a subject of much discussion recently among coaches, players and fans alike is the return of the finals to a covered facility and Mercedes-Benz Stadium’s retractable roof after being played outdoors at Georgia State University’s Center Parc Stadium since, 2018 following an 11-year run at the old Georgia Dome.

The rainy and windy weather throughout the recent final weekend only amplified those discussions and was likely one reason for the change.

However, while Gainesville’s Josh Niblett, whose Red Elephants just played in the Class 6A title game last Friday, acknowledges the appeal of playing in a covered facility, he believes that was really more an issue for the fans than the teams.

“(The) elements are part of football, too,” Niblett said. “That’s why you play it outside. … But when you’re getting into those games, it’s more than just the game. You want crowd attendance for these games. You want people to come no matter what the weather is.

“I think it’s more for attendance. I think people just have a feeling that when you get to a championship game, it needs to be under the same conditions to find out which is the best team to win. … I do think it will be better for everyone. I think it will be a lot more well attended probably, but I ain’t gonna lie. Our people were going to show up regardless. … Our fans don’t care whether we’re playing in (doors) or out. They’re coming.”

Another issue that has been debated in recent years is playing the championship games at a newer facility that is the home to the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons as opposed to one that was a baseball stadium before being retrofitted for football when Georgia State bought the facility in 2017.

In that respect, North Hall coach Sean Pender says the move to Mercedes-Benz Stadium could recreate what was a rallying cry for players throughout the state from when postseason games were played at the Georgia Dome, first in the semifinals before it became the home of the finals in 2007.

“Just (coaching) as long as I have, … (the players) love going to ‘The Dome,’” said Pender, who was on the staff at Ware County when it played at the Georgia Dome when the semifinals were held there before embarking on a head coaching career that has taken him to Brantley County, Crisp County, Pierce County and Brunswick before he took the North Hall job earlier this year. “That’s a big thing for them, so I’m for it. I’m glad they’re going to be able to move it back there (to the home of the Falcons). … It’s one of the motivational quotes we put in – get to the Dome.”

Niblett agrees that playing in such a big-time facility adds a little something extra for the players.

He has experience coaching at Mercedes-Benz Stadium after bringing his Hoover (Ala.) team to play North Gwinnett in the 2021 Corky Kell Classic.

But he also adds that playing in the championship game in a facility like that is something extra special.

“It’s a neat experience for the players,” said Niblett, who coached Hoover in three different stadiums in Alabama state title games – Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium, Auburn’s Jordan Hare Stadium and Alabama-Birmingham’s Protective Stadium. “I enjoyed Georgia State. I thought it was a neat venue. That was a great experience because it was my first time (there). But having played there and having played Mercedes-Benz the year before, … it’s a fantastic venue … for players to get to play in. It’s kind of the showcase of Georgia. I think the kids will be excited about it.”

Cherokee Bluff coach Tommy Jones also knows how special playing in a venue like Mercedes-Benz Stadium can be.

He was an assistant at Dacula when it played in the Corky Kell Classic in 2001 and 2002, and he echoes the sentiments of Niblett and Pender that playing in a game as special as a state championship game warrants a venue just as special.

“It’s ideal for hosting a state championship game,” Jones said. “It’s something all high school kids shoot for and aspire to play in a stadium like that. No doubt, if you have a chance to go to Mercedes-Benz Stadium, it’s an incredible facility. It’s made for football.”

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