ATLANTA — The theme that Gary Stokan is using to challenge his Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl staff is centered around the smallest — but most crucial — of increases.
It’s not about reinventing the bowl experience, it’s about taking it to a level that elevates it.
"(The theme is) 212 Degrees," the president and CEO of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl said. "(At) 211 degrees, water is hot, and you turn it up on more degree it starts to throw off steam and steam can move a locomotive.
"So I’ve challenged all our staff and volunteers to take everything up one more degree to make it even better."
That will become even more crucial over the next two years, when the bowl hosts a College Football Playoff semifinal in 2016, then in ’17 will play its traditional Dec. 31 game, as well as the national championship game.
Each night in the buildup to this year’s Peach Bowl between No. 9 Florida State and No. 14 Houston, Stokan meets with his staff to go over every piece of bowl week. They review what’s worked, what can be upgraded, and what they won’t be attempting again.
But, in a testament to Stokan’s staff and the level of bowl experience they’ve created, the tweaks are small — as in that one critical degree.
"There’s not a ton of stuff … and you would think that would be the case, because if there was a ton of stuff they wouldn’t have had you win the rights to host the semifinals in the first place," Stokan said.
Said Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher: "Every time I’ve ever been to the Peach Bowl, every time I’ve ever been associated with Chick-fil-A in any way, shape or form, they’ve done it as first-class as any organization in the country."
Primarily, what has changed over the past two bowl seasons since the Peach Bowl was elevated to CFP status were behind the scenes.
A greater budget was put into the fan fest, which features receiving, passing and kicking games and an obstacle course (as well as food and beverages from the game’s chicken-hocking name sake), as well as the hospitality rooms for players and administrators.
"We looked, since we were making the change to the College Football Playoff, we said ‘OK, what can we do bigger, better, more appropriate?’ and so we changed some things there,’ Stokan said.
But what won’t be altered is the backbone of what the bowl looks to afford players: a live, laugh, and learn experience, .
The "live" coming in the form of gifts, hotels, and the facilities used for practices and the game; the "laugh" is in the Battle for Bowl Week events — which include a lip synch competition and a milkshake combine — and the "learn" comes from events like a visit to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center to hear from the likes of C.T. Vivian, who marched with Dr. King at Selma and the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.
"We’ll run the same play," Stokan said. "We treat the bowl as a reward for the players and so every thing we do is built around that, so we create memories for them.
"Obviously, the game will take on more ramifications, because teams will be playing for a spot in the national championship game, but for us, it’s kind of the same play."
While not getting a semifinal game in one of the CFP’s first two seasons may have been a letdown among the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl staff, it has afforded them two seasons of run-up in order to tweak their entire experience.
It has also given them a chance to build up their ticket sales, with an offer this season that gives those who pay to see the Seminoles and Cougars also getting an opportunity to purchase a ticket to the ’16 semifinal game.
"That was something unique that we did and really paid off," Stokan said. "We’ve seen our ticket sales double from last year, from what we sold locally."
A year from now, when the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl is preparing to host either No. 1 vs. No. 4 or No. 2 vs. No. 3, the game itself will be in a greater spotlight. But for the game’ staff, things will almost be status quo.
"It’s interesting. People say ‘How are you going to handle the semi’? and ‘Is that going to be different?’" Stokan said. "Basically, my answer is, to a large, extent, it’s just the number in front of the teams are the only thing that will really change."