College Football Hall of Fame must-see marriage of technology, game’s past

The College Football Hall of Fame features a collection of 768 helmets that lights up to display whatever school a visitor aligns themselves with.

ATLANTA — If the Baseball Hall of Fame is the stoic establishment of such sports memorials, college football has answered with its modern, bouncing new baby cousin.

After decades in South Bend, Ind., the newly opened 94,000-square-foot College Football Hall of Fame in downtown Atlanta — complete with a football-shaped entry way — whose $68.5 million price tag was largely funded by sponsors, has taken cutting-edge technology to create a personal experience.

"We wanted to have the experience for some that wanted to have the traditional museum experience, where they can look at all the artifacts and see some physical things behind glass, but we also wanted it to be just a totally brand-new way of thinking about a sports hall of fame," said Hall of Fame CEO John Stephenson.

They accomplished that, right down to forgoing the usual shrines to honor the game’s legends.

There are no plaques or busts of the Hall of Famers, instead replaced with movable touchscreens that feature video, and photos. It’s a theme throughout the HOF, which is an attraction first, with the pieces of the sport’s past — and there are impressive bits of memorabilia — a compliment to the games, screens and activities.

Earlier this week Boise State, which was in town to play No. 18 Ole Miss in Thursday’s Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game, became the first team to take the tour. The Broncos players stood in the entryway, taking in the HOF’s 40-foot-high wall of helmets.

"They were very excited to walk in here and check it out," said Broncos athletic director Mark Coyle. "You walk in, you see the great display of helmets and everyone’s trying to find our helmet,"

As visitors select their favorite team by programming a RFID chip in their entry pass. That school displays on the wall , which features the helmet of all 768 teams that currently play college football — including one in Kennesaw State that won’t take the field until next season — and then tailors a number of interactive elements throughout the Hall toward that school.

During a recent tour of the HOF, spotted two Georgia fans putting that connectivity to work.

They stepped up to a 52-foot-long screen that’s part of the Why We Love College Football gallery and the wall, utilizing RFID antennas, populated with images of Bulldogs traditions, highlights and photos. The fans were then able to touch the images and play videos and see other information.

It is echoed throughout the Hall, from a virtual ESPN GameDay set in which fans can play the part of Lee Corso by reading a teleprompter to pick a game’s winner — and subsequently seeing their head replaced by that of their school’s mascot — to Fight Song Karaoke (which is exactly what it sounds like) and the screens in actual Hall of Fame, where the selected school’s representatives populate the interactive boards.

The use of the RFID chips and antennas also goes beyond that day. Elements like the GameDay appearance and karaoke are kept online for 30 days so that visitors can go back and review their experiences — and, of course, the HOF is using data it collects to help the facility adapt to fans’ needs.

"Whether people register with us or not, with that RFID, when they walk into our building, we know where people are going and what they’re doing and what they’re interacting with and what they’re not interacting with," Stephenson said. "It allows us a time goes on, to adjust the building to how the visitors want it and how they use it and its really good business intelligence data."

Above all, the College Football Hall of Fame is hands-on, with digital games that feature tradition trivia, a cheerleader challenge and mascot design. You can run plays with the likes of Steve Spurrier, Barry Switzer and Chris Ault, take a dive into John Heisman’s virtual playbook — a scanned version of what the legend penned into a lumber company book in 1905 — and recruiting questionnaires that eight athletes (Eric Crouch, Tony Gonzalez, LeBron James, Jonathan Ogden, Orlando Pace, Hines Ward and Danny Wuerffel) wrote about themselves in high school.

The technophile draws also include the Game Day Theater, where a new HDTV quality called 4K is on display. The Hall of Fame’s production crew spent three years shooting games in the format, and coupled with the narration of inductees, takes you inside the feel of a game day.

If that’s not close enough to the action, there is also a 45-yard indoor field where you can kick a field goal, go through an obstacle course and test your throwing accuracy by tossing balls into a net.

A 45-yard indoor field where allows patrons to kick a field goal, go through an obstacle course and test their throwing accuracy.

Like each of the exhibits, the playing field has a sponsor in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. It’s how the Hall was able to use just over a $1 million in public funds to get up and running behind founding partners AT&T, Chick-Fil-A, the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl, Coca-Cola and Kia and the other 11 companies that bought in.

While it’s easy to get caught up in in the nouveau aspects of the Hall, there are impressive pieces of the game’s past.

Nestled next to the helmet of Jay Berwanger, the first Heisman Trophy winner in 1935, is a jersey worn by Red Grange at Illinois and one of two-time Heisman winner Archie Griffin.

Hardware like the Heisman, the Doak Walker, Walter Camp and the new College Football Playoff national championship trophy are on display, along with articles you may not expect to see.

The trombone Stanford’s Gary Tyrrell carried during "The Play" against Cal in 1982 — is in the Game Time Gallery, which includes displays on eight of the game’s biggest rivalries (Alabama-Auburn, Michigan-Ohio State, Notre Dame-USC, Texas-Oklahoma, Army-Navy, Harvard-Yale, Grambling-Southern and the Cardinal-Bears).

What is currently on display is just a fifth of what the National Football Foundation has gathered. Upwards of 2,000 other pieces will be rotated in and out and an additional backstage tour is offered to see the rest of the collection.

While the assumption would be that youth are more geared toward the digital, Stephenson relayed the story of a young person in a focus group in which a patron told him that wasn’t the case.

"He said ‘I can pull up and image of anything I want on my phone right now,’" Stephenson relayed. "’I can find that trombone, I can find Red Grange’s jersey, I can find anything I want and I’ve been able to do that since I was born. So don’t discount that the younger generation may want to see something real.’"

In Year 1, the Hall of Fame believes it can draw half a million visitors as it takes advantage of its position in an area that includes the Georgia Aquarium, the World of Coca-Cola and the Children’s Museum of Atlanta.

"We know people that come to this area of town to be tourists and travelers already," Stephenson said. "We when we look at those around us, two different first did two different studies to see what we expect here."

In order to run its interactives, the HOF utilizes 76 different servers to call the estimated 12-13,000 photos, videos and the likes that are tagged for each display. That it is ultimately a collection of screens that can be updated, it’s an infrastructure that Stephenson believes positions the Hall to avoid becoming stale with the rapid advances of technology.

"It’s not like we have holograms or virtual reality goggles or anything like that that might feel outdated later," he said. "It’s a digital screen and the content that we present on those screens can change pretty quickly and pretty cheaply. The RFID chip and the magic that make the personal experience happen are pretty slick, but is not overly complicated from a hardware-standpoint."