ATHENS, Ga. - About an hour before kickoff today, Mark Richt and Chan Gailey will meet for a midfield chat at Sanford Stadium.
The two coaches will probably exchange a warm handshake and a quick conversation before resuming preparations for their first meeting.
Neither needs an introduction to the fierce rivalry between their two football programs. Richt is in his second season at Georgia and Gailey is in his first at Georgia Tech, but both coaches have a firm grasp on the meaning of today's game (3:30 p.m., CBS-Ch. 12).
While interviewing for the Yellow Jackets job in December, Gailey was besieged with reminders of how important beating the Bulldogs (10-1) is to Georgia Tech faithful.
Having grown up in Americus, Ga., Gailey could have given a lesson himself.
"Everybody that I talked to mentioned it," said Gailey, who has the Yellow Jackets (7-4) on the cusp of their sixth straight bowl appearance. "They wanted to make sure I knew just how important this was. They didn't need to tell me. Growing up in Georgia, you know about the Georgia-Georgia Tech game."
Unlike Gailey, Richt didn't spend his childhood watching the annual battles between the Bulldogs, who enter today's game ranked No. 5, and Yellow Jackets. It didn't take him long to gain an appreciation, though.
Richt's first tour of the booster-club circuit left him marveling at the Bulldogs' multitude of rivals. Whether fans itch more to beat Florida, Tennessee, Auburn or South Carolina usually depends solely on geography.
But one thing remains constant: No matter where Richt goes, beating Georgia Tech is a must.
"Everybody cares about the Tech game," said Richt, whose team snapped a three-game losing streak to the Yellow Jackets with last year's 31-17 win.
The significance of today's game isn't lost on the players, either. Many of them faced each other in high school or are from the same towns, so a victory will guarantee the cherished right to gloat until late November 2003.
"We don't like each other," said Georgia Tech linebacker Recardo Wimbush, a senior from Blakely, Ga. "Throughout the year, you just think about those guys. It's an all-out grudge."
When Jon Stinchcomb signed with the Bulldogs in 1998, beating the Yellow Jackets was a foregone conclusion. Georgia won seven straight in the series from 1991-97, and Georgia Tech had won just four times in its previous 20 tries.
Then, almost before Stinchcomb and the rest of the Bulldogs knew it, Georgia Tech started a streak of its own.
In 1998, the Yellow Jackets stole a 21-19 win in Athens during Stinchcomb's redshirt year. They won a 51-48 marathon during Stinchcomb's freshman season, and left Athens with a 27-15 triumph in 2000 that cemented the ousting of coach Jim Donnan. Georgia Tech had won three straight games over its nemesis for the first time since 1961-63.
Stinchcomb and the Bulldogs stopped the streak last year in Atlanta, but it might take a victory today to fully erase the sting of the losses.
"You at least want to break even," Stinchcomb said."That sounds a heck of a lot better than them going 3-1 against you."
Richt has crafted monumental triumphs in 23 games as the Bulldogs' coach - last year's last-second win at Tennessee, this year's wins at Alabama and Auburn.
A win today would be as big as any.
"I think it's bigger because of what it means to everybody," he said.
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645 or email@example.com.
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