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Football as rocket science

10/31/2004

ATLANTA -- For the better part of 10 seconds, Georgia Tech student Stephanie Brunone stood at the front door of the architecture building, rum and Coke in hand, and pondered what she should do.

She weighed the pluses, the minuses and then screamed so everyone could hear:

"ANDREW J. COOPER!!! MANAGEMENT THREE-OH-SEVEN-EIGHT!!!"

There. It felt good. Cooper was the professor and Management 3078 the class doing this to her, as Cooper had scheduled an exam at 8 a.m. the morning after a nationally televised home football game against 22nd-ranked Virginia Tech.

Now everyone knew.

"He's probably going to fail me now, but so what," she said. "When somebody reminded him [the exam] was the morning after the Thursday night game, you know what he said? 'This is an institute of technology. Not an institute of sport.' Whatever."

Welcome to Georgia Tech, a place where the stereotypical college experience -- football, booze and debauchery -- often takes a back seat to, well, school.

Where else could you wander through the library's computer lab, at the same time the football team is playing a crucial ACC game and not find one open seat?

Where else would three electrical engineering students, sitting on the second floor of that library, rig their laptops so they could watch the game while answering math problems most of us wouldn't know how to read?

And where else would Brunone and some 10 classmates, sharing a pony keg in front of the architecture building, offer cups to kids leaving class and be greeted not with warm hugs, but dirty stares?

At a place that U.S. News and World Report consistently ranks among the nation's top 10 public universities and top five engineering programs. A place with an average freshman SAT score of 1337. A place where it really is rocket science -- four grad students were among 21 individuals chosen to receive three-year NASA fellowships last year.

"You have to understand," Georgia Tech linebacker Chris Reiss said. "Half the students here don't even know that we have a football team."

Instead, the students eat in their dorm rooms, building networks so they can compete against one another in online video games. They're in the library, burying their heads in a nuclear engineering book, familiarizing themselves with quantum theory.

Don't be mistaken, there's plenty of college atmosphere. In the area around Bobby Dodd Stadium, the oldest on-campus stadium in Division I-A, a stream of fraternities and sororities celebrate pregame to see who can play AC/DC, Dave Matthews and The Steve Miller Band loudest.

There are frat guys in shirts and ties, and their sorority dates in dresses. There are barbecue grills, students walking into street lamps and others tapping kegs. But that's the minority.

"Here it is in all its glory -- game day at Georgia Tech," said fifth-year student Johnny Kwon, looking out over the lawn in front of the architecture building. "We sit here, drink beer and watch all the nerds walk by that aren't going to the game."

Meanwhile, fellow Building Construction student Emily Harper guards the entrance to the architecture building, telling students, professors, anyone who will listen that they can't get through if they don't have a beer. Everyone ignores her, climbing over the keg to get to class.

"It's pretty sad," Harper said.

Reality hits midway through the third quarter. A quick walk through the library reveals not only a jam-packed computer lab, but three electrical engineering students huddled at a group study table, each with one eye on the circuits worksheet in front of them and the other on a laptop beside them.

Back in their dorm, they had inserted a TV card into their computer. Through an Ethernet connection in the library, they were able to connect a laptop to that computer, allowing them to watch the game on the laptop.

"You see, it's Georgia Tech," Vineet Changani said. "We're using technology to watch the football game."

But this isn't extra credit. There's no cheering, yelling, or jumping up and down. There's just quiet observation of the action taking place a block away.

"If we win, maybe some frat guys get excited and run around," Sreenivas Vedantam said. "But inside this building, nobody will know the difference. Nothing's going to change in here, win or lose. These people have tests tomorrow."

So, too, do the players. Reiss, who hobbled outside the Yellow Jackets locker room after a 10-point Georgia Tech lead turned into a 14-point loss, quickly turned his attention to the next thing on his plate: A pair of Friday morning exams in psychology and management. His postgame plan? Food. Studying. And if there's time, sleep.

"We don't ask for much," he said. "But the teachers don't understand. They never give us a break. But it is what it is. You know that when you come here."

Not all the professors are difficult. Maureen Widner, a professor in the Building Construction program, joined Brunone and her classmates at the pregame tailgate. At one point, holding a bottle opener that plays the Georgia Tech fight song above her head, Widner asked, "Anybody need a beer opened?"

"I'm in the minority," she said. "But as I see it, these kids work hard all the time. They put everything they have into this school. They deserve a break like everybody else."

So what sort of a role does big-time college football play on a brainiac campus like this? What does Georgia Tech football success mean to the fraction of the student body that cares? It proves that the school is built on more than academic prowess.

"It validates that were not just nerds," Kwon said. "Not only are our degrees much better than yours, but we can whip you on the field, too."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com.