ATLANTA -- Celebrity status fits bashful Shawn Jones about as comfortably as a tight shoe, and the gifted quarterback longs for the days when Georgia Tech football was an exercise in anonymity.
When Ken Swilling came to Georgia Tech in 1988 as one of the South's most heralded scholastic players, he did so largely because of the influence of his cousin, Pat Swilling, a former Tech All-American now playing for the New Orleans Saints.
Jones and Swilling, merely the best defensive back in college football, never dreamed this could happen.
Yet, it did.
Last year, Georgia Tech, which in 1989 had to strain to end a 15-game Atlantic Coast Conference losing streak, finished No. 1 in the UPI Coaches Poll after hammering out the only undefeated record (11-0-1) in major-college football.
The Yellow Jackets, long an afterthought on the busy Atlanta sports scene, are no longer such a Ramblin' Wreck of a team.
Georgia Tech opens defense of the only national football title in the school's history tomorrow night against Penn State in the Kickoff Classic at Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands. And it does so with a Heisman Trophy candidate in Jones, the college game's version of Randall Cunningham, and two returning All-Americans, 6-foot-3, 236-pound strong safety Swilling and 6-4, pound outside linebacker Marco Coleman.
For Jones, who can run but no longer hide, the comfort he found in relative obscurity is gone, and he admits that the thought of the media frenzy of being a Heisman candidate is frightening.
"Two years ago at our fan photo day, about 200 people showed up, and it seemed like 150 of them were football players," the 6-1, 200-pound junior said with an unassuming grin. "It was nice. It was easy to pick out your friends and have your picture taken with them. But this year, there were so many people there [that] you couldn't even see your friends. It got to the point where people were in your face and you couldn't even breath.
"I remember reading where Rocket Ismail was getting so much attention [that] he had to sneak out of the locker room in a hamper just so he could see his family after a game," Jones added. "I don't know if I could deal with that kind of attention."
Jones paused to reflect. "I guess things are never quite the same when you're winning."
Swilling illustrated the stunning turnabout in Tech football under coach Bobby Ross by comparing the current atmosphere to what he saw as a freshman.
"Back then, the attitude here was very bleak," he recalled. "I mean, you could only dream about what happened last year. You couldn't see it changing. But Coach Ross has winning ways and a winning attitude, and it carried over.
"Now, people recognize you at the mall, and there are a lot more Tech fans. You wonder where they all were when we were 3-8. But that's all right; people don't want to be associated with a loser. It's easy to understand."
For a university, winning a national championship means never having to beg. At least in the short run. Tech has sold out all 24,000 season tickets it makes available to 46,000-seat Bobby ,, Dodd Stadium at Grant Field for the first time in almost 20 years.
Applications for enrollment to this prestigious school were up about 15 percent this year at a time when enrollment at most universities is down. For the first time, Tech offered a mail-order catalogue for school-related paraphernalia. One day last week alone, orders came in for $5,000 worth of Tech goods.
In the school bookstore, where there's a T-shirt that reads "MIT, the Georgia Tech of the North," sales for just about anything that says Georgia Tech on it were brisk even though classes have yet to begin.
"It's funny, we tried to get a message board put up along the highway outside of school for the start of last year," a Tech spokesman said. "It wasn't until we went unbeaten and were invited to the Citrus Bowl [a 45-21 demolition of Nebraska] when they finally put it up."
Tech's status as a football power for the first time since the 1960s has changed the way the Yellow Jackets are perceived by other schools. Michigan and Colorado turned down offers to play Tech in the Kickoff Classic, and Penn State coach Joe Paterno, whose team already has a rigorous schedule, figured the last thing the Nittany Lions needed was another heavy hitter on the agenda.
Paterno admitted that he and his staff didn't want to play Tech in the Kickoff Classic because the schedule was formidable enough. Paterno said he put it to a vote of the players "after saying a lot of things that would try to get them to say no."
The players voted yes.
"Who wouldn't want a chance to play the national champions?" said Penn State linebacker Mark D'Onofrio, who called Paterno and informed him of the team's decision.