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October 24, 2014

Bye Bye Bulldogs

Although winning, barely escaping
like last year in Jacksonvilleis the 
recent trend for the Bulldogs after a bye.
In the same interview I mentioned in my last post, I was asked what possible advantages, besides the obvious, Georgia had over Florida a week from tomorrow. Among other things, I mentioned the Bulldogs had an extra week to prepare; they would be coming off a bye.

Doh!

It dawned on me later Florida too has a bye this Saturday. Also, Georgia had an open week prior to this season's South Carolina game, and we all know what resulted in Columbia. So much for the Bulldogs' "advantage" in Jacksonville.

Finally, I recalled a piece I posted two years ago prior to the Bulldogs' mid-season bye against Kentucky regarding a historical view of "what to expect" from Georgia following an open date. 

I've done some updating, including Coach Richt's bye results since my original post, while discovering Coach Dooley's results following an open date for his entire tenure. Listed by winning percentage of head coach, the following are Georgia's records off a bye week over the last 50 years:

.786- DOOLEY (27-7-1)
.762- RICHT (16-5)
.667- DONNAN (8-4)
.464- GOFF (6-7-1)  

As mentioned in my "bye-week" post from two years ago, comparing head coaches by their straight-up records is hardly fairCoach Dooley faced some rather easy Tech teams off a bye; Goff some rather difficult Florida and Auburn squads.  Perhaps a better comparison would be the coaches' records against the spreadin my mind, a good measurement of a team in terms of straining its potential/exceeding expectations, and vice versa:

.583- DONNAN (7-5)
.500- GOFF (7-7)
.457- DOOLEY (16-19)
.452- RICHT (9-11-1)

Although ranking last among the four coaches, Richt actually had success at first against the number following a bye, covering 7 of his first 9 games. However, beginning in 2008and this is near staggeringalthough 6-3 straight up, Georgia is 1-8 against the spread after an open week.

If the recent past is any indication for the future, like eight days from now, the Bulldogs will likely "underachieve" after their bye, although probably escaping Jacksonville with a victory. And, if I was to make an early guess, I'd say Georgia will be around a 9- to 13-point favorite next week. That's a lot of points in a series decided by 8 or fewer points in 9 of the last 12 games, and a rivalry where the Bulldogs have defeated the Gators by more than 12 points just once during the last quarter-century. Nevertheless, a win is a win over the GatorsI don't care if it's by 1 or 100 pointsto improve to an admirable 7-1 on the season. 

Although, now that I think about itand I just thought of my replacement "possible advantage" Georgia has over Florida for next weekthe current edition of Richt's Dogs, a squad which should continue to have a no-one-man-team and chip-on-shoulder attitude, appear to be unlike his teams beginning in 2008. Seemingly, the underachieving Georgia program of the past several seasons (on the whole), fielding teams falling below expectations even almost everytime after having an extra week to practice and prepare, might continue to strain their potential continuing through this week's bye to the Florida game, and beyond. 

October 22, 2014

Far From Extraordinary

As Demetrius Douglas (left) demonstrates in '89, 
Emmitt Smith (right) had a hard time getting  
his footing when facing the Dawgs. 
In an interview yesterday regarding the Georgia-Florida series, in so many words, I was asked to compare Herschel Walker with the "extraordinary" Emmitt Smith.

My response: there is no comparison, especially when it comes to the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. 

You see, in three games against Florida, the legendary Walker averaged more than 216 rushing yards per contest, 5.5 yards per carry, and scored nearly three touchdowns.  Most importantly, Herschel's teams were 3 and 0 in the rivalry. Emmitt, on the other hand, averaged a paltry 81, 4.5, and ZERO, respectively, and was 0 and 3, or the last time prior to the current streak Georgia had defeated the Gators three times in a row.

I continued, Florida football fans relished the 13-1 run they had in Jacksonville from 1990 through 2003, while seldom speaking of Georgia's dominance leading up to their winning ways in the rivalry.

Taken from my I Love Georgia/I Hate Florida book, I touch upon the latter portion of the Bulldogs' series supremacy, specifically when it came to facing the not-so-extraordinary Emmitt: 

Clemson football fans love to rehash how our legendary Herschel Walker never scored a touchdown against their Tigers. However, conveniently not brought up is how Herschel twice rushed for more than 100 yards in the three meetings and, most importantly, the Bulldogs won two of the three games.

But perhaps that’s a Love/Hate book for another time…

Rarely, will you hear Bulldogs fans recount how Florida’s Emmitt Smith never scored in three games against Georgia. In addition, Smith rushed for more than 100 yards just once in three tries, and above all, Georgia won all three meetings.

At any rate, Smith’s lack of production against Georgia is hardly a big deal to the Bulldogs (although maybe I can touch upon it solely for the purpose of this book). In 1987 Smith broke the NCAA freshman record by reaching the 1,000-yard rushing mark in just his seventh game. Three weeks later, Georgia would be facing Florida’s freshman sensation—the best first-year running back in college football since the Bulldogs’ own Herschel Walker seven years before.

“I’m really looking forward to playing in my first Florida-Georgia game,” said Smith. “They have a strong defense particularly against the run. We’ll need a good week of preparation to play in this one.”

Come to find out, Smith and his fellow Gators would have needed much more than a week to prepare as Georgia cruised to a relatively easy victory. In the 23–10 Florida loss, Smith was held to 46 yards on 13 carries.

In 1988 it was more of the same as Smith was limited to 88 yards on 19 rushes in a 26–3 Bulldogs victory. A year later, in his final season at Florida, Smith totaled 108 yards in Jacksonville but yet again, he couldn’t find the end zone and the Gators were defeated 17–10 by Georgia.

In three games against the Bulldogs, Smith averaged just 81 rushing yards per contest, gained 4.5 yards per carry, and did not score a touchdown. Compare those figures to Smith’s 132-yard average, 5.7 yards per carry, and a total of 36 touchdowns in his 28 games against other regular season opponents.

Prior to a brilliant NFL career, there’s no denying Emmitt Smith had an outstanding three-season run at Florida. His accolades included being a three-time first-team All-SEC pick, a two-time top-10 finisher in the Heisman Trophy voting, the 1987 SEC Freshman of the Year, and the 1989 SEC Player of the Year.

Be that as it may, Smith certainly had his troubles against—as he himself identified—the Bulldogs’ “strong defense particularly against the run.”

TO ORDER MY BOOK ON THE GEORGIA-FLORIDA RIVALRY

October 17, 2014

A Dream-Come-True Starting Debut at Arkansas

Pledger's starting debut at Arkansas in 1992 was one to
remember for the Athens native. 
Growing up both in Athens and just outside the city, I was more inclined to follow Bulldog players from the Classic City and its surrounding areas  when I was younger. Therefore, when I recently thought of the Bulldogs playing Arkansas in Little Rock tomorrow for the first time ever, it was rather natural of me to think back to when Georgia was hosted by the Razorbacks for the first time in 1992, and the hometown boy who experienced a memorable first in the state then known as "The Land of Opportunity."

Attending school in Athens while growing up but living just outside of Clarke County, Charles Pledger had his pick in the mid-1980s of which Athens-area high school to attenda choice that was obvious: Clarke Central High School, where Billy Henderson was the head coach of the football team.  Henderson had been a standout halfback at UGA in the late-1940s, and was amidst a legendary coaching career still considered one of the greatest in Georgia high school football history.

"Billy was the best; he truly cared about the kids," Pledger informed me this week from his office in Atlanta.  "On Christmas Day, he'd open the gym at the school, and if there was a kid who didn't have a home or a family to celebrate with, Billy was waiting for you."

Pledger added Henderson was "the best motivator of young men I have ever seen," which is fitting since Henderson once regarded Pledger as "the most coachable young man I have ever seen."

At Clarke Central, Pledger tallied 19 career interceptions from his safety position, including leading the state's AAAA classification in interceptions as a junior in 1988.  It was during that season Pledger began to be recruited by colleges, in a way, by accident.  

Teammate Adrian Jarrell, who would attend Notre Dame, was one of the most highly-recruited quarterbacks in the country that year. "It seemed like everytime [recruiters] would come watch Adrian play, I'd make an interception," Pledger said laughing.

At a UGA football camp the summer prior to his senior year, Pledger did something rather uncommon for 20+ years ago: commit to a school early, and pledged his allegiance to the Georgia Bulldogs.

"Growing up in the Athens area and playing Saturday football games for the YMCA at Sanford Stadium, it was obviously a childhood dream come true to attend Georgia and play for the Bulldogs," Pledger said. 

After redshirting in 1990, Pledger was one of Georgia's top defensive backups in 1991. Now playing cornerback, he was a backup the following season, as well, until the fourth game of the season against Ole Miss, when starting safety Mike Jones was injured.  Jones' injury moved starting cornerback Al Jackson to safety, leaving Jackson's spot open for Pledger.  Against the Rebels, Pledger recorded his first career interception as a Bulldog.

Next on the schedule for Georgia was a 750-mile trip to the newest member of the SEC along with the University of South Carolinathe Arkansas Razorbacksplaying their first SEC game in Fayetteville, while the Bulldogs were playing in the state of Arkansas for the first time.

"It was such a unique trip because we stayed in a golf course community with more than 100 holes of golf instead of hotel rooms," Pledger recalled.  "They were like cottages or golf course homes, and a really different experience from what we were used to. Also, we were located more than an hour from the stadium, and the game had a really early start (11:40 a.m. local time)."

Former Clemson coaching great Danny Ford had been hired by Arkansas as an "Offensive Assistant" just days before the game (Ford would become the Hogs' head coach the following season).  Ford, who had recruited Pledger heavily in high school in an attempt to seize another Athens boy for Clemson, decided to pick on the first-time starter on the very first play from scrimmage.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," Pledger said.  "On the very first play, the Arkansas quarterback threw a bomb for the receiver I was covering.  I would have an interception later, but I should've had two that game because the long pass hit off my fingertips for an incompletion."

With Georgia leading 17-3 in the third quarter, but with Arkansas nearing midfield, Pledger corralled his memorable interception.

"I played wide side [cornerback], so I was pretty much man-to-man the entire game," Pledger said.  "The Arkansas receiver ran a crossing route, and I just read the quarterback's eyes and jumped on it, making what was kind of a diving interception."

Pledger's interception led to a Garrison Hearst touchdown runhis second of the game. The Bulldogs would go onto an impressive 27-3 road victory.  Georgia's pass defense, led by its first-time starter, held the Razorbacks to a lowly 9 of 29 passing for 87 yards and 3 interceptions.  Besides his interception, Pledger also added six tackles (four solo), including a touchdown-saving stop, in a game which left a lasting impression.

"Obviously, anytime you have your first start, especially coming against a team belonging to the caliber of the SEC, and especially in making an interception, it's a really great moment," Pledger said.

As soon as Jones returned from being injured, Pledger finished out his sophomore campaign as a backup like before; however, with the start of the 1993 season, he was starting at corner again.  As a junior, Pledger intercepted passes against Texas Tech and Ole Miss, while his team-leading eight passes broken up for the season were twice as many as any other Bulldog.

A recurring finger injury plagued Pledger in spring practice of his senior season. He could have another surgery on the fingerhis thirdand play football, but risk losing the finger permanently.

"I loved the game, but there comes a point when your body can only take so much," Pledger said.  "It seemed liked everytime I turned around, I was having an issue with my hand, and at cornerback, I used my hands a lot."

Prior to the 1994 season, Pledger decided to "retire" from the sport he loved.  

Today, golf is Pledger's sport to play. For work, he is Managing Director for Newmark Grubb Knight Frank, a large commercial real estate service firm.  As far as maintaining his ties to Georgia football, according to him, "I stay in touch with some of the guys."

One of those "guys" he's gotten to know over the last decade or so is Jerome Rosettia walk-on/scout team member of Georgia's 1980 national championship team.

"Jerome is a great friend and a great coach, and we have a good time," Pledger said.
The one-time Bulldog player has been coaching
groups of younger "Bulldogs" for a decade.

Coaching their games at Chastain Park, Rosetti and Pledger have volunteer coached 9 and 10-year olds in NYO Football of Atlanta.  Fittingly named, Pledger's team, the Bulldogs, have won two championships, including last season, capping a perfect 12-0 campaign.  

"It's rewarding to coach 9 and 10-year olds and then see them play later at the high school level; four of the starters off Lovett's (The Lovett School) state championship team a year ago once played for us," Pledger proudly stated.  "I guess it's my way of giving back to the community."

Seemingly, beyond becoming a notable Georgia Bulldog player, it appears the great Billy Henderson"the best" who "truly cared about the kids"rubbed off on Charles Pledger in a number of ways.

October 7, 2014

From "Impressive" to Inferior

What once was an impressive listing in the weekly  
game notes has been Goff-like of late.
It wasn't too long ago when it was recognized as Mark Richt's "most impressive stat"the head coach's success "in an opponent's stadium," and appropriately brought up because of this Saturday's game at 23rd-ranked Missouri.   

The results for such circumstances have been listed in the UGA media guide for years.  Attending the weekly press conference on Tuesdays, I've noticed all season the same results have been listed in the weekly game notes; assuredly, they will be listed in today's notes, as well.  I've noticed the mark is even cited in Richt's online bio amongst his other achievements.  And, at 43-14as indicated by UGAhis record in an opponent's stadium is certainly impressive.

On second glance, however, Richt's career away game record is actually 43-15 to begin withbut who's really counting...  Most telling, the away mark is more like a tale of two completely different eras: the first, when the Bulldogs even when underdogs, were a major threat to win at an opponent's home venue, no matter the opponent, or how good they were; the second era, not so muchnot really at all.

Simply based on Richt's overall winning percentage from 2001 to 2008 (.788) compared to the last six seasons (.667), one would figure there would also be some drop off in his winning percentage in opponents' stadiums, but certainly not like thisa drop off which is more like a deep plunge.

What was once an impressive stat through the 2008 season has essentially turned a complete 180, beginning with the loss to Oklahoma State in Stillwater to start the 2009 campaign through the setback to South Carolina in Columbia four weeks ago.

Richt's away-game overall, versus ranked teams, and as an underdog winning pct./records from 2001-2008 compared to 2009-2014:       

Overall
.882- First 8 seasons (30-4)
.542- Last 6 seasons (13-11)

vs. Ranked
.833- First 8 seasons (10-2)
.222- Last 6 seasons (2-7)

as Underdog
.800- First 8 seasons (8-2)
.222- Last 6 seasons (2-7)

There was a time when facing a highly-ranked foe
as an underdog at their place was actually a prob-
able victory for Richt's Bulldogs. Not anymore. 
An absolute staggering difference between the two eras.  

For comparison, I figured the same three away-game winning percentages for the three preceding Bulldog head coachesVince Dooley (1964-1988), Ray Goff (1989-1995), and Jim Donnan (1996-2000)ranking the three head coaches from best to worst for each measurement:

Overall
.661- DOOLEY (59-29-5)
.650- DONNAN (13-7)
.500- GOFF (14-14-1)

vs. Ranked
.429- DONNAN (3-4)
.382- DOOLEY (6-10-1)
.188- GOFF (1-6-1)

as Underdog
.467- DOOLEY (13-15-2)
.429- DONNAN (3-4)
.375- GOFF (4-7-1)

Strikingly, Richt's Bulldogs through 2008 far exceeded the previous regimes in all situations playing in opponents' stadiums.  However, and perhaps even more notable (and, let me first say, I like Ray Goff, having thoroughly enjoyed him in interviews, but let's face it, his head-coaching tenure at UGA could be characterized as somewhat of a failure), when it comes to Richt's teams the last six seasons when playing away, they've been rather "Goff-like." In fact, they've been even more inferior in an underdog role than Goff's Dogs were in opposing stadiums.

Finally, if I could make a suggestion: like the forgotten 15th loss by Richt in opponents' stadiums that's omitted from UGA's records, I think the "impressive" perception of Georgia still being a major threat on the road should also be forgottenit's no longer the 2008 season or before.  

Maybe there'll come a more appropriate time to acknowledge Richt's away game prowess, like if the Bulldogs can actually and consistently defeat formidable opponents in their stadiums again.  And, there would be no time like the present season, when after Missouri, difficult away tests at Arkansas and at Kentucky soon follow. 

October 4, 2014

Today, I'm Especially Grateful for Change

Jermaine Johnson running all over Bulldogs, a dejected
Coach Goff leaving the field with some players who 
"obviously" didn't look like they cared...
During one of the few nail-biting moments of Georgia's close victory over Tennessee a week ago, my friend sitting next to me leaned over and muttered, "If we drop this one, it would have to rank as one of the biggest upset losses by the Bulldogs I can remember."

Fortunately, we didn't "drop" the game; however, my friend's remark compelled me to later wonder what if.  And, as far as point spreads, which are considered "reliable" beginning around the mid-1960s, a loss to the Volunteersan 18-point underdogwould have indeed ranked as one of Georgia's biggest upset losses since a lot of us can remember:

Losses by Georgia since 1964 as a two-touchdown favorite or more
-20 over Vanderbilt, 1994 (lost 43-30)
-18 over Wake Forest, 1979 (lost 22-21)
-17 over Vanderbilt, 1973 (lost 18-14)
-16 over Kentucky, 1996 (lost 24-17)
-15½ over Vanderbilt, 1991 (lost 27-25)
-14½ over Tulane, 1970 (lost 17-14)
-14½ over Vanderbilt, 2006 (lost 24-22) 

What first grabbed my attention regarding the above was most of Georgia's significant upset losses have come to Vanderbilttoday's Homecoming opponent and current 33½-point underdog.  Next, I noticed all of the upsets were actually quite closethe Bulldogs losing by only a single touchdown or lessthat is, except for the biggest upset, which wasn't even as close as the 43 to 30 score indicates.

It has been 20 years since the 1994 Vanderbilt debacle, which was that season's Homecoming game, as well.  However, besides the Bulldogs' dismal play on the field, what also made for one the most depressing experiences I had as a UGA student was the protesting which persisted during the game, and the disheartening rumor which lingered afterwards.

I try not to make a habit of reminiscing about discouraging moments or events I experienced in the past.  But, I do believe reflecting upon certain rough times from the past helps us appreciate the present even more, while looking forward to an even brighter future.  Such is the case with the Vanderbilt game from two decades agoI'd like to think times have certainly changed since then.

I reached out to a player from the '94 team, who still remains relatively close to the program today, wanting to inquire about three occurrences I recall the most surrounding the infamous Vanderbilt fiasco.

1) The Game: After being only a late third-down completion away from upsetting Alabama on the road, followed by routing Clemson, Georgia stood at 4-2 overall and 2-2 in the conference with presumably easy victories over Vanderbilt and Kentucky ahead prior to facing Florida.  Armed with senior quarterback Eric Zeierone of the leading candidates for the Heisman Trophy at the timethe Bulldogs seemed to be on the verge of contending for the SEC East title.  With the much-inferior Commodores winless in the SEC at 0-3 while starting three freshmen defensive backs, it appeared Zeier and the rest of the Dawgs would certainly have their day, and their way with Vanderbilt on Homecoming. 

2) The Protest: Despite the school's crowning of an African American on Homecoming in 1993 and the fact seven of the original 38 nominees for Miss Homecoming a year later were minorities, UGA's Homecoming of 1994, which was given the theme of "Glory Days at Georgia," was more like the "Olden Days at Georgia" to some.  No minorities being chosen among the 10 Homecoming finalists, plus a lack of minority representation on the panel of judges, whose committee admitted their judging process was flawed, created what was regarded as "racial tension" which was "not just about lack of representation but lack of consideration," according to a student group member.  In protest, a number of student groups, consisting primarily of minority students, decided to not participate in most of the weekly Homecoming activities, while planning to march to Sanford Stadium during the Vanderbilt game. 

3) The "Rumored" Fix: I can't tell you exactly when I heard it, or from exactly whom, but not long after Vanderbilt defeated Georgia, there was a rumor that some Bulldog players laid down, or didn't necessarily give it their all, in the loss to the Commodores as a way of joining in the protest against UGA's selection of Miss Homecoming.  The rumor made then-head coach Ray Goff's postgame comment of "Obviously, we didn't look like we cared to play," rather ironic.  

For two decades, I haven't thought much of the rumor, believing it was just thata fabrication, and a ridiculous excuse for a bad loss.  Regardless, this past week, I contacted an old college friend and big Georgia fan, asking if he too remembered any such rumor. Not only did he remember it, but claimed he and another individual had actually discussed the rumor "not long ago."  I did a quick Internet search and found the following in a comments section of a blog, discovering we weren't the only ones to recall the rumor:

Does anyone remember the rumor going around regarding the surprising 1994 thrashing at the hands of Vandy? The rumor was that a number of black players "laid down" as a form of protest against, what they thought was, an unjust selection of the Homecoming Queen.

After asking the '94 player I contacted if there was anything to the rumor from what he remembered, he declared, "Patrick, what it was was an ass whippin'plain and simple. That guy ran all over us."

"That guy" was tailback Jermaine Johnson, who rushed for 177 of Vanderbilt's staggering 415 rushing yards that day against Georgia.  The Commodores ran the ball 71 times while having an unfathomable 41:51 to 18:09 advantage in time of possession.  

...and "racial tension" dampened Homecoming in 1994.
Twenty years later, I'd like to think times have changed.
Early in the second quarter as protesters began crowding the rail at the bridge overlooking the stadium while chanting "No justice, no peace," the Bulldogs' offense began to bog down after an early 14 to 7 lead.  Zeier entered the game having completed 61 percent of his passes, while averaging just 12 incompletions per game and an interception thrown almost every 50 pass attempts during his then-41-game UGA career. However, against Vanderbilt's inexperienced secondary, he completed just 43 percent of his passes, while throwing 31 incompletionsalthough this included a number of drops by his receiversincluding an uncharacteristic three interceptions in 54 attempts.

In what was the perfect storm of Georgia failing in all facets of the game, even steady Kanon Parkman had a rough outing.  The Bulldog placekicker's lone missed PAT of 41 attempts all season resulted against Vanderbilt, as did his only missed field goal of 17 attempts from less than 46 yards out.

At one point, the Commodores outscored the Dogs, 36 to 10, to take a 43-24 lead. Georgia tacked on a late touchdown, but it mattered little as any hope for a Heisman for Zeier, and most importantly, the Bulldogs being a threat in the SEC East were completely dashed.    

The '94 player hardly recalled the protest, but stated, "What's the saying—'cooler heads prevail'?  These are 18, 19, 20-year-olds, and any young personblack, white, whatever; student-athlete, or notcan be highly influenced by a larger group of people who want to protest. Therefore, it's been my experience that often college-aged cooler heads don't prevail."

The player admitted he faintly recollects some "rumblings"not necessarily within the program itselfabout how some players might not have tried their hardest, while adding, "And, when there's smoke, there's usually fire.  However, any talk of guys not playing hard went away fairly quicklyI honestly never heard about it again."

The former-player's overall assessment of the rumor: "If I had to say, no, nobody 'laid down' against Vanderbilt in '94; we just weren't that good.  But, I will say, I don't know for 100% sure, and anything is possible."

He ended our conversation stressing that he was "not sure" the Vanderbilt game rumor had anything to do with that particular team, head coach, group of players, etc.  "Rumors like that had been around for a long time, and not just at the University of Georgia," he said. But then, the rumors, especially ones as extreme as players laying down, ceased for the most part 10 to 15 years or so ago, or "when all this technology came about (i.e., internet, cell phones, social media, etc.)."

"As I said, anything is possible, and it's been my experience that players engaged in extreme wrongdoingslike laying downcould happen at any point in time," he concluded. "However, unlike when I played and before, now, there are very few places to hide (most wrongdoings are discovered and publicized)."

Today, with my seven-year-old son, I'll return to my alma mater on Homecoming. Although there are undoubtedly issues which surround us, I'm grateful for a few drastic changes at UGA, and its football program, since I attended school.

For one, although I tend to believe the conduct of today's scrutinized collegiate athletes is somewhat unfairly judged compared to those prior to "all this technology," I'm grateful today that there are "few places to hide."  The fewer the number of places to hide, the fewer the scandalous rumors, and the more we discover the truth.

Also, I'd like to think a loss as a substantial favorite to Vanderbilt on Homecoming although once a reality, is simply impossible now.  Although far from ideal, Georgia's football program is in much better shape than it was 20 years ago.  

While we sat in Sanford Stadium in 1981, I remember my dad awkwardly trying to explain to his confused son, when I was about my son's age, why black players didn't play for the Bulldogs just 10 years before. Thirteen years later on Homecoming as a confused student, I stared at the "racial tension" on the Sanford Stadium bridge, stemming from minority students believing they weren't being fairly considered.  However, and the current situation is far from perfect, UGA has since culturally changed for the better.  While the school's percentage of minority students has risen to 17 percent currently from 12 percent in 1994, within the last five years, UGA crowned an African-American Homecoming queen and king the same year for the first time in school history. 

Today, I'm especially grateful for change. While my son could become confused today (like father, like son) for a number of reasons, on this Homecoming day, I'm blessed any confusion he has will have nothing to do with race. 

September 26, 2014

When "Great" Wasn't So Much...

It has been recognized as the "Miracle on 
Tartan"a "great" play in UGA football his- 
tory that actually wasn't too great for the Dogs.
For what it's worth, I recently got some potentially good news: the publisher of my book The 50 Greatest Plays in Georgia Bulldogs Football History is thinking about printing an updated edition for next fall. The new version will be in paperback, include more diagrammed plays, and they hope in the what-would-be seven seasons since the initial release, there has been a few new plays which could be replacements for my original top 50 released prior to the 2008 season.

At this time, honestly, only one play comes to mind involving Georgia over the last 6+ seasons worthy to be included in a new top 50, and that was a play that actually went against the Bulldogsthat darn "Immaculate Deflection" resulting on the Plains last year at Auburn.

You see, according to my publisher, a listing of 50 all-time greatest plays should include "four to six plays" which might have been "great," but rather for the opposing teamto which I agree.  However, it kind of stinks when you cannot think of at least one great play executed by the Bulldogs to offset the one that went against them.

I started to look through my book to identify which of the four original great plays for the opposition I would need to throw out to be replaced by Auburn's game-winning touchdown pass (because if you say "four to six" great plays not in Georgia's favor, I'm identifying four, and only four):

#46 The Timeout: Disputed timeout called by Florida negates Georgia’s potential game-winning score (1993)
#38 Trapped on the Tartan Turf: Tennessee’s game-tying touchdown catch on fourth down in ’68 is later declared an incomplete pass
#31 Bulldogs’ Sugar Turns Sour: Dan Marino throws a 33-yard score on fourth down in the final minute to defeat Georgia in ’82 Sugar Bowl
#19 Sanks’ Phantom Fumble: An erroneous ruling arises as Georgia is driving for winning score against Tech in ’99

Because of who the Bulldogs face this week, coupled with the fact that besides the Sanks fumble against Tech, it's the only other play of the four later proven it actually should not have counted, Tennessee's game-tying touchdown trapped on its Tartan Turf against Georgia in 1968 first caught my eye.  Besides in my book, I detailed a little over a year ago the erroneous Tennessee touchdown as one of the "worst calls"good and badin UGA football history.  Notably, in my latest book on UGA football, Jim McCulloughGeorgia's placekicker in 1968stated, "Against Tennessee, we felt like a win was stolen from us and a tie was handed to the Volunteers."

To get more perspectivea sideline perspectiveon the '68 Georgia-Tennessee game, which ended in a 17-17 tie, and the Volunteers' mistaken touchdown, this week I reached out to Charley Whittemorethe Bulldogs' starting split end and leading receiver that season. 

Charley first brought up Tennesse's playing surface at the timenewly-laid Tartan Turfa controversy in its own right which would ironically aid in the scoring of the controversial touchdown. 

"It was like a brillo pad," Whittemore said of the Tartan Turf.  "Because of that surface's abrasiveness, plus the heat and humidity of the game, staph infection would go through the team that year.  I don't know if the turf was the real cause of everyone having staph, but that's what we blamed it on." 

With only 2:41 left in the game, and Georgia leading 17 to 9, Tennessee had possession at its own 20-yard line.  "I was standing on the sideline, and just like everyone else, I thought we had already won the ballgame," Whittemore admitted.

Tennessee quarterback Bubba Wyche began moving the Volunteers towards the Bulldogs’ goal. Tennessee faced a second and goal on Georgia’s 4-yard line with approximately 30 seconds remaining but successive eight-yard sacks by Billy Payne and Bill Stanfill, respectively, pushed the Volunteers back to the 20-yard line.

Tennessee faced fourth and goal with enough time remaining to run just one play, but then, it happened. Wyche dropped back in the pocket, set himself, and fired a pass over the middle to Gary Kreis. Just as Kreis tried to make the catch near Georgia’s goal line, cornerback Penny Pennington hit the receiver, evidently jarring the ball loose. Kreis rolled into the end zone and in the process, gained possession of the football. To Georgia’s disbelief, officials ruled a Tennessee touchdown. With time expired and trailing by two points, Wyche passed to tight end Ken DeLong for the conversion to end the game in a 17-17 tie.

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"What I really remember about that game is Tennessee entered ranked [9th in the nation]we weren'tand they were a substantial [7-point] favorite," Whittemore recalled.  "But, when the game ended in the tie, we were really upset, while they were all happyecstaticabout the tie.  It should have been the reverse."

Two days later, reports were disclosed that Kreis had actually trapped the football as he rolled over Georgia’s goal line. Members of the media examined game film and concluded that Wyche’s pass definitely bounced from Kreis’ hands to the turf and then bounced off the hard surface directly back into his arms as he rolled into the end zone. Evidently, as Pennington and Kreis rolled over the goal line, the receiver was still trying to gain possession.

"Whether [Kreis] caught it or not, it's historythey scored on us," Whittemore said.  "That was the way it was back thenofficials made bad calls all the time. Bad callsyou lived with them; they were part of football."

Whittemore's head coach agreed.  When UGA was asked to comment on the media's findings the next week, only Vince Dooley responded, and it was certainly short and to the point: "You don't win football games on Sunday."

The Bulldogs would find some solace of sorts seven weeks later in Athens, when outgained by the Houston Cougars 532 to 276 in total yardage, Georgia somehow came away with a 10 to 10 tie. “Unlike at Tennessee, against Houston, we celebrated after that tie like we had won!" McCullough informed me.  "When you allow an opponent to move up and down the field all day and they score only 10 points, you’ve accomplished something."

With the Redcoats in the background, UGA and 
UT face off in '68, while on the verge of being 
part of perhaps one of the most controversial 
TDs in college football  history. 
Ultimately, Georgia would come out on top, finishing the regular season undefeated and as SEC champions. Despite a loss to Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl, the Bulldogs were declared national champions at season's end by the Litkenhous ratings.

Reflecting upon the 1968 season and Georgia's tie against Tennessee, followed by the second draw coming against Houston, Whittemore stated, "sometimes you don't have things go your way, but sometimes you do..."

And, just as I was about to point out how the Bulldogs recently, seemingly have things or game-deciding playsgreat plays—always not go their way, Charley continued...

"Like last year, we maybe should've beaten Auburn, but if not for a fumble by Tennessee ("Pig" Howard) in overtime, we might have lost to them too, but it was the other way aroundwe beat Tennessee."

I want to thank Coach Whittemore for giving his account of when a "great" play wasn't so much, but also reminding me of one that actually resulted in Georgia's favor during the last several years; here's to a couple more great plays resulting in 2014. Moreover, I appreciate being reminded that sometimes we tend to focus on when things don't go our way, and neglect to recognize all the times when they do.  

September 19, 2014

Blue, A True Bull-dawg

James Brown and Bluetwo fixtures of UGA 
football during the mid-to-late '70sat the 
team's walk through for the '76 Cotton Bowl.
Ever had a very likable friend that, simply put, just made it happen?  He or she always seemed around, everyone enjoyed their presence, and if something needed to be obtained or achievedlike finding a ticket to a certain game or concert, or gaining access to some VIP areahe/she somehow always found a way to get it done.

Many members of Georgia's football teams of the mid-to-late 1970s had such a frienda guy I first became familiar with at last year's Letterman's BBQas former players spoke of him with the admiration similarly to that of an All-American teammate.

His real name was Gene, but he went by his nickname, "Blue."  And, at the BBQ it seemed like every Bulldog who played from about 1974 through 1978 wondered what ole Blue was currently up todid anyone know his whereabouts?

Interestingly, Blue was not a Bulldog player, nor was he a trainer, manager, cheerleader, etc.  He was just ole Bluethe greatest "team follower" in the history of UGA football. 

Blue was not even a native of the area, growing up about 700 miles away from Athens. He was in the Navy fresh out of high school and stationed in South Carolina when his fondness of the Georgia football program began.  It all started when he wanted to see a friend from homea Bulldog player during the mid-70sso he ventured to Athens for merely a visit, but returned intrigued with Georgia football, and it intrigued with him. 

Every chance Blue got to visit his hometown friend, and all of his Georgia teammates, he did so, leaving his Navy base in South Carolina and venturing west for the weekend.  And, he never missed a home game.

I was told, it was the day following a particular home affair when Blue was where he always was the day after a Bulldogs' game: at the Coliseum saying "good bye" to the players before their Sunday meetings, and before he was to return to base. As Blue walked away towards his carthe familiar white Pinto station wagon with wood panelingCoach Dooley walked up to a group of waving players. Some will tell you that Coach Dooley wasn't even familiar with every member of his own team, but he was certainly familiar with Blue.

"Who is that guy?"  Dooley asked the group of players.  "I see him everywhere!"

"The guy was like dog sh-- after the snow meltseverywherethe bus, the locker room, you name it," a former player said of Blue.  "I think even Coach Dooley quietly accepted Blue’s presence.  He was so much part of the team, I wouldn't be surprised if our trainers wrapped Blue’s ankle before games."

It has been said Blue first became "part" of the team by carrying a star player's shoulder pads on the bus for him.  For the next few years, those same shoulder pads would be brought onto the team bus by Blue, and there he'd sit with the team as the only individual on the entire bus not actually associated with the team.

Notably, it was on one of the team buses following a big victory when some alumni approached from outside, calling through the open windows, ready to hand out some "$50 handshakes."  Blue thought, what the heck?, and stuck his arm out a bus window.  Just like the standout players were handed, he too received $50 for a job well done.

Blue was one of those people who quickly made friends with seemingly everyoneplayers, cheerleaders, and even coaches.  He was innovative, as well, creating the "Shag Rag"the name "SHAG" and jersey No. "80" on a towelfor wide receiver Steve "Shag" Davis, marking what I believe to be the first personalized equipment accessory in UGA football history.  At the 1976 Cotton Bowl, while the Georgia players, coaches, and their wives attended the pregame galas during the weekget thisBlue babysat the kids of an assistant coach.  On the return flight home, Blue got to fly on the chartered plane carrying UGA President Fred Davison and the Georgia cheerleaders, assuredly saying "Go Dogs!" all the way home.

From the "Shag Rag" to "DAWGS," Blue
was innovative among having many 
other quality traits.
And, who could forget the way Blue would say, "Go Dogs!"  With his Mid-Atlantic accent, he would prolong "Dogs," mimicking a southern drawl, sounding more like "D-awwwww-gs."

A year later, after the team landed in New Orleans for the 1977 Sugar Bowl, and boarded a bus headed for the Hyatt Regency, they heard a car horn blowing while en route to the hotel. Pulling up next to the bus was, you guessed it, the familiar white Pinto station wagon with wood paneling, bearing a sign cheering on the team. Blue had driven all the way from his Navy base to New Orleans, arriving at the exact same time the team bus had gotten onto the highway headed to the hotel.  

Appropriately, Blue would not only follow the bus to the Hyatt Regency, but he would sleep there, as well, staying with two players.  Later on, those two players brought a couple of girls back to the room, after which Blue soon spotted the girlfriend of one of the player's in the lobby.  It was Blue to the rescue, dashing from the lobby to the elevator and up many floors to warn his friendhis "teammate"his girlfriend had unexpectedly arrived.

Although he might have been in New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl, it was apparent not even Blue was going to be attending the Sugar Bowlhe had no ticket, and the game was a complete sellout.  One of the rooming players gave Blue his key to the room so he could watch it on TV.  Nevertheless, remember who we're talking about heresomeone who, when faced with no ticket, it simply meant no problem.

Prior to the start of the game, a couple players warming up on the field noticed a trainer's cart being not only pulled by a team trainer, but curiously there was also a "trainer" dressed in all-white trainer's garb and sporting a Georgia cap pushing the cart.  Of course, it was Blue, who had somehow, some way found some trainer's clothing and snuck down onto the field, hiding his midsection from authorities behind the cart not to reveal the fact he had no sideline pass. As soon as Blue reached the Georgia sideline, the players observed him walk up to and briefly chat with a Bulldog assistantthe same one he had babysat for a year before. The assistant coach soon handed his sideline pass over to Blue.

Most of Blue's closest teammates graduated after the 1976 season, so sightings of the guy who always seemed to be around began to decrease.  There was the case of a graduated player who wanted to return to Athens for the 1977 Kentucky game to witness Prince Charles' visit.  He first called the athletic office for a ticket; they were no help.  His second call was to the guy who seemed to always find a ticket, ole Blue, and of course Blue delivered with a ticket to the game.

In 1978, Blue was still around.  Here, during the Georgia Tech game that season, and with the Bulldogs trailing the Yellow Jackets, 20 to 0, Georgia's freshman phenom quarterback begins warming up to relieve starter Jeff Pyburn. That's Blue in the blue sweater, having recently grown a beard.  That's Buck Be-lue, No. 8, who would lead the Bulldogs to a come-from-behind 29 to 28 victory (but due in large part to Blue's presence, I'd like to think):


It was soon after this game and his enlistment in the Navy ended, it is believed Blue stopped venturing to Athens.  During the 1979 NFL season, he was spotted again in a locker room, but this time it was following a game at the Baltimore Colts, where former-Bulldog Bucky Dilts (1974-1976) was the Colts' punter and seemingly Blue's "ticket" to associate with a new team.

Thirty-five years later, this leads to tomorrow and another Letterman's BBQ prior to Georgia's noon game with Troy.  And, rumor has it the ever-mysterious, yet faithful and lovable Blue might be returning to Athens to unite with his former Georgia Bulldog "teammates" for the first time since the late 1970s. Because of work responsibilities, I unfortunately will not be able to attend the BBQ; therefore, I thought I'd use this space to salute the greatest "team follower" in the history of UGA football.

Let me add, even if you don't have that friend, like Blue, who somehow always finds a way to get it done, you actually were already connected with Blue to a small degree even before you read this piece.

As indicated, Blue was rather innovative...  Remember the sign I mentioned on the outside of his familiar white Pinto station wagon with wood panelingthe one cheering on the team prior to the 1977 Sugar Bowl?  Like Blue's pronunciation of the team's shortened nickname, the sign read, "GO DAWGS!" According to players on the bus, it was the first time they had ever seen "Dogs" spelled in that manner, and the first time I'm aware of that the nickname "Dawgs" was visibly associated with Georgia football.   

Finally, here's to you, Bluea true Bulldog through and through!  Through your association with UGA football long ago, when you repeatedly got it done, we Georgia fans have been able to say, "Go Dawgs!" for decades instead of using just plain "Dogs."