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January 20, 2014

Where's The Blur? He's been found.



After appearing in only five games, Boler was
Georgia's cover boy for the 1974 media guide
(yes, he was that good). 
I haven't posted anything original in over two weeks, due in part because I spent some time tracking down an individual who seemingly had avoided the UGA football program since his playing days ended nearly 40 years ago, or so many thought. 

I first caught a glimpse of this ex-player at the most recent UGA Lettermen's Club BBQ.  There he stood back in September with a throng of old teammates surrounding him--a larger gathering than Pat Dye attracted, Fran Tarkenton drew, or Vince Dooley had around him--about 10 white guys circling around one black man.     

"Man, that's Bolo!" declared the one-time Bulldog player who brought me to the event.  "I haven't seen him in about 40 years.  Let's go see him."

The lone black man was indeed "Bolo," or Sylvester Boler, who also earned the nicknames of "The Black Blur," "Sly," and "The Sacker" during his tenure at Georgia, yet the number of games he actually appeared in might equal to only just over a full season.  As far as the number of games he was actually 100% healthy for, there were only a few--very few.

I certainly knew of Boler, even mentioning him three times in less than a year on this very blog as a freshman phenom, an unknown hero in the Auburn series, and his unfortunate gun-pulling incident in the spring of 1975 after having an orange thrown at him.  And, primarily because of that incident, I thought Boler had left the program and then simply disappeared.  However, there he was in the flesh at the BBQ almost four entire decades after the orange-throwing episode, now surrounded by two additional white guys than before for a total of about a dozen.

Although a seemingly complicated individual while at Georgia, Boler's career as a Bulldog could be described rather simply: After playing in just five games in 1973, he was already considered perhaps the greatest linebacker ever at the school.  His success, although transpiring in such a short period, was so tremendous, Georgia made Boler the cover boy of the team's 1974 media guide--just him, Dooley, the 1973 Peach Bowl championship trophy, and Boler's defensive MVP trophy for the bowl game gracing the cover.  However, as they say, how the mighty can fall. 

Following an All-SEC campaign in 1974, Boler was evidently thrown off the team for pulling a gun on Andy "Breezy" Reid at McWhorter Hall after the teammate threw an orange at him--an act that many in the media speculated as indicative of racial unrest on the Bulldogs' football team.  After sitting out the season, an attempted comeback was cut short when Boler abruptly left the squad for good less than two weeks prior to the 1976 season opener, reportedly without any explanation.

"Where've you been, Bolo?" asked someone from the group which circled Boler at the BBQ.  It was a valid question.  In fact, The Red and Black in January 1978 issued Boler the "dubious" sports honor of "The Whatever Happened To Him Award."  Evidently, at least one of Boler's old teammates still wondered the same years later.

"Oh, I've been around..." replied Boler with a laugh.

I was able to briefly chat with Sylvester that afternoon.  Still, about a month and a half later, a friend reminded me that it was the 40th anniversary of The Black Blur's assault on Tennessee and quarterback Condredge Holloway.  That, coupled with me recalling this past December the story of Boler singing Christmas carols on Augusta television during the same time in 1973, and I wanted to chat with him further and find out what a number of Bulldog faithful have wondered for many years: Where's The Blur, and whatever happened to him after he left UGA?

Although it took me a few weeks, I discovered "where," but first a little more background...

"To understand the impact Sylvester made when he debuted in '73, think of when Herschel Walker came on the scene, except seven years earlier and a defensive player," a teammate of Boler's recently informed me.  "We had never seen a player quite like him, and fortunately for us, neither had our opposition."

Highly recruited out of Augusta's Lucy Laney High School, Boler arrived on the UGA campus with a torn quad muscle, forcing him to miss the first two months of the season.  However, once healed, there would be no redshirt season for Boler; he was much too special not to play immediately.

Late in the third quarter of Georgia's game at Tennessee in early November, and with the Bulldogs trailing, Boler was inserted at Sam linebacker, becoming the seventh African American to play varsity football at UGA, and the very first as a true freshman.

If there was any indication Boler played with much aggression, it came the first time he made contact with an opposing ballcarrier, hitting a downed Tennessee back a little after the whistle and drawing an unsportsmanlike penalty.  Regardless, a quarter later, Boler had already registered at least a half-dozen tackles, and Georgia led 35-31.  However, behind the arm of quarterback Holloway, the Volunteers reached midfield with 32 seconds remaining.  But, then IT happened, and my guess the reason why Boler was nicknamed "The Black Blur" in the first place.

(Final three plays of '73 Georgia-Tennessee game on silent coaches film; the first play resulting in Boler's head-knocking, decleating sack of Holloway):

video

Boler's sack was described by a local sportswriter as one which "literally tore Condredge Holloway's head off."  The sack, plus his all-around play that afternoon in Knoxville, was indication of how extraordinary Boler actually was.  As mentioned, no Bulldog had ever played with or against someone with that kind of ability.

Boler stood at 6-foot-3, weighing 235 pounds--extremely large for a linebacker back then.  So large, in fact, Georgia would not have a bigger starting linebacker until the late 1980s, or 15 years afterwards.  Plus, Boler had tremendous speed, consistently clocking a 40-time in less than 4.5.

"Upon my arrival to Georgia, I had never lifted weights," Sylvester informed me from his Atlanta-area home when I finally was able to reach him last week.  "Regardless, I had a disciplined regiment of swimming during the summers, which helped my strength and speed, and I had 32-inch thighs.  It all came to fruition in 1973 when I first got on that field.  I had the speed; I had the strength; I had the knowledge of the game plan.  It was there...it was there."

By that time, upperclassmen had already considered Boler special; he was not your run-of-the-mill freshman, and thus wasn't treated like one.

"When we came to camp, I was introduced to a part of the freshman initiation, where the older guys got on the top floor [of McWhorter Hall] and 'hazed' the freshmen as they ran around below in the parking lot," Sylvester recalled.  "The older guys told me, 'you gotta go [with the freshmen].'  I told them that I was staying up top with them (laughing).  Instead of running around with the freshmen, I'm going to watch the freshmen run around."

Above all, Coach Dooley never treated Sylvester like a freshman in 1973.  Boler never practiced or played with the Bullpups squad--unheard of for a Georgia freshman back then.  Instead, he was always a member of the varsity, even traveling with the team while injured.

It was Coach Dooley who sealed the deal for Boler to come to Georgia to begin with via a letter, not from the head coach, but from a good friend.

"You know, Coach Dooley and Hank Aaron were both from Mobile [Alabama] and good friends," Sylvester said.  "One day, I get a letter from Hank Aaron, saying that UGA would be a good place for me.  When my mom got that letter, as far as all the other schools that recruited me hard--Ohio State, Tennessee, Florida State, Florida, Notre Dame, and all the others--they all might as well forget me coming there (laughing)."

Dooley spoke at Lucy Laney's "sports day" in 1973, where Boler was not only recognized for his achievements on the football field but also as an all-state weight man in track and field.

"I was fortunate to be part of an excellent football program at Lucy Laney, coached by David Dupree, who was the first black coach elected to the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame," Sylvester stated.  "In a way, that great program helped me appreciate the great Georgia program I would soon encounter and how I would feel about Coach Dooley.  I didn't like Vince Dooley, I loved Vince Dooley.  I had a reverence for that man."

After the Tennessee game, Boler spearheaded a Georgia defense which held Florida to 11 points.  Then, Dooley obviously had a reference for Boler, giving his star freshman linebacker his initial start versus Auburn.  Against the Tigers, Boler recorded 18 tackles and earned SEC player-of-the-week honors.  In the regular-season finale against Georgia Tech, he registered a critical, fourth-down sack with the Jackets deep in Georgia territory, clinching a 10-3 victory for the Bulldogs.  For Georgia's final three regular-season games against its "Big Three," Boler was described by a writer as "THE defense."

Leading up to the Peach Bowl, it was during Christmas break when the team learned that Sylvester had yet another talent--music.  Appearing on a Augusta television station, Boler sang Christmas carols.

"Music was my background; I started playing the trumpet when I was in the fourth grade," Sylvester stated proudly.  "In fact, music is where I developed my discipline.  Believe it or not, when I was in high school, nearly all of Lucy Laney's starting offensive and defensive line sang in the school choir."

Still, upon Sylvester's return to UGA from Christmas break, as you can imagine, he was the target of amiable joking from his teammates, prompting his linebackers coach, Barry Wilson, to warn (and say one of the best quotes ever by a Georgia assistant), "I've never heard [Sylvester] sing.  But even if he can't sing, I certainly wouldn't tell him."

Apparently, you didn't want to cross Sylvester, whether you opposed him, played with him, or even coached him.

"I had to block Sylvester in practice leading up to the 1974 season," said a former Bulldog teammate of his.  "And, I really dreaded it because hitting him on his huge thighs and legs was like hitting a tree truck.  The only difference  is most tree trunks don’t lunge back at you."

Following his MVP performance in the Peach Bowl, where his two forced fumbles ultimately led to a 17-16 win over Maryland at old Fulton County Stadium--a trip where Boler skipped all of the bowl activities to watch game film in the hotel--Sylvester was being touted as an All-American candidate for 1974 and as the best sophomore in all of college football.  Against Oregon State in the season opener, he tallied 16 tackles but endured an ankle injury which would plague him for the rest of the season.

"I didn't practice one single time after the Oregon State game until spring ball of 1975," Boler recalled.  "But, I played in most games in '74, and whenever I played, I would reaggravate my ankle."

In the fifth game of the season, despite being far from 100% healthy, Boler was said to have his best game against Ole Miss.  Two games later at Kentucky, he totaled 22 tackles, 17 of which were solo stops.  In Jacksonville, following a 17-16 win over Florida, Boler had a surprise visit from a Florida fan, who wanted to share her thoughts on his aggressive play.

"In the middle of the field after the game, the mom of [a Florida offensive standout] came up to me and cursed me out," Sylvester recalled.  "She said I was hitting too hard; that wasn't necessary (laughing)."  Boler continued with what he described as maybe the craziest thing he had ever heard in his life, "and it won't go away."

"We were in a game, and I hit an opposing running back hard--I literally crunch him," Sylvester remembered.  "On the way back to the huddle, a teammate--a guy on my team--said to me, 'Why do you have to hit so hard?  You're going to hurt somebody.'  I couldn't believe he said that.  I bet I stood there with my mouth wide open.  See, to me football was supposed to be brutal, so that's how I played."

Despite missing a couple of games with his ankle injury, never playing an entire game at 100%, and not practicing a single time during the 1974 season, Sylvester remarkably recorded 134 total tackles for the year, 81 of which were solo.  In being chosen to the AP's second team, he was one of only two Georgia defenders to earn All-SEC honors.  Still, Sylvester gives all the credit for the on-field success he had while at Georgia to the guys up front.

"We had a great defensive line in those days, especially in 1973," Boler recalls.  "Danny Jones, Jim Cagle, Ric Reider, Rusty Russell, David McKnight, Jim Baker, I could go on and on--those were my boys and they embraced me!  See, they wouldn't let anyone come through to block me, so I was usually free to roam.  That's why I had as many tackles as I made."

Considering he was one of the first black players to ever play at Georgia, I asked Sylvester if his  skin color was ever an issue (reports of the orange-throwing episode did claim that race might have been the reason for the incident).

"Race wasn't an issue," Boler declared.  "When I was out on that field, it was all about my boys on the defense.  To them, I wasn't some black guy, I was just Sylvester.  We were like a band of brothers."

Speaking of the orange-throwing episode, again, as the story goes, fullbacks Reid and John Lazzaretto--both white and from the Midwest--were involved with an orange being thrown at Boler.  It began as a prank, but when Sylvester demanded an apology and wasn't satisfied, he soon emerged, pulling a gun on them.  Reportedly, Boler would be immediately dismissed from the team. 

Less than four months following the incident, a local newspaper reportedly interviewed Boler about the episode--an article beginning with the quip, "Don't offer Sylvester Boler an orange."  Boler is quoted several times in the piece, including, "The sooner people forget about that incident, the better it will be for me.  But I know it will not fade away.  It will probably linger around me for as long as I live."

Bringing up the article, I wanted to know if the incident had ever faded away for Boler, or did it continue to linger.

Debunking any post-incident interview, Sylvester stated vehemently, "There was no interview.  And, I know that because I've never mentioned [the orange-throwing incident] to anyone--no interview, or anything else.  It was in-house; kept within the 'family.'  At the time, Coach Dooley simply addressed it by indicating that I wasn't a racist; I was just mean as hell."

Boler claims he didn't talk to any reporters or the newspapers following the episode, just his teammates.  In a meeting, he went before the team.  "I told them that I screwed up, and now I'm going to have to pay for it," he recalled.

He also says that the whole incident was blown out of proportion, especially about him getting kicked off the team for pulling the gun.  Suffering from calcium deposits in his ankle, the plan, even prior to any sort of incident, was to redshirt Sylvester for the season.  Therefore, Boler actually missed the 1975 campaign due to the same lingering injured ankle, and not because he pulled a gun on a teammate or two.

"I just don't go there (fully discussing the incident)," Sylvester continued.  "And, the only people that really know what all led up to and transpired at McWhorter Hall that day are Breezy and me--no one else."

Astounded that articles--and, yes, that's plural with an s--would quote Sylvester when he apparently didn't talk to any reporters after the incident, I inquired further.

"Somebody might have paraphrased what I said when I was speaking directly to one of my teammates," Boler speculated.  "But, I never, not once, spoke to one reporter about what happened."

Sylvester continued by saying that he had a reporter try to have him comment about the incident 20 years ago.  Upon his return to Georgia in 1993, where he has remained ever since, after living in California, Boler was approached by a writer from a prominent newspaper.  The first thing the writer asked about was the orange-throwing altercation.

"[The incident] is not who I am; that's something that happened in a matter of seven minutes," Boler stated.  "I wasn't going to have that writer define me like that.  I told him to go away with his article."  

Although a mere attempt, this particular writer--yours truly--will try to define Sylvester Boler...  He was on the path to greatness--perhaps, on the verge of becoming one of the greatest ever at Georgia--before an injured ankle, and not racism or a pointed gun, halted what was a promising career. 

Boler returned for the 1976 season as a fourth-year junior and was competing to get his old starting job back, when again some in the media had their readers believe certain things to make a better story.  According to a local newspaper in September 1976, Boler left UGA for good "for no apparent reason," adding "as time goes on, more and more theories will come to light as to why Boler decided to quit football at Georgia." 

Never mind theories, how about the facts why Sylvester "quit" the team?

"Pat, I don't know if you noticed at the BBQ, but my right arm is positioned at a 45 degree angle," Boler said.  "On top of my ankle injury, I messed up my arm permanently in an accident [while preparing for the '76 season].  I was out there practicing when I realized that I wasn't going to be able to play ball like that.  Not only was I not going to be a starter, I wasn't even going to be the team's water boy--that's why I left."

After leaving Athens, Sylvester went straight to Atlanta, where he signed up to be and nearly became--and, get this--an IRS agent, before someone up North believed Boler could still play football despite his injuries.

"The next thing I know, I'm getting this nice, fat check from the Ottawa Rough Riders [of the CFL]," Boler remembered.  "I head up there for training camp, but my ankle was still messed up.  I was just a shadow of my former self."

After his release from the Rough Riders, Sylvester ventured to California, where he began a successful career in the finance industry.  During his time out West, he served as a mentor to USC linebacker and eventual five-time NFL All-Pro Chip Banks--a fellow Augusta native and Lucy Laney graduate--and had business dealings with Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, Muhammad Ali, and James Brown--another native of Augusta.  Sylvester earned his law degree and then became a civil litigation specialist.  Today, living just outside of Atlanta, Sylvester is the President and CEO of North America Credit Association and manages a number of consumer finance law firms.  He is the proud father of three children: Ariane, Sylvona, and Diona.

"Life has been good," Boler exclaimed.  "I keep really busy.  The work I do will take me to my retirement.  I turn 59 years old next week on January 20th."

I then commented that I had just turned 39.  Sylvester then began telling a story of a man he works with who is my age.  One day, Boler came into the office and the man blurted, "Sylvester, what would you say if I said, 'The Black Blur?'"

"I told him that he must have been reading some old football article," Boler added.  "Now, all those guys at work, they don't call me Sylvester or Mr. Boler.  They call me Blur."

Personally, I found 'Blur' to be one of my most favorite interviews ever.  He is humorous, but brutally honest, and proud to be associated with Georgia football, proclaiming at one point, "I'm a Bulldog!" and even thanking me during the interview for letting him talk about his time at UGA.  He is an intelligent man, who takes more pride in the 3.2 GPA he had as a freshman at Georgia, than the success he had on the gridiron as a Bulldog.

"After football, I had to start a life for myself," Boler said.  "I couldn't live my life standing up under some shade tree reciting the great game I had against Tennessee in 1973."

Speaking of which, what Sylvester most remembers about when he first came onto the scene for the Bulldogs was not the seven or eight tackles he made in Knoxville in just over a quarter of play, or his decapitating sack of Condredge Holloway, but what happened after the game.

"When we got off the bus in Athens, several of the defensive players and me jumped into two cars and went to two liquor stores," Sylvester recalls.  "We then all went out to [Danny] Jones' house and partied all night long.  That was one of the greatest times in my life.  Already, after just one game at Georgia, I was part of a brotherhood.  It is a brotherhood that still remains today; maybe you could sense that brotherhood at the BBQ."

I definitely did sense it.  As I spoke with Sylvester, I also soon realized that of all the people that gathered around him at the event, some might have wondered, where've you been?  However, just as many who gathered were there to say, it's good to see you again.  Boler has come back to Athens for functions on several occasions since moving from California.

Finally, if he happens to be reading this post, I want to first wish a happy 59th birthday to Sylvester.  Also, I want to thank him again for speaking to me about his time at UGA.  I'm certainly glad I "tracked him down" for the interview, but as he replied back in September with a laugh, "Oh, I've been around..."  Sylvester Boler was never lost, just misunderstood, misquoted, and whose departure from Georgia was greatly exaggerated.

January 14, 2014

Lemons Into Lemonade

As Georgia bids adios to its defensive coordinator and searches for another, I thought it might be appropriate to post an edited piece from my Georgia-Florida book on the greatest defensive coordinator in the history of college football.  Whereas the Bulldogs' last head of defense had a forgettable tenure, getting mediocre results from NFL talent a year ago to getting his players simply confused this season, Erk Russell was quite the opposite.  He could turn, as they say, lemons into lemonade, during a coaching career that was rather memorable.
 
On a personal note, I actually met Erk once sort of when I was just a few years old during the late-70s.  His wife was a friend of my mother’s and the Russells were invited to our house for dinner.  Even today, more than seven years after his death and 33 years after his time at UGA, I still brag how Coach Russell ate dinner at my house, while my father, even today, still brags that his son actually sat in the lap of the legendary Erk.
 
The absolute best of Coach Vince Dooley’s supporting staff was undoubtedly Erk Russell – Georgia’s defensive coordinator from 1964 through 1980.  Russell was not your run-of-the-mill assistant coach and is held in high regard by Bulldog fans, still today.

Just four years after graduating from Auburn, where he remains the university’s last four-sport letterman, Russell guided Grady High School (Atlanta) as its head football coach to a Georgia state championship in 1953.  He was later an assistant with Dooley at Auburn from 1958 to 1962 and would eventually follow him to Athens for the start of the head coach’s tenure at the University of Georgia in 1964.

In 17 seasons and 192 games at Georgia, Russell’s defensive units allowed a paltry 13.9 points per contest, while yielding roughly the same average (13.8) in 17 games against the detested Florida Gators.

Perhaps no assistant in the history of college football was known for being as much as a motivator and communicator with his players than Russell.  His distinct shaven bald head would often be bleeding during games since he frequently rammed it into his players’ helmets during pregame drills for motivational purposes.
 
After Georgia upset Florida in 1964, Russell was so overwhelmed with emotion that he jumped up on a table and led a bedlam-filled Gator Bowl locker room to a repeated cheer of “DAMN GOOD TEAM!” 

Russell once noticed a Georgia Tech student trainer with a sweatshirt reading “G.T.A.A.” – Georgia Tech Athletic Association.  The defensive coordinator swapped the two middle letters and came up with a celebrated slogan for his own team – “G.A.T.A.” – Get After Their Asses. 

Russell also devised the Bulldogs’ big “TEAM,” little “me” T-shirt, declaring that the individual player was always less significant than the entire team. 

Later on, he also created the rallying cry of “Tuck Yech,” and, well, you can probably figure that expression out on your own.

Coach Russell with Junkyard Dog-turned-Runt
Dicky Clark 
The Bulldog Nation's favorite inspirational tactic of Russell was his creation of the “Junkyard Dogs” defense of 1975.  Georgia’s defensive unit had lost nine of 11 starters from 1974, including two All-SEC performers, and was also switching to an unfamiliar “Split-60” formation.  As fall practice began just three weeks prior to the season opener, seven of Georgia's starting defensive positions were unsettled.

Because of the defense’s new faces and formation, Russell felt the unit needed a nickname.  For what the defense lacked in experience and raw ability, it more than made up for it with intensity and an aggressive style of play demonstrated during fall drills. Plus, as Erk stated, “there isn't anything meaner than a junkyard dog,” and a moniker was formed. 

According to Russell, the 1975 defense “had three walk-ons, four [former] quarterbacks, and three running backs in our original Junkyard Dog starting cast, which averaged 208 pounds across the front.”  Regardless, by the end of a surprising 9-2 regular season for Georgia, its no-name defense had yielded just 15 points and 307 yards per game while proving that it’s not always how quick the feet and size of the body that counts the most, but rather how quick the mind and size of the heart. 

After Georgia won its national championship in 1980, Russell left the school and ventured to Statesboro, Georgia, for the challenge of restarting the Georgia Southern College football program, which had been dormant for 40 years.  Remarkably, by the program’s fourth season of 1985, head coach Russell had already won his first of what would eventually be three Division I-AA national titles.  After capturing his third national championship as head coach of the Eagles in 1989, Russell retired from coaching with an 83-22-1 overall record in eight seasons at Georgia Southern.
 
QUOTES from ERK cherished by the Bulldog Nation  
*You’re good enough to play for me and you’re good enough to win.” (Addressing his first defensive unit at Georgia in preseason practice of 1964)

*There isn’t anything meaner than a junkyard dog.  They aren’t good for nothing except for being mean and ornery. That’s what we want our defense to be.” (Summer practice of 1975)

*[The Junkyard Dogs] have to be in the proper frame of mind for this one.  We call it intelligent fanaticism, with a little more emphasis on the fanaticism.” (Prior to the 1975 Florida game)

*"If we score, we may win. If they never score, we'll never lose."
 
*"THERE AIN’T NOTHING LIKE BEING A BULLDOG ON A SATURDAY NIGHT - - - - - AFTER WINNING A FOOTBALL GAME.  I mean like whipping Tennessee’s ass to start with, then ten more and then another one.” (In a July 7, 1980 letter addressed to Gentlemen: (and Linemen))
 
*"I can grow hair with the best of them.  It’s just poorly proportioned."
 
*"I looked down and there was a dime on the ground.  I picked it up, put it in my left shoe. …We beat Clemson that day…I taped the dime in my shoe so I wouldn’t lose it, and made sure that I wore it throughout the season. We were 12-0 and won the national championship, and I’m sure the dime did it.”
 
*"The best way to win a game is not to lose it.”
 
*"At Georgia Southern, we don’t cheat. That costs money and we don’t have any."
 
*"If you don’t have the best of everything, you make the best of everything you have."

January 4, 2014

In Need of a "New Era"

After finishing 12 straight seasons nationally
ranked, only two of Georgia's last five teams 
have ended their campaigns in the Top 25.  
Thursday morning after Georgia's loss to Nebraska, I awoke to two emails mentioning Coach Richt and "hot seat."  Now, I tend to agree with what the Senator stated a few months ago: associating the buzzword "hot seat" with Richt has perhaps been a tad overused.  However, looking back on the last several years capped off by what transpired down in the Gator Bowl, whether our head coach gets put on a hot seat, a flame is literally lit up under his you-know-what, or some other drastic measure, some sort of action or change should be enforced following an unacceptable 44-23 combined record since the start of the 2009 season, and soon.
 
After ending 12 consecutive seasons from 1997 through 2008 ranked in the final AP Poll, the Bulldogs will finish the 2013 season unranked nationally for the third time in the last five campaigns.  This season marked the highest Georgia had ever been preseason ranked (No. 5), only to finish unranked in the end.  I know, I know, injuries seemingly decimated the team this year.  However, injuries are part of the game, and are often used as an excuse for losing.  In 2008 and 2012, the Bulldogs ranked 7th and 8th, respectively, in the FBS in "starts lost" due to injury, yet I don't seem to recall much complaining about injuries then, and probably because Georgia averaged 11 wins for those years.
 
Richt's teams exceeded pollsters expectations in five of his first seven seasons at UGA; however, only once in the last six seasons was Georgia's final ranking higher than its positioning in the preseason (ranked No. 6 to begin 2012 and finished No. 5).  

Aside from the polls, and perhaps most notably, Georgia's overall winning percentage the last five seasons of .657 was the lowest for the Bulldogs in a five-year period in 16 seasons since the era from 1993 to 1997.  Staunch supporters of Richt often compare the head coach's success to that of his predecessors at Georgia, so lets do the same in regards to five-season spans.

In the five seasons that made up the entire Jim Donnan era from 1996 to 2000, the Bulldogs actually had a higher winning percentage (.678) than Richt's last five teams, and, as you recall, Donnan was fired.  In Ray Goff's final five seasons at Georgia, the Bulldogs had a winning percentage of .629, or just three games behind what Richt achieved from 2009 through 2013, and like his successor would be, Goff was axed.

Those that minimize the Vince Dooley era often claim that under today's standards he would've been fired some time during the 1970s, and Dooley's legacy would have been minimal if not for the arrival of a certain freshman phenom in 1980.  Some of those that downplay Dooley's tenure probably aren't aware that he actually was nearly fired during the '70s, or his contract was almost not extended, following what would be his worst five-season period in a quarter-century as Georgia head coacha .640 winning percentage from 1970 to 1974.

Immediately following a disappointing '74 season, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, Dooley stated, "We will have to build from the ground up."  However, the head coach was thought to probably be around for only the beginning of any rebuilding process as his existing contract was through just the 1975 season, and a new contract seemed unlikely.  Regardless, in what was recognized by Erk Russell as a "new era," Dooley first adjusted and added to his defensive coaching staff.  Later, upon the start of spring practice, a change in attitude was instilled in both players and coaches.

"It's a new start," said Dooley in April 1975.  "We're starting over right now from this day," added Russell.  "This is a new era.  Hopefully, we'll able to get back on the right track."

Ten days prior to the start of the season, and according to a local newspaper, while "many Georgia supporters [were] surprised at this move," Dooley was awarded a new three-year contract.  As Erk had hoped, Georgia indeed got back on the right track led by the defensive coordinator's "Junkyard Dogs."  The new era beginning in 1975 brought about back-to-back seasons ending in major bowls for only the second time in UGA football history with the initial resulting 34 years before (1941-1942).  And, speaking of "34," such success was actually accomplished without the services of the legendary Herschel as he was still several years from first arriving on the UGA campus.  
 
Personally, I like Coach Richt and want to see him succeed.  However, under the leadership of an athletic director who appears tentative to stir things up, it's evident Richt is receiving a free pass for what he accomplished during his first seven seasons, recently capturing consecutive SEC East titles but which are surrounded by highly disappointing seasons, and an injury-filled 2013 campaign.  I don't think Richt needs to be fired anytime soon, but he should be held accountable for, again, the worst five-season stretch of UGA football in 16 years.  Lately, his tendency to win has been about equivalent (or even worse when compared to Donnan) to five-year periods that got his three predecessors fired, or nearly fired.     
 
Similarly to what Coach Dooley initiated in 1975, Coach Richt could do himself and the program some good by starting a "new era" of sorts this offseason.  Whether it's in the form of changes to the coaching staff, a change in attitude for all those involved, or both, a new era has demonstrated to put a program on the right track, while getting its head coach out of hot water and back on the road to legendary status.    

January 1, 2014

Our Most Special Day & Date

On 1/1/81, we were Number One...
Happy New Year!  As I have a couple times before, I'm posting an edited piece of mine on a special day for Bulldogsa day for celebrating a victory, or even a championship.
 
Today, the first day of a new year, is a special day in Georgia football history, particularly, the date of January 1, 1981. In their history, the Bulldogs have played on the first day of the year more than any other (24 times); however, none of the other firsts of January that came before or since can quite compare to that of 1981.
 
The Georgia fans who remember the 17-10 win over Notre Dame in the 1981 Sugar Bowl are fortunate and understand how celebrated and distinctive that victory was for all Bulldog faithful. I was only five years old at the time and barely remember the game, but I’ve done enough research, writing, and heard and read plenty of accounts regarding the game (and watched it countless times on ESPN Classic) to give, what I believe, an accurate narrative.
 
Although undefeated and number one-ranked Georgia was only a one-point underdog entering the game against Notre Dame, who had lost one, tied another, and was ranked seventh in the nation, few gave the Bulldogs a chance at victory.
 
Famed football forecaster Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder said the Fighting Irish were “far superior” than Georgia. Notre Dame All-American linebacker Scott Zettek commented Notre Dame should have been favored by not one, but 10 points, and said Georgia’s freshman phenom tailback, Herschel Walker, only ran the football well “because his offensive line blocks well. Anyone could run through those holes. They could pick somebody off the street.”
 
So, you can imagine how shocking it was to many when the Bulldogs emerged from New Orleans’ Superdome on the winning end, especially if you take a look at the stat sheet.
 
A win is inconceivable when there is a 328-127 disadvantage in yardage, 17-10 in first downs, and 34:41-25:19 in time of possession, but somehow, some way, Georgia pulled it off that day against the Fighting Irish.
 
The 17-10 decision is also likely the only college football game ever in modern history where an individual player outgained his entire team. Walker, named the bowl’s MVP while playing most the game with a separated shoulder, rushed for 150 yards on 36 carries and two touchdowns. The rest of the Bulldogs netted minus-23 total offensive yards on 29 plays.
 
The Dawgs achieved victory by having “the luck of the [Georgia] Irish.” Georgia intercepted three passes and recovered a fumble while committing no turnovers. Notre Dame also misplayed two kickoffs, the second directly leading to the Bulldogs’ first touchdown, missed two field goals, and had another blocked.

Besides having some luck, the Bulldogs also encountered “the ill-advised of the Irish.” I’m no football coach or expert analyst but, I truly feel, if the Fighting Irish’s game plan had been what got them to the Sugar Bowl in the first place, they likely would have finished on the winning side.

In 1980, Notre Dame had a spectacular running game, showcasing two halfbacksPhil Carter and Jim Stoneeach rushing for nearly 1,000 yards during the regular season. Although stout, Georgia’s defense against the run had allowed several opponents during its regular season, even a bad Vanderbilt team, some success running the football.
 
Notre Dame’s passing game had been dismal in ’80; starting quarterback and freshman Blair Kiel only attempted approximately 11 passes per game, completed less than 40 percent of his attempts, and did not throw a single touchdown the entire year. However, for whatever reason, Kiel and the Irish came out throwing against the Bulldogs.
 
For the most part, ignoring the run until the second half, Notre Dame threw on four of the game’s first seven plays and finished with 28 pass attempts, completing only half, and, as mentioned, was intercepted three times.  On the contrary, the Bulldogs’ offensive attack was to simply hand it to Herschel and hope they never had to pass.
 
Buck Belue, an All-SEC quarterback in 1980, lost 34 yards on 13 rushes, primarily due to being sacked multiple times, and missed on his first 11 pass attempts. Nonetheless, Belue’s twelfth and final attempt made up for a horrendous passing day by clinching victory on the greatest day in Georgia football history.
 
...and you weren't!
With just over two minutes remaining in the game, leading by seven points, and possessing the ball at the 50-yard line, Georgia faced third down and seven to go. Belue rolled to his right and completed a short pass to Amp Arnold, barely picking up the first down.  If Belue’s pass had resulted like the previous 11, Georgia would have been forced to punt to Notre Dame, who had a timeout remaining with more than two minutes left. Instead, the Bulldogs kept their drive going, ran the ball five times, ran the clock out in the process, and then nearly got ran over by the throng of celebratory Dawg fans that stormed the field.

During the bedlam, a Superdome security guard screamed, “I’ve got the damn president of the United States in here (Jimmy Carter and approximately 200 of his presidential party were in attendance), and I can’t get him out!” At the same time, a police officer was overheard saying, “Thank God [the fans] ain’t armed.” And, the late great Lewis Grizzard would later give his own epic account:
 
"We've had it tough in this state. First of all, that Yankee scoundrel Sherman came through here and tried to burn it down. Then we finally got a man elected President—nobody liked him. But on January 1st, 1981, I looked up at the scoreboard in the Superdome and it said 'Georgia,' where I went to school, '17,' 'Notre Dame 10.' We had won the national football championship. Children laughed and grown men cried. How ‘Bout Them Dogs!"
 
All season long, Georgia had been criticized for facing a relatively easy schedule; just one of its 12 opponents, ninth-ranked Notre Dame, finished the year in the AP’s top 20. When the final rankings were released, although the Bulldogs were number one in both the AP and UPI polls, seven of the 101 combined voters actually placed a one-loss Pittsburgh squad atop the rankings despite the Bulldogs' perfect record.  Regardless, starting right guard Tim Morrison might have put it best when asked after the Sugar Bowl if there was any doubt Georgia, despite its schedule, was not the best team in college football:

“Hell, no!” replied Morrison. “We’re the only 12-0 team in the country, and by God, we’re No. 1!”
 
No other season in Georgia football history before or since can quite compare to 1980—the Bulldogs' lone undefeated, untied, and, as Coach Vince Dooley likes to say, only “undisputed” national championship.
 
If you didn’t understand before, perhaps now you realize why January 1st, specifically the one from 33 years ago is cherished by the Bulldog Nation.