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April 19, 2009

Here's Johnny... and the Miracles

The April issue of The College Football Historian was recently released, featuring an article of mine on the 1943 Georgia football team and its star back Johnny Cook. Coached by Wally Butts (photo), the '43 Bulldogs came very close to following most of the SEC and cancelling their season because of limitations from World War II. Instead, Georgia decided to go ahead and play and an apparent dismal season turned out to be somewhat of a success.
The editor of The College Football Historian, Gary "Tex" Noel, is also Executive Director of the Intercollegiate Football Researchers Association (I.F.R.A.) and a friend of mine. In addition, Tex has written the book Stars of an Earlier Autumn--a collection of stories, records, and statistics from college football's early years of 1869 to 1936.
The following is my article on the 1943 Bulldogs and Johnny Cook:
1943 GEORGIA BULLDOGS: Johnny and the Miracles
The University of Georgia’s 1942 football squad is still considered even today perhaps the school’s greatest ever. The Bulldogs achieved an 11-1 record, including a shutout victory over UCLA in the Rose Bowl, and the first of only two consensus national championships in the football program’s rich history. However, with the season’s closing came an expected end to Georgia’s winning ways.
With the start of the 1943 season, the personnel demand of World War II had carried off many of college football’s players into the draft. Only four of the 12 Southeastern Conference schools would field a team in ’43 with the universities being interestingly located in the two states of Georgia and Louisiana—Georgia, Georgia Tech, LSU, and Tulane. Georgia was especially thin. Not only did some Bulldogs join the military, like future All-American and Maxwell Award winner Charley Trippi, but many key players were lost to graduation, namely All-Americans George Poschner and Frank Sinkwich, who had also captured the Heisman Trophy in 1942. In addition, several Bulldogs suffered injuries in the preseason. As Georgia neared the start of the 1943 campaign, coach Wally Butts’ squad returned not a single letterman from the season before but featured all 17-year-old freshmen or players who could not meet the military’s physical standards. “We have pretty much of nothing,” stated Butts prior to the season’s start.
The depletion of players was compounded further when the U.S. Army decided that six more players in UGA’s advanced ROTC would also not be allowed to play. This could have been the straw that broke the Bulldog’s back! Coach Butts now came to the realization there was little hope of winning more than one or two games during the year.
One day prior to Georgia’s season opener against Presbyterian, Butts decided to ask his team if they wanted to join most of the SEC and cancel football in ’43. If the players agreed to do so, Georgia’s schedule would be eliminated immediately. “I asked them frankly if they wanted to pay the price in defeats they’ll have to take,” said Butts. Georgia players agreed to do so. “So we’ll play football as long as eleven men are available to put a team on the field.” Butts and his Bulldogs would not join the majority of the conference, who appeared to place the possibility of a poor win-loss record above everything else. Instead, the decision was made by the Georgia team to honor the games that had been scheduled.
Presbyterian’s experienced team, filled with seniors, had pummeled Fort Jackson the week before 41-0 and was a heavy favorite over the Bulldogs. Georgia kicked-off against the Blue Hose on September 17th on a Friday night at 8:15 “eastern war time” to begin a season which the Atlanta Constitution described, “looms as [Georgia’s] most dismal gridiron campaign in history.”
The Bulldogs not only shocked Presbyterian 25-7 but the victory stunned most of the college football world. In front of only 6,000 spectators at Sanford Stadium, Georgia intercepted nine Blue Hose passes, which still remains tied for an SEC single-game record. Most importantly, it discovered a new set of “Touchdown Twins” in freshmen Johnny Cook and Charles “Rabbit” Smith, replacing Frank Sinkwich and Charley Trippi from the memorable season before.
The Bulldogs lost a heartbreaker the following week in the last minute of play against LSU, the eventual Orange Bowl champion. The setback was followed with victories over Tennessee Tech and Wake Forest by a combined score of 74-0. Georgia, presumed to experience perhaps its worst season in history, was instead 3-1 and ranked 20th in the nation.
The Bulldogs lost their next game to Daniel Field, who was not an individual player or person but a team of former college stars in Augusta, Georgia. Next, LSU defeated Georgia for a second time, but the Dogs rebounded to win their next three contests.
Included during the three-game winning streak was a 46-7 thrashing of the Virginia Military Institute in Atlanta. Johnny Cook scored four touchdowns, all in the first half with the first three occurring within a 10-minute span. His scores included a 78-yard rush and 80-yard punt return. Cook’s four-touchdown performance would not be bettered at Georgia until more than 50 years later (Robert Edwards’ modern-school record of five touchdowns vs. South Carolina in 1995).
Inexperienced, young, and withstanding an ever-changing starting lineup, the Georgia Bulldogs, led by Cook, had miraculously won six of their first nine games and held a scoring margin of nearly 18 points per game heading into the finale against their state rival.
Unlike Georgia but resembling some college teams at the time, Georgia Tech’s football squad was made up of Navy V-12 and other military trainees. Despite 168 yards gained by Cook, the “military” Yellow Jackets hammered the amateur Bulldogs 48-0.
Interestingly, in chronicling the series results between the Dogs and the Jackets, Georgia discredits the two Yellow Jacket victories in 1943 and 1944 (a 44-0 Tech win). However, Georgia Tech considers its two victories despite fielding a squad supplemented by the V-12 Navy College Training Program during both years.
The Bulldogs ended the 1943 season with a respectable 6-4 record and the nation’s ninth best offense, averaging 330 yards per contest (Georgia finished fourth in the country in passing offense). Johnny Cook, Georgia’s 17-year-old, starting tailback, was the school’s lone first team All-SEC selection. He led college football in passing, completing 73 of 157 passes for 1,007 yards and eight touchdowns. Cook also added 361 yards and nine scores on the ground. He was tied for fourth in the nation in scoring, tallying 72 points on 12 touchdowns (nine rushing, two on punt returns, and one via a kickoff return). To date, Cook remains the only Bulldog ever to lead the country in passing and, besides the great Sinkwich, the only Georgia player to finish a season in the top ten in both passing and scoring.
Soon after the ’43 season, Cook followed the same path as many of the young men of his time as he was drafted into the military. He would not return to the university until just prior to the start of the 1946 football season. However, instead of returning to Georgia’s lineup as its star tailback, Cook found himself mostly sitting on the Bulldogs’ bench as there was overwhelming depth in the team’s backfield. After finishing second in the SEC in scoring as a freshman in 1943, Cook did not score a single point in his final year as a Bulldog in 1946. He did, however, pass for three touchdowns during a campaign where Georgia finished a perfect 11-0.
It has been said that the ’43 Georgia Bulldogs are one of only a few, if any, college football teams that literally started from scratch to complete a season with a winning mark. The Bulldogs came so close to following most of the conference’s teams and cancelling the 1943 schedule. However, led by young Johnny Cook, a one-season wonder, the Bulldogs apparent “most dismal gridiron campaign” was miraculously transformed into one of significant success.

A portion of this article is a revision of the “Against All Odds” story from Garbin’s book Then Vince Said to Herschel… (Triumph Books—2007). For more information on Garbin’s books, please visit the author’s website at http://www.patrickgarbin.com/.


cheryl said...

Thank you, Patrick. Johnny Cook was my father - and it's nice to read things about him that I didn't know!
Cheryl Cook Coston

Patrick Garbin said...

You're very welcome, Cheryl. Your father's 1943 season ranks among the best in school history for a UGA tailback. Thanks for checking out the blog...

Amanda said...

Absolutely right! he was the best among the rest! Amanda Vanderpool