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June 15, 2010

When the Georgia Dogs Were Guinea Pigs

When we had our SEC meeting in Biloxi, Mississippi, in May, Tennessee didn't mention anything about the possibility of putting in this [turf].
- Coach Vince Dooley in July 1968

If it wasn’t bad enough that Georgia had to open its 1968 season at Tennessee – the SEC champions and number two-ranked team from the year before – the host team would have a home-field advantage quite like no other.

During that summer, the University of Tennessee had suddenly and almost secretly removed its natural grass from Neyland Stadium and became only the second college football team in the country to install artificial turf. The specific type of surface – Tartan Turf – had never been used before by any athletic team.

The Bulldogs would serve as so-called “guinea pigs” for perhaps “one of the biggest experiments in the history of Southeastern Conference football.” Georgia officials weren’t necessarily upset over the installation of the controversial turf but outraged of Tennessee’s handling of the situation.

Evidently, Tennessee made advanced plans to put in the Tartan Turf but, at first, didn’t tell anyone about it, especially the Volunteers’ opponent in the season opener. No mention was made at the summer SEC meetings. Only a telegram was sent to the rest of the nine conference members just a couple of days prior to a late meeting by Tennessee’s athletic board.

Tennessee officials were quoted as saying Georgia was the only member of the conference to object to the installation. That was not true, according to Coach Vince Dooley and Athletic Director Joel Eaves.

“We found that at least two other schools objected and wanted Tennessee to wait [a year to install the artificial grass],” said Dooley. “We want the University of Tennessee to know that we do not like the way they went about their dealings with us on the matter, and it certainly makes the relationship between the two schools very poor.”

Alas, the Bulldogs’ paws were tied. Tickets had already been sold and a commitment to play before a national television audience had been made, so Georgia decided to honor its September 14th meeting in Knoxville. While the Volunteers had nearly a month to prepare and practice on the newly-installed turf, the Bulldogs had only a single day – the traditional light workout the day before the game.

Announced by ABC-TV’s Chris Schenkel and coaching legend Bud Wilkinson, the game coverage featured not only Georgia’s renowned mascot “U-G-A Number Two,” but an appearance by Lester McClain, who like the Tartan Turf, was nearly a controversy himself.

McClain, according to Schenkel, was “the first negro football player to be on a varsity team in the Southeastern Conference.” Actually, Kentucky’s Nat Worthington had played the year before, becoming the first African American football player in the conference, but McClain would be the first to earn a varsity letter.

The video above is from only the game’s first half; two quarters featuring an ineffective and error-prone Bulldog offense. Whether it was the new playing surface or opening-game jitters, Georgia lost four fumbles in the first half alone but trailed only 7-0 at halftime.

On the contrary, the second half was filled with much excitement, including two Georgia touchdowns covering 80 yards or more (I’ll post video from the second half in the near future), finishing with yet another controversy that enabled the Volunteers to tie the game.

The meeting between Georgia and Tennessee in 1968 began with a controversial installation of artificial turf and would later end with arguably the biggest disputed play in the history of UGA football.

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