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February 28, 2011

Injury-Bitten Bulldogs from Yesteryear

My delayed reaction to the news that Aaron Murray's injury should be nothing to fret over is (like I'm sure everyone else's) a huge relief.  When I first heard that our quarterback was on crutches - after I suffered a minor stroke - I couldn't help but to think back to a little over 15 years ago when another young Bulldog signal caller was on the mend.

For the Winter Quarter of 1996 at the University of Georgia, I was in a marketing class with Mike Bobo.  The times Bobo would show up for class, which wasn't very often, he'd normally be late and hobble up the steps of the "classroom" (it was one of those 300-student classes in an auditorium) to a seat with the aid of crutches. 

Every time I saw the wounded quarterback, I (like I'm sure many other students in the class) was reminded of a 1995 football season that could have been a success if injuries to skilled players hadn't decimated the team.  Instead, the end result was a bunch of crippled canines, a fired head coach, and a .500 record.

Georgia's parade of injuries during that time actually first began in the 1994 season finale against Georgia Tech, when quarterback Eric Zeier went down with a sprained knee.  Bobo filled in admirably in a 48-10 Bulldogs' romp; however, with the All-American Zeier going down, Georgia was suddenly less attractive to the bowl scouts and the Bulldogs were forced to sit home during the postseason despite a respectable 6-4-1 record.

Rumor had it that if Zeier had been healthy, Georgia, not South Carolina, would have been extended a bid from the Carquest Bowl.  Instead, the Gamecocks, who had a worse record (6-5) than the Bulldogs and had lost to Georgia in the season opener, went bowling.

Projected starting defensive end Derrick Byrd tore an ACL in spring practice of 1995.  Next, Georgia football endured arguably one of its most devastating injuries in its history when scatback Robert Edwards (photo) broke his foot in the second game of the season against Tennessee.  In just 1 1/2 games, Edwards had rushed for 325 yards and scored seven touchdowns, but he was lost for the rest of the season.

Edwards' injury was only the beginning of a rash of ailments suffered by the Bulldogs at their scatback position.  Hines Ward started the third game but sustained a bruised thigh and ribs and, two games later, Larry Bowie got the starting nod against Alabama but would pull a groin in the third quarter after gaining nearly 100 yards against the Tide.

Not even halfway through the season and the starting scatback position was already on a game-time-decision basis.  "It wouldn't surprise me if [true freshman] Torin (Kirtsey) started back there," Coach Ray Goff declared before the sixth game at Clemson.

Kirtsey did start and rushed for 195 yards on 38 carries in a 19-17 upset over the Tigers.  However, a week later at Vanderbilt, Kirtsey sprained an ankle on the third play of the game and would be out for two weeks.  In game number eight against Kentucky, another true freshman - Robert Arnuad, who had carried the ball just seven times all season - started at scatback and rushed 37 times for 120 yards in a win over the Wildcats.

In Georgia's first eight games of the season, the Bulldogs started six different scatbacks.  In addition, the low point of the scatback injury epidemic occurred when reserve Odell Collins pulled a hamstring in late October while doing his laundry and missed the remainder of the year.

Other fallen Dogs included the aforementioned Bobo, who fractured his knee early in the second quarter of the fourth game and was finished for the year.  Ward, playing his third different position in three games, started at quarterback for the first time since high school against Alabama and it was evident in a 31-0 Bulldog loss - the last time Georgia was shutout in a game to date.

Brian Smith started under center for three consecutive wins - Clemson, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky - but he too was lost for the year with a separated shoulder against the Wildcats.  Ward was back at quarterback for the Florida game, aggravated a fractured wrist against the Gators, and would play hurt with a broken bone in his wrist in a near upset versus Auburn and a upset victory at Georgia Tech.

By the way, the Bulldogs had their fair share of injuries on the defensive side of the ball as well.  Besides Byrd, All-SEC candidate nose guard Travis Stroud endured a hyperextended elbow in the third game of the year and played sparingly the rest of the season.  Most damaging, senior Randall Godfrey suffered a strained hamstring early in the Alabama game; one of the greatest linebackers in school history would hardly play the final seven games of his last season at Georgia.

Whew!  There you have it...a decade's worth of injuries all rolled into one season for the ill-fated Bulldogs of 1995. 

Five days prior to Georgia's game against Georgia Tech and with the Bulldogs' record at 5-5, Goff gave his "negotiated resignation" and was finished as head coach.  Although many questioned the timing of the forced resignation by Vince Dooley, who had given Goff a mandate of "significant improvement" prior to the season, few challenged the athletic director's decision.  

I, for one, remember being all for the resignation and, looking back on it, definitely believe it was for the good of the program.  In all honesty, Goff was in way over his head to begin with when he was hired in 1989.  Even Ray himself might admit to that today...

However, whether Pop Warner or Bear Bryant (or even Vince Dooley), any coach would have had a difficult time coaching that Georgia team to "significant improvement" from an 11-10-1 combined record in 1993 and 1994.  All poor Goff was able to do was win six games, two coming as a road  underdog (Clemson, Georgia Tech), while having a few near upsets against much superior competition (Tennessee, Auburn, Virginia).

An injury or two (or nearly a dozen, like in '95) can ruin a team's football season; they certainly devastated Georgia's 1995 campaign. 

Come to think of it, I'm reminded that the Coach Richt regime has had the good fortune of hardly having to deal with major injuries, particularly during the recent three-season slide. 

Whereas it is evident Coach Goff had a legitimate reason for a mere six-win season, what was Coach Richt's excuse for one 15 years later?

February 16, 2011

A Former Tradition Not Forgotten

I've been absolutely swamped at work recently, thus, the reason why this is my first post in more than two weeks.  Nevertheless, a friend sent me a site featuring an old photo of Sanford Stadium's The Track People (also check out the letter from the late great Erk Russell), and I couldn't resist posting my somewhat "experience" with the one-time tradition. 

When Sanford Stadium's east end zone was enclosed prior to the 1981 season, enlarging the stadium from around 60,000 to just under 80,000, it certainly was unfortunate for those that once watched free of charge from the railroad tracks and an end to a tradition. 

However, with the stadium's new addition, came the option for some faculty members, like my father, to order four season tickets instead of just two like previous seasons.  So, when the defending national champion Bulldogs kicked off their '81 season against Tennessee 30 years ago come this September, they did so in front of nearly 20,000 fresh faces, including yours truly - six years old at the time, attending his very first Georgia football game.

Taken from a video courtesy of the University of Tennessee and narrated by the Volunteers' legendary John Ward, here are some highlights from a memorable game for me:

Personally, it never gets old watching highlights from Georgia football's heyday of the early 1980s.  In particular, the 1981 Bulldogs "on paper" might have been the best Georgia football team of all time despite two losses suffered during their season.  

The above video is some evidence of the talented bunch: players like Herschel Walker, Terry Hoage, seniors Buck Belue and Lindsay Scott, true freshman Kevin Butler, junior college-transfer Ronnie Harris, and... Jeff Paulk.

In case you're wondering,  Paulk was Georgia's second- or third-string quarterback from 1979-1982.  For his entire Bulldog career, he accounted for only approximately 250 yards of total offense and scored one touchdown - the one shown in the video.   

My favorite players from the first Bulldog team I witnessed in person were Herschel and Hoage, for obvious reasons, and Jeff Paulk, simply because he was one of my coaches at the Athens YMCA and I also thought he had a neat sounding last name.

For these reasons, I had to include Paulk's touchdown in the highlights from my first Bulldog game.  

One of my favorite stories from that Georgia-Tennessee meeting begins with the dozen or so dedicated Track People, who still turned out that afternoon to sit on the railroad tracks.  Of course, they couldn't see the Bulldogs from where they sat but an enormous side of concrete instead.

Still, as one track fan declared, as long as there was whiskey to drink and Larry Munson on his radio, he didn't mind the obstructed view. 

However, another ticketless fan, Rick, did mind after the whiskey wore off and was going to do all he could to see his Bulldogs.  He and a few friends tried several different ways to catch a glimpse of the game from both east and west sides of the stadium without any luck.

After many unsuccessful attempts, a friend said, “Looks like we ain’t gonna get in.”

“Heck,” said a dejected Rick, “I gotta be at my wedding rehearsal at four o’ clock anyway.”

February 1, 2011

Talk about Dream Teams...

After signing with Georgia in 1980, the absolute HEAD of all heads of classes
was still everyone's desire (even when sporting an early 80's Urban Cowboy look).

As Georgia is attempting to finalize a Dream Team of a recruiting class, a friend of mine and fellow Bulldog follower suggested I rank the all-time incoming recruiting classes in Georgia football history.  Which class owned the top spot wasn't difficult to figure; however, determining the rest of the top ten was a challenge, especially since every incoming class from the very beginning of UGA football was considered.

Among the factors used in determining the top classes were the number of impact players, their individual and collective success while at Georgia, and the number that would eventually play at the professional level. 

Although very little, I also took into consideration players' NFL careers and those incoming Bulldogs that might have eventually found success at another school.  I also selected at least one class from each of the last six coaching eras: Mehre, Butts, Dooley, Goff, Donnan, and Richt.

After pouring over decades of incoming classes, choosing my opinion of the 20 to 25 best, narrowing that down to a top 10, and ranking them (below), I've discovered something rather interesting and near astonishing about my list:

Six of the seven classes from my No. 2 through No. 8 signed with UGA prior to only the first or second season of a new coaching regime.  The one exception - 1998 - was prior to just the third season of Coach Donnan.  Let me add, Donnan's first class (1996: Champ Bailey, Orantes Grant, Patrick Pass, Marcus Stroud, etc.) just missed my top 10.

Does this suggest that very talented players, for whatever reasons, are often collectively attracted to a program with a fairly or brand new coaching staff?  Rather, as my friend suggested, are coaching staffs more inclined to recruit and work harder when new on the job?  Or, is it only a coincidence?    

1) 1980
Head of Class: RB Herschel Walker
Supporting Cast: DE Freddie Gilbert, OT Jimmy Harper, DB Terry Hoage, OT Winford Hood, TE Clarence Kay, LB Tommy Thurson, OT/DT Mike Weaver, FB Scott Williams, RB Barry Young

Even if you were to stick Walker with 28 run-of-the-mill (at best) players, this class may still rank in the top 10, simply because of the signing of Herschel - maybe the greatest college football player of all time.  Notwithstanding, even without Walker, this class (which made up half of the 22 starters in 1983) produced a 10-1-1 record as seniors and a No. 4 national ranking...Two redshirted signees - Weaver and Williams - would switch positions prior to their senior seasons and were two of the top players on the 1984 team...About a year ago, this class was ranked 11th best (3rd in the SEC) in the history of college football recruiting.  

2) 1965
Head of Class: DB Jake Scott, DT Bill Stanfill
Supporting Cast: DT Tim Callaway, FB/LB Happy Dicks, DG Steve Greer, HB Kent Lawrence, QB Billy Payne, DB Penny Pennington, DB David McKnight, end David Rholetter

After a season on the freshman Bullpups squad, three signees - Lawrence, Payne, and Stanfill - would promptly start on the 1966 SEC championship team and would capture another conference crown just two seasons later...Lawrence is still considered one of the greatest all-purpose players in Georgia history, Payne (who came to UGA as a quarterback) starred at both offensive (1966-1967) and defensive (1968) end, while Stanfill is perhaps the Bulldogs' best defender ever.  Scott and Greer wouldn't play until 1967 but both would become All-Americans (Greer in his fifth year of '69)...The cast above doesn't include perhaps the most touted of the bunch - Charlotte's Rick Arrington - who split time with starting quarterback Kirby Moore at the beginning of the '66 season, decided to transfer to Tulsa, and would eventually play in the NFL.

3) 1998
Head of Class: ATH Terrence Edwards, OL Jon Stinchcomb
Supporting Cast: LB Boss Bailey, DB Terreal Bierria, QB Quincy Carter, OL George Foster, LB Tony Gilbert, DL David Jacobs, RB Jasper Sanks, DB Tim Wansley, LB Will Witherspoon

It must be at least a decent class when one cannot decide who is its "head": Edwards, the SEC's all-time leading receiver, or a four-year starter, three-time All-SEC lineman in Stinchcomb...This class also included Nate Hybl, who would quarterback Oklahoma to a Rose Bowl win, and Kawika Mitchell - an eventual second-round pick out of South Florida, who just finished his eighth season in the NFL...Donnan could always lure top-notch talent (all 11 starters from his 2000 defense would play in the NFL), however, it never translated to a conference championship.  In 2002 under Richt, with much of this class still around as fifth-year seniors, the Bulldogs finally realized their potential. 

4) 1939
Head of Class: HB Frank Sinkwich
Supporting Cast: HB Lamar "Racehorse" Davis, end George Poschner, guard Harry Kuniansky, guard Walter Ruark, end Van Davis, tackle Gene Ellenson, kicker Leo Costa

The rationale why Wally Butts, an assistant on Georgia's 1938 team, was kept around and promoted after Joel Hunt's single season as head football coach was because Butts was familiar with UGA, the state of Georgia, and could flat-out recruit.  This was immediately evident with the signing of his first class of '39.  As Bullpups, they went undefeated, outscoring their opponents 166 to 6.  After an average campaign as 1940 varsity members, this group was primarily responsible for Georgia's combined 20-2-1 record in 1941 and 1942 and the program's first two bowl appearances. 

5) 2001
Head of Class: DL David Pollack
Supporting Cast: DB Greg Blue, LB Thomas Davis, WR Fred Gibson, QB D.J. Shockley, LB Odell Thurman

Of Georgia's last four first-team All-Americans on defense through the 2010 season, three - Pollack, Davis, and Blue - were members of the '01 class.  Throw in Thurman, Gibson (still ranks second at UGA in career receiving yards), and D.J. Shockley, who might have had the best single season ever by a Bulldog quarterback (2005), and this turned out to be a rather fine class. 

6) 1990
Head of Class: RB Garrison Hearst
Supporting Cast: LB Mitch Davis, WR Andre Hastings, LB DeWayne Simmons, DL Bernard Williams, OL Steve Roberts, TE Shannon Mitchell

Although the 4-7 Bulldog football team of 1990 might have been the school's worst of the last 50 years, on a positive note, many newcomers (primarily because of injuries and suspensions) saw immediate and valuable playing time.  This paid off for a 9-3 "Operation Turnaround" in 1991 and the team's first 10-win season in nine years in 1992.  Unfortunately, Hearst, Hastings, and Simmons had departed by 1993, and this class suffered through a 5-6 season as seniors.

7) 2002
Head of Class: OL Max Jean-Gilles
Supporting Cast: DT Kedric Golston, OT Daniel Inman, CB Tim Jennings, TE Martrez Milner, DB Demario Minter, DL Quentin Moses, TE Leonard Pope, LB Tony Taylor

Although there is no signee that clearly stands out from the '02 class, except for maybe Jean-Gilles, eight of the newcomers would receive All-SEC recognition during their time as Bulldogs (most of all incoming classes in my top 10).  Collectively, Georgia was 44-9 and won two SEC championships from 2002 through 2005, and, for the fifth-year players from this class, a 9-win season in 2006 capped their careers.

8) 1928
Head of Class: end Vernon "Catfish" Smith
Supporting Cast: tackle Bobby Rose, guard Red Maddox, FB Jack Roberts, guard James Patterson, HB Spurgeon Chandler, QB Austin Downes, guard Milt "Red" Leathers, guard Jasper Bennett

Of Georgia's starting eleven in 1929, eight of them were sophomores and signees from the '28 incoming class.  Nicknamed the "Flaming Sophs" since a few of these sophomores had red hair (including "Red" Maddox and "Red" Leathers), this class led Georgia to a combined 15-4-1 record as juniors and seniors...The 1931 Bulldogs, at one point during their season (and before major polls), were considered the best team in all of college football.   

9) 1957
Head of Class: QB Fran Tarkenton
Supporting Cast: center Phil Ashe, HB Fred Brown, guard Pat Dye, FB Bill Godfrey, HB Bobby Walden

The '57 class went undefeated as Bullpups - Georgia's first perfect freshman team since the 1939 newcomers nearly 20 years earlier.  As juniors in 1959, this class was the primary reason for the Bulldogs' diamond-in-the-rough-type season when, amidst 15 years (1949-1963) of typically sub-par play, Georgia recorded a 10-1 mark in capturing the SEC...Brown departed ranked third at Georgia in  career all-purpose yardage (only behind Sinkwich and Charley Trippi), Dye was an All-American, while Tarkenton became a legendary quarterback in the NFL.
10) 1974
Head of Class: FB Ben Zambiasi
Supporting Cast: OG George Collins, DB Johnny Henderson, DB Bill Krug, RB Kevin McLee, DT Ronnie Swoopes, DB Billy Woods

Besides its aggressive play and catchy name, what also made the Junkyard Dogs defense of 1975 enchanting was the fact the unit was assumed in the preseason to be dreadful...but you know what they say about assuming.  Five 1974 signees made up almost half of the starters on Erk Russell's fiery defense only a year later.  As juniors, they helped Georgia win an SEC title...Although their senior season of 1977 was a losing campaign, McLee became the school's all-time leading rusher (for four years) while Zambiasi, Collins, and Krug were all recognized as first-team All-Americans...This class also included the talented Tony Flanagan - Georgia's first African-American quarterback.