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April 28, 2011

Five Pioneers

Before there was Horace King, Chuck Kinnebrew, Clarence Pope, Larry West, and Richard Appleby, James Hurley had become the first African American to play football at Georgia.

"Dad, why don't the Bulldogs have a black assistant coach," I recall asking something on that order some time during the early '80s.  My father answered by indicating that it hadn't been that long before that blacks didn't even play football for Georgia. 

I remember like it was yesterday, envisioning a Georgia team without a Lindsay Scott, "Meat Cleaver" Weaver, Jimmy Payne, Freddie Gilbert, Clarence Kay and, of course, Herschel Walker.  My father - a sociology professor at UGA since 1968, who had been on campus when the first black athletes arrived at the school - dolefully added, "Pat, that's just how it was back then." 

I struggled to visualize "it" - no African Americans playing football for Georgia - and particularly since "back then" had only been approximately a decade beforehand.  Since that very moment a little less than 30 years ago, I've had a rather keen and building interest in the integration of college football in the South, particularly at UGA.

This fall will mark the 40th anniversary of when Georgia's first group of signed black football players took the field between the hedges for the very first time.  You've all likely heard it a number of times before - how these "pioneers" began playing for the Bulldogs in the early '70s and the rest, as they say, is history.

Unfortunately, most of what has been written (including and admittedly by yours truly in a couple of my books) regarding such a historical movement omits (often conveniently) the actual difficulties and hardships these players encountered with their arrival to UGA.

Leading up to this football season, I'll post a few more entries regarding Georgia football's "Five Pioneers" while making an attempt to touch on some of their struggles and the tremendous impact they made on the program.

I'm no longer the appalled young boy who couldn't understand why black players, at any point in time, couldn't play with the whites.  As difficult as it is to acknowledge and accept, that is just how it was back then - a slow integration of southern college athletics that mirrored social life in the South at the time.

In the fall of 1972, Georgia was among the last of three (along with Ole Miss and LSU) SEC schools to play black players on their varsity football teams.  However, UGA was one of the first in the conference, along with Kentucky (football), Tennessee (track & field), and Vanderbilt (basketball), to feature black athletes of any varsity sport when Harry Sims and James Hurley were part of the Bulldogs' 1968 track team.  

Hurley, from Atlanta, had walked-on Georgia's football team earlier that fall, made the junior varsity squad (Photo of '67 JV team), and would start at defensive end.  The following season, he was awarded the Bill Mundy Award for having the highest academic average on the entire team. 

Hurley was never given a spot on the Bulldogs' varsity because "the competition was too keen," according to freshman coach John Donaldson in November of 1971.  Hurley transferred to Vanderbilt, where he was awarded a scholarship and lettered in 1970.

Nearly a year before Horace King, Chuck Kinnebrew, Clarence Pope, Larry West, and Richard Appleby signed with Georgia in December of 1970, fullback-linebacker John King, from Toney, AL, was the initial African American to receive a football scholarship from the school. However, just prior to the start of fall practice in 1970, King suddenly informed the Bulldog coaching staff he had decided to transfer to the University of Minnesota.

Subsequently, King would rush for the 7th-most yards in Golden Gopher history from 1971-1973, including nearly 1,200 as a junior in '72 when he was named the team's MVP.  (Photo of John King - a Bulldog for all of a few months.) 

When the first group of black freshmen finally signed with the Georgia football team only four decades ago, the question was immediately raised why it took the school so long to recruit African-American athletes. The football coaching staff indicated that it had been trying to do so for years; however, according to The Red and Black, the coaches "just couldn't find any that could get in school."

"It's not that black athletes haven't been approached before," said Donaldson.  "They have, but most of them couldn't make the team for academic reasons."

However, around the same time as the coach's reasoning, athletics director Joel Eaves curiously explained, "I think [UGA was] just cautious.  We were just not sure how it would work out."  Eaves added that the athletic department had been specifically cautious about "the mixing and the fact that we're in a section that was slow in integrating."

Such cautiousness, or unwillingness, ceased with the impactful signing of the five players. The change of the racial composition of Georgia football was promptly reflected in the school's student body, including when the Redcoat Band decided to no longer play "Dixie" by the 1974 season. Still, this was met with much protest as some white students wanted the "song of the South" to be played so badly that they resorted to violence. (Photo of Georgia fans and their flags from 1975 home game)

Notwithstanding, by the 1980 football season, nearly half of Georgia's football team was made up of African Americans. Influential in the Bulldogs' run to a national championship were all the aforementioned black heroes of mine as a child, particularly, the legendary Herschel Walker.

In 1957, Atlanta Journal columnist Jim Minter openly attacked a state bill that proposed a ban of integrated athletics and other social activities. The proposal was even endorsed by Georgia Governor Marvin Griffin, explaining that he was against "Negroes and white folks playing any type of sport together."

Twenty-three years later after the Bulldogs won the 1980 national title, the same Atlanta writer again shared his feelings on integrated athletics in the state.  Referring to the Warren Court's Brown v. Board of Education ruling while celebrating Georgia's championship, Minter ironically declared, "Thank God for Earl Warren."

April 14, 2011

"G" Day I

From seventy years ago, Walter Maguire - a sophomore blocking back from Athens - is attended to following the very first "G" Day.  It was noted that Maguire was getting "his legs in condition for the dance" that followed the spring game.

While the concept of spring football practice originated soon after the inception of the sport in the Northeast, it didn't begin at UGA (or at most southern schools) until nearly two decades after the Red and Black played its first game in 1892.

Alex Cunningham, Georgia's head football coach from 1910-1919, was the first to implement  practices in the spring.  Like at Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and other traditional powers of the time, Cunningham wanted to take advantage of the preseason period, and not wait until the late summer/early fall, for those players who still needed "to learn the game."

Cunningham's spring practices were far from stringent as there was "no tackling, no charging nor scrimmaging."  Instead, it was reserved for merely "forward passing, falling on the ball, punting and the receiving of punts."

Compared to today's standards, Cunningham might have taken it easy on his team during the spring; nevertheless, the innovative coach was undoubtedly effective as he remains one of the most valuable figures (and perhaps the most underappreciated) in Georgia football history.  

Whereas the first 18 seasons of Georgia football witnessed 14 different head coaches and endured 11 non-winning seasons, Cunningham's stay at UGA lasted a full decade and suffered just one losing campaign.

Cunningham might have been the first to practice in the spring but a intrasquad game would not come for more than 20 years after the coach's departure.

Prior to Wally Butts' third season as the Bulldogs' head football coach, the university's "G" Club - a group of approximately three dozen athletes honored for outstanding achievement in football, basketball, baseball, and track - sponsored the first "G" Day.

The spring football game kicked off at 3 PM on March 8, 1941, in front of nearly 5,000 spectators in Sanford Stadium, or about one-third the attendance of Georgia's first home game seven months later against South Carolina.  The team was split into "Reds" and "Whites" while, according to The Red and Black, "every faction on the Bulldog football squad was divided except the waterboy and trainer."

Young assistants Quinton Lumpkin (Reds) and Bill Hartman (Whites) were the game's head coaches while tackle Tommy Greene and halfback Heyward Allen served as team captains. 

"G" Day of 1941 was much more than a game but also served the purpose of "renewing old friendships and feting Georgia's lettermen."  The day's main event came that night when the acclaimed Bobby Day, known as "king of the electric steel guitar," and his 14-piece band played at a dance held at Woodruff Hall.

As far as the actual football game, little was reported.  In attendance was the well-known Norman Sper, a sports prognosticator for Liberty Magazine, who was far from impressed with what he witnessed from both the Reds and Whites.  Sper had observed many practices that spring of the SEC's 12 teams and said that Georgia's talent was definitely inferior to Alabama, LSU, and Tulane's, and maybe a few more.

In 1941, the Bulldogs would be inferior to few teams in the entire nation, recording the best mark (9-1-1) in the conference while winning the Orange Bowl.  Just goes to show - as often is the case nowadays - the spring game from 70 years ago evidently wasn't very indicative of Georgia's regular season.   

The first "G" Day was such a hit that it was decided to have another the following year.  In 1942, there was less talk about a dance and more about football as the "Gigantic G-Day Game" was billed as a "clash" between All-American Frank Sinkwich, playing for the Reds, and the Whites' sophomore Charley Trippi, who had yet to play a down in a varsity game.

At halftime, another Georgia speedster was featured on the gridiron as a greased pig was released at midfield.  University freshmen attempted to catch the porker and the winning frosh was thrown a barbeque later that year.

In an annual game that often lacks allure, I say bring back some of the old G-Day traditions.  I don't believe a dance would be as widely accepted as before; however, watching freshmen and a greased pig run around at halftime might just do the trick.

April 6, 2011

Bend But Don't Break

I was recently reading an early preseason preview on the Bulldogs for the upcoming season and indicated  is how the defense might have gotten a "bad rap" the last three years.  Mentioned is that during the 2008-2010 seasons, Georgia allowed less than 327 yards and 18 first downs per game, and asked is how can "improvement be expected" from a defensive unit that has been evidently solid to begin with.

Personally, I think total yardage gained/allowed might be the most overrated statistic in all of football.  And, first downs?!?  They should hardly be acknowledged.  The 1980 national champion Bulldogs, for example, actually allowed more first downs than they earned (199 to 207).

A defense can allow a heap of yardage, but as we all are aware, what counts is the number of points given up.  This "bend but don't break" mentality was never more evident at Georgia than during defensive coordinator Erk Russell's time and the first few years of his successor, Bill Lewis.

During this era, it was quite commonplace for an offense to seemingly drive up and down the field on the Dogs for an entire game; however, once the opponent threatened to score, it was often turned away with nothing by a stiffening Bulldog defense - something that has been hardly evident by Georgia defenses in recent years.  

A prime example was against Ole Miss in 1982.  The Rebels kept the ball for a staggering 90 plays, gaining 524 yards and 29 first downs.  Nevertheless, Ole Miss' impressive offensive output produced an end result of just 10 points in a 23-point loss.

Here's video of Georgia's '82 win over the Rebels made possible by big defensive stops and creating turnovers (added is a couple of record-setting feats by two of the greatest Bulldogs of all time):

I think it's interesting to point out that Georgia's SEC championship team from nearly 30 years ago - a squad that finished its regular season with a perfect 11-0 record - actually allowed more yards per game (328.6) than the Bulldogs did the last three seasons.  However, whereas Georgia yielded just 12 points per contest in '82, the Dogs surrendered TWICE as many (24.2) from 2008-2010. 

The difference between then and the last three seasons has been Georgia's inability to, simply put, "stiffen" - to Hold 'em Dawgs, Hold 'em - to make stops on critical plays and/or force turnovers.

The Bulldogs' well-documented turnover-forcing woes certainly improved last season (1.1 gained per game in 2008-2009, 2.0 gained in 2010).  However, with this increase of forced turnovers came the defense's failure, like hardly ever before in Georgia football, to stop reputable offenses on critical plays, namely, on third- and fourth-down conversions.

Instead of total yards allowed per game, what should be viewed is something I've discussed ad nauseam since starting this blog two years ago: defensive yards per point (YPP) allowed, or how hard a defense makes opposing offenses "work" to score points - a defense's "efficiency."

Not only were the Bulldogs' defensive YPPs of 12.7 in 2008 and 13.1 in 2009 (the higher, the better) the next to worst and worst in the SEC, respectively, they ranked the next to worst and third-worst in the history of UGA football (since 1946).

There was some improvement in 2010: in allowing a little over 328 yards and 22 points per game, Georgia's defensive YPP of 14.9 was 8th in the SEC; however, that ratio still ranks among the 10 lowest in the last 65 seasons of Bulldog football. 

Gone are the days when it was difficult to score on the Dawgs.  Instead, for the past three seasons, we've seemingly handed over points without much of a fight, and in the process, have been handed an unthinkable 15 combined losses. 

It's not practical to hope for Georgia's return to a day when it gained 4+ turnovers per game; that just doesn't happen in today's college football.  However, with a season under Todd Grantham's defense's belt, there should be some sort of improvement.  As was the case with the forced turnovers increasing a year ago, so should Georgia's stops on big plays in 2011. 

One should expect less breaking by the defense this upcoming season; whether it bends or not really doesn't matter.

If this is accomplished, Georgia can make a run at a divisional title instead of consecutive losing seasons.  Anything else, as an astute Buck Belue informs us at the end of the video clip, would be "all academic."