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August 9, 2011

Fall Practice Parables

On a Friday night at Sanford Stadium in 1943, Georgia easily defeats
heavily-favored Presbyterian in a game, and a season, that nearly didn't transpire.
I generally don't scrutinize Georgia's  annual fall practice; simply, my only hope is that no Bulldog gets hurt.  I can recall several times when the Bulldogs apparently had sub-par fall workouts on the whole, but wound up having an excellent season.  Also, there have certainly been examples of the team "looking good" in fall practice but it not being evident come September.

An inconclusive, uneventful preseason practice is just fine by me.  However, there have been examples of unusual incidents or developments at a Georgia fall football practice - most of which from long ago - which reflected somewhat (if not, had a tremendous impact) on the impending season. 

Off the top of my head, I can think of few examples which are rather interesting, and far from uneventful:

HELL WEEK: After losing only six of 34 games from 1910 through 1913 and with the departure of legendary All-American Bob McWhorter, the Red and Black quickly fell on hard times, winning just eight of 18 games in the 1914-1915 seasons combined.  Head coach Alex Cunningham felt there needed to be an immediate change with his team and it needed to start with Georgia's preseason training.

A few weeks prior to the 1916 season opener, fall practice began with the team venturing to White Sulphur Springs near the Blue Ridge Mountains for a strenuous, full week of training like the Red and Black had never endured.  Every morning, the squad was awake by 6:00 AM, hiked for 10 miles, and then ate breakfast.  At one morning sitting, starting guard Russell Petrie, a 6-5, 195-pounder (Kwame Geathers-like size for those days), reportedly ate an entire fried chicken, 11 fried eggs, 12 biscuits, and drank a quart of milk. 

The daily after-breakfast schedule was as follows: study rules of the game, practice until lunch, practice after lunch, punting and kicking drills, and a five-mile run until dinner.  After dinner, the team would practice again for a few hours until lights out at 10:00 PM. 

Even when the team needed its sleep, the day could be far from over.  One night, junior center "Bull" Garmany was instructed to "crank up the Dodge" and drive into Atlanta to pick up two highly-recruited newcomers - both of whom were ends from Chattanooga - and immediately return to the training grounds.  On the drive back, the speeding Dodge began being chased by a patrolman.  Aimed at promptly bringing the freshmen to White Sulfur Springs as instructed, and getting as much sleep as possible, the Bull eluded the police.

That year, the vastly-improved Red and Black would go on to achieve a surprising 6-3 record.  In the process, they set a good example, and what we hope for the upcoming 2011 season, that a change in training and conditioning can often translate to a change in attitude and end results.

GREEN TEAM: I've marveled before about Georgia's 1943 football team but it cannot be reiterated enough what a true group of miracle workers those particular Bulldogs were.  Whereas World War II and its draft aided certain teams (like rival Georgia Tech), it decimated Georgia's, taking 82 players from the Rose Bowl championship roster from the year before while just one letterman returned - starting fullback Pearce Barrett.  

In the final week of fall practice, Barrett was lost to injury and six other players, who were enrolled in the university's advanced ROTC program, were declared ineligible by the U.S. Army.  Two days before the season opener against Presbyterian, only 38 players remained on the team, 31 of which were either 16 or 17 years old.

That season, eight of the 12 SEC teams decided to put football on hold for a season or so and Coach Wally Butts believed his Bulldogs should follow suit.  However, he wanted the team to decide for itself and just two days before the first game, the squad voted to stick it out.  So began what the Atlanta Constitution declared "what looms as [Georgia's] most dismal gridiron campaign in history."

A month into the season, the dismal Bulldogs were 3-1 and ranked 20th in the nation en route to a miraculous 6-4 year.  By season's end, a preseason player's vote which was believed to be senseless at the time was instead described as "what will go down in history as the University's shining hour."
JUNKYARD DOGS: Like the previous story, I've also blogged before regarding my admiration of Erk's Junkyard Dogs.  Allowing 24 points and 357 yards per game, Georgia's 1974 defense was the worst at the school in a long time and it appeared the '75 defensive unit would actually be inferior.

The Bulldogs had lost nine of 11 starters on defense, including its two All-SEC performers from '74, and  were also switching to the unfamiliar "Split-60" formation.  As fall practice began just three weeks prior to the season opener against Pittsburgh and its heralded back, Tony Dorsett, seven of Georgia's starting defensive positions were unsettled.

Because of the defense's new faces and formation, defensive coordinator Erk 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.

Although suffering a 19-9 loss, the Junkyard Dogs held Pittsburgh's vaunted offense in check for the majority of the game.  A stunned Dorsett, who rarely praised anyone but himself, said "Georgia's defense really surprised me...they were beating our offensive line off the ball.  And man, were those Georgia linebackers aggressive."  The loss to the Panthers would be one of only two suffered by the overachieving Bulldogs the entire regular season as the team just missed out on an SEC championship.  

Particularly, the Junkyard Dogs' no-name defense yielded just 15 points and 307 yards per game for the season 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 an unceremonious start, it didn't take
Herschel long to make an impression on the 
field and around campus, even when incognito. 

BIG, STIFF FULLBACK: Before he even toted the ball in practice at Georgia, Herschel Walker was already being touted as a "savior" for the Bulldogs.  At his first Picture Day, which announced the start of fall practice, the longest line was for Herschel who, according to the freshman tailback, "never held so many babies in my life." 

On his first carry of fall drills, Herschel was hit by junior defensive guard Eddie "Meat Cleaver" Weaver with such a thunderous wallop that some say it can still be heard echoing at Woodruff Field.  From there, the most highly recruited freshman in the history of Georgia high school sports would only "tiptoe around" in preseason practices, running tentatively with the football. 

"Anybody who thought that guy was going to be our savior for the season," said linebackers coach Chip Wisdom, "would have to have had his head examined."

As Bill at the Junkyard Blawg noted a little over a week ago, Vince Dooley soon fretted that what the head coach might have had on his hands at the time was merely a "big, stiff fullback."  However, as we all know, things aren't always as they seem. 

As it turned out, Herschel was indeed big, but certainly not stiff, and seemingly  able to do just about anything he wanted during his brilliant Bulldog career.  And if that included playing fullback, or any other position for that matter, I'm sure Herschel could've done that as well.


Anonymous said...

Excellent, as always, Patrick. I, too, remember very well the '75 team. As a kid that year, the Pitt loss seemed to confirm that we were in for another mediocre season at best. However,the defense that season was fun to watch...just a bunch of undersized runts that seemed to swarm to the ball as if they all had radar. It's a beautiful thing to watch the growth of just about anything from year 1 to year 2. This is what has me so excited in year 2 of Grantham's system.

Anonymous said...

I remember the last two stories and know of the one from '43 from one of your books, but the 1916 training is just classic! No way players nowadays would get through a training like that without crying to the university or media. They're too soft. Especially if they had to take the dodge out in the middle of the night ; ) Great post as always! Stanley.