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April 26, 2012

A "Step Toward Integration"

When Georgia's JV team faced South Carolina's in 1975, Mike
Hart (No. 10)  became the first black UGA quarterback in
history.  But what ever happened to this "pioneer," of sorts?
I was recently reminded how this fall will mark the 40th anniversary of the first African-American varsity football players at Georgia.  My conversation soon turned to the topic of the Bulldogs' first black varsity quarterback -- Tony Flanagan (1976). However, while discussing Flanagan, I made sure to mention the curious case of the school's very first African-American signal-caller.

What ever happened to Georgia football's Mike Hart, who seemingly disappeared soon after taking part in a so-called "step toward integration," according to The Red and Black in September of 1975?

Along with Pat Collins and Steve White, Hart was one of three quarterbacks Georgia signed in its 23-player freshman class of 1975. (Interestingly, although Collins would eventually become a standout roverback, NONE of the three would ever take a varsity snap under center at Georgia.)  The 6-foot-1, 170-pound Hart from Troup County was not your run-of-the-mill signee in becoming the Bulldogs' initial African-American quarterback.

While at Troup, Hart had been an All-State selection in 1974, running the exact same offense as the Bulldogs featured -- the run-oriented Veer.  Instantly, Georgia had been interested in the quick and lanky quarterback, but so had the likes of Florida State, Auburn, and Pittsburgh, among others.  In the end, the state school won out because, according to Hart, UGA's reputable academic reputation compared to his other pursuers.

Notably, early in the fall of 1975, when asked if being Georgia's first black quarterback added any pressure, Hart replied, "No, the coaches and the guys on the team treat you like anyone else."

To open the season, Hart was the No. 1 starter on the freshman team and the third-stringer for the varsity behind juniors Matt Robinson and Ray Goff.  In a day when only the very best freshmen saw varsity action, Hart was one of only four newly-signed offensive players who dressed out for the Bulldogs' season opener against Pittsburgh.

In the Bullpups' opening game against South Carolina's JV, although UGA's frosh were victorious 10-3, Hart's debut was described as "one that should be forgotten."  The highly-touted quarterback completed his first pass at Georgia good for 14 yards but then missed on every one thereafter.  A gifted runner, he was also held to two yards rushing, while the Bullpups' lone touchdown came on a punt return.

Hart lasted for only one series in the frosh's second game against Clemson before being benched for White, who would lead the Bullpups to their second victory in as many games.  In a win over Auburn and loss to Florida, Hart continued to be far from spectacular while sharing the No. 1 quarterback duties with White.

Suddenly, in mid-November and with only one game remaining on the junior varsity schedule -- the 43rd annual Georgia-Georgia Tech JV charity game for the Scottish Rites Children's Hospital -- Hart abruptly left school and returned to his hometown of LaGrange for an entire week; he had reportedly quit the football team.  Although Hart's mother told the media her son left UGA because he was "not getting a fair shake," the quarterback promptly contradicted her and said he left because of "personal reasons" which had "nothing to do with 'not getting a fair shake'."

"I had a lot of things on my mind so I went home and tried to get things straightened out," said Hart.  "I'll be back for Winter Quarter [following the Tech game] and I plan to participate in Spring Drills."

Against the Baby Jackets, Hart was the Bullpups' quarterback for most of the contest in a 23-6 victory.  He scored the game and season's final points on a two-point conversion run as the team finished its campaign with a 4-1 record.

In April of 1976, as he said he would nearly five months earlier, Hart indeed participated in Georgia's spring drills.  The upcoming sophomore was one of SEVEN Bulldog quarterbacks competing for the varsity squad, along with Goff, Robinson, Flanagan, White, David McDonald, and Jeff Pyburn.  However, following spring practice, there was hardly any trace of the distinguished Georgia quarterback.

Whether transferring, failed academics, simply quitting the Bulldog football team and/or returning home again for LaGrange, Mike Hart never took another snap under center for the University of Georgia.  In becoming the Bulldogs' initial African-American signal caller, the honorable, one-of-a-kind Georgia quarterback also emerged as just another highly-touted recruit having a short, uncelebrated playing career at UGA.

April 20, 2012

Bomber Sunk 'Dores

In September of 1955, Georgia rallied to defeat Vanderbilt in the final
minutes at Sanford Stadium for the second straight season.
I recently received an email, asking about the Georgia-Vanderbilt football series, including if the two teams had ever not played in the month of October prior to this upcoming season.

For 11 consecutive seasons from 1955 to 1965, the Bulldogs and Commodores faced off in September for the first or second game of every year.  Beginning in 1966, the series took a two-year hiatus and when it resumed in 1968, the game had been moved back to mid-October, where it remained for 44 straight years until this September.

The first in the string of these Georgia-Vanderbilt early-season affairs has been recognized as "one of the most thrilling finishes in Georgia history," featuring, at the time, the most unlikely of Bulldog heroes.

Quarterback Dick Young, nicknamed the "Blond Bomber," transferred to Georgia as a junior in 1954 to begin his first season of major college football.  Backing up junior Jimmy Harper, the Bomber was an absolute bust, throwing for only 26 yards all season while completing more passes to the opposition (3 interceptions) in 15 attempts than to his own teammates (2 completions).

In the 1955 season opener against powerhouse Ole Miss at Grant Field, the Bulldogs' offense was stagnant and head coach Wally Butts sidelined starter Harper.  Coming off the bench, Young threw for 129 yards and a touchdown on just 4 of 6 passing, shaping a Georgia defeat into somewhat of a respectable 26-13 setback

A year after beating Vanderbilt 16-14 in Athens on a rare field goal in the final minutes, the Bulldogs hosted the Commodores for a second straight season.  On the day of the 1955 meeting, former Georgia head coach and Vanderbilt player, Alex Cunningham, led a pep rally at the University’s Stegeman Hall.  Artie Pew, a UGA player under Cunningham, joined in the rally, recalling memorable incidents of the Georgia-Vanderbilt football series (Note: this was prior to Vanderbilt's football history becoming forgettable, after being somewhat memorable).

Vanderbilt considerably outplayed Georgia through the first three quarters and held a 13-0 lead early in the final stanza.  Again, Harper had been benched for Young, and the Blond Bomber began his reserve role by passing long and overthrowing his targets.

"He gave me anxious moments when he [threw] those long [passes],” said Butts following the game.  However, Young settled down, shortened his passes, and rallied the Bulldogs for one of their most furious comebacks of all time. 

In a day of Wally Butts and flat top haircuts (and apparently
when "blonde" was spelled without the "e"), the Blond
Bomber came off the bench to lead the SEC in passing.
Young led Georgia on a 56-yard drive capped by an 11-yard touchdown pass to Cleve Clark with 13:25 remaining in the game.  Ron Cooper’s PAT was successful and the Bulldogs had reduced their deficit to six points.  With less than four minutes remaining in the contest, Young scored on a 2-yard run following a 27-yard completion to Jimmy Orr. Joe Comfort’s successful PAT attempt gave Georgia a slim 14-13 lead.

The Bulldogs would eventually regain possession and run out the clock to record their second straight victory over the Commodores in comeback fashion.  And this particular Vandy squad was no slouch... The 'Dores would later win the Gator Bowl that season; they did not capture another bowl victory until 53 years later.  Vanderbilt also finished the 1955 season with eight victories -- a single-season mark it has yet to surpass entering 2012.

As far as Dick Young, in essentially his only season as a Bulldog, he likely became one of UGA football's all-time One-Hit Wonder honorable mention performers (if there was such a list).  Most notably, completing 48 of 97 passes for 875 yards, 8 touchdowns and 8 interceptions, the Blond Bomber joined Georgia greats Frank Sinkwich (1941-1942), Johnny Cook (1943), John Rauch (1948), and Zeke Bratkowski (1952-1953) to become the seventh Bulldog in 15 seasons (1941 to 1955) to lead the SEC in passing.

April 18, 2012

A Bad Bulldog Omen?

How often will Georgia's inexperienced offensive line
open holes this big for Ken Malcome and company 
during the REAL games of 2012? 
Call me pessimistic, but every time I hear how good Georgia is going to be this upcoming football season, all I can think about is the Bulldogs' inexperienced offensive line.

I'm having deja-vu...  It wasn't too long ago, like only in 2008, we heard similar preseason praise.  Heck, even the Associated Press went as far as ranking the Dogs No. 1 in the country.  Regardless, all I could think about then was Georgia's inexperienced offensive line, which became even more inexperienced when Trinton Sturdivant tore ligaments in a knee -- the first time -- just prior to the start of the season. 

In its first true test in 2008, the Bulldogs' offensive line struggled at South Carolina, and then came the "blackout" debacle versus Alabama.  In time, while a possible national championship had long been lost, Georgia struggled to win 10 games. 

Four years later entering 2012, Georgia's offensive line is again, in a word, green... very green (if I could use two words).

The unit returns players with only 31 career starts: Kenarious Gates (12), Chris Burnette (12) and Dallas Lee (7).  Thirty-one starts are remarkably low, so low in fact that entering last season, only 10 percent of all FBS teams (12 of 120) returned less than 34 career offensive line starts.  Notably, of these 12 FBS teams, EIGHT would average less yards per rushing attempt in 2011 than they did the year before (which is what could be expected from a team with an inexperienced offensive line). 

Last season, the Bulldogs averaged just under 4.0 yards per rushing attempt, which ranked a lowly 9th in the conference just ahead of the potent ground games of Kentucky (3.5), Ole Miss (3.4), and Tennessee's (2.8).  So, in keeping with the trend, Georgia's running game could actually be worse than it was in 2011.  Regardless, the Bulldogs have proven they can win games with their passing attack (if the offensive line isn't allowing Aaron Murray to be constantly attacked/sacked) and a stout defense. 

However, is it a mere coincidence that of last year's 12 inexperienced-offensive-line FBS teams, only THREE achieved a better record in 2011 than they had in 2010?  Is there some truth in the sayings an offense is only as good as its offensive line and games are won and lost in the trenches?  If so, as was the case in 2008, the 2012 Bulldogs might not be nearly as good as most expect.

From what I found, beginning in 1976 to this upcoming season, Georgia enters a campaign with less than 45 returning career offensive line starts for the 12th time in the last 37 years:

  4 returning starts entering 2003- Team finishes 11-3 after going 13-1 in 2002
17 entering 1981- Finishes 10-2 after 12-0 in '80
21 entering 1977- Finishes 5-6 after 10-2 in '76
24 entering 2008- Finishes 10-3 after 11-2 in '07
25 entering 2007- Finishes 11-2 after 9-4 in '06
29 entering 1989- Finishes 6-6 after 9-3 in '88
31 entering 1984- Finishes 7-4-1 after 10-1-1 in '83
31 entering 2012- Finishes ??? after 10-4 in '11
37 entering 1997- Finishes 10-2 after 5-6 in '96
38 entering 1998- Finishes 9-3 after 10-2 in '97
39 entering 1999- Finishes 8-4 after 9-3 in '98
44 entering 1990- Finishes 4-7 after 6-6 in '89

Meaningless information?  Perhaps.  However, it's interesting to note that of the previous 11 times the Bulldogs returned an inexperienced offensive line, they averaged less yards per rushing attempt in SEVEN seasons, while finishing with a worse record on NINE occasions compared to the year before.
Despite this touchdown by Kevin McLee, a green offensive
line was evident in 1977 even against Richmond, who
limited Georgia to 12 first downs and 288 total yards. 

There have certainly been exceptions, like in 1997 and 2007, when Georgia had fantastic seasons even though it returned an inexperienced offensive line.  Even in 2003, when the Bulldogs returned only four starts, the offense may have struggled, allowing an SEC-high 47 sacks, gaining just 3.4 yards per rush, and in turn, quarterback David Greene had the least productive year of his four seasons.  However, Georgia had one of its best defenses in school history and the team had only a slight drop-off from the 2002 SEC championship year.

And then there are seasons like 1977, when in September of that year, Coach Vince Dooley said the Bulldogs had "the greenest offensive line we've had since I've been at Georgia."  The '77 offense couldn't pass, couldn't hold onto the football, and despite having Kevin McLee and Willie McClendon in the backfield, it often had a hard time running the ball.  Even the acclaimed Junkyard Dog defensive unit couldn't save a losing 5-6 year after winning an SEC championship the season before.   

I need to be more optimistic and believe the 2012 season, despite Georgia's very green offensive line, can be similar to 1997 and 2007, and not like 1977.  This year, the team will likely need maximum effort from its defense (and not player suspensions) to be an exception and buck the inexperienced-offensive-line trend that has historically plagued the Bulldogs and recently the FBS. 

April 12, 2012

Inspired By Hugh

Hugh Hendrix (1955 - 1976)
I was recently sent the book Jackrabbit by Bill Chastain -- the story of Georgia Tech's Clint Castleberry.  And although I'd normally be reluctant to spend my time on anything related to our Eternal Enemy to the West, I was anxious to read details regarding perhaps the most genuine one-hit wonder in the history of college football.

As I continued reading Castleberry's story, knowing the eventual fate of the Yellow Jacket star, who would die during World War II less than two years following his lone season at Tech, I couldn't help but repeatedly think of one of our Bulldog Brethren -- Hugh Hendrix.

The on-field accomplishments of Castleberry and Hendrix, a lineman at Georgia from 1973 to 1975, for their respective programs are about as similar as the two different eras they played in.  In Castleberry's one year of 1942, he was recognized as an All-American and finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting; his jersey No. 19 remains the only football number ever retired at Georgia Tech.  After playing along the Bullpups' defensive line on Georgia's 1973 freshman team, Hendrix was a varsity backup at offensive guard as a sophomore and junior, only becoming a starter when a teammate suffered an injury.

Unfortunately, what the two young men from the Atlanta area had in common was a football career cut short by a tragic, unexpected death, leaving teammates, coaches, and fans wondering "what-if" about both inspirational individuals.

Since he grew up and attended high school (old Shamrock High in Decatur) near where I currently live, I've had a general interest in Hendrix's life and his playing days at Georgia for some time.  When I interviewed former Bulldog assistant Jimmy Vickers (1971-1976) for my latest book on the Georgia-Florida rivalry, I made it a point to ask the former offensive line coach what he remembered about "Harvey," as his teammates called him.

As a senior at Shamrock in 1972, Hendrix was recognized as a first-team AA All-State lineman by the AJC.  After moving from defense to offense upon joining  Georgia's varsity in 1974, he played sparingly at guard behind Joel "Cowboy" Parrish.  This continued into Hendrix's junior campaign until Parrish injured a knee against Ole Miss in the fifth game of the season.  Suddenly, the quiet and laid back Hendrix, who "had a lot of good in him," had to replace an eventual All-American.

After a 3-2 start to the 1975 season, the Bulldogs won their final six regular-season games with Hendrix starting at left guard, including the rare feat of defeating the "big three" of Florida, Auburn, and Georgia Tech.  Against the first of these three, Georgia trailed the Gators 7-3 with less than four minutes remaining.  During that season, for most offensive plays, Vickers and offensive coordinator Bill Pace would often confer on what play to call. 

With the Bulldogs backed up on their own 20-yard line, facing second down and 10, Vickers asked his fellow assistant, "Bill, why don't we let ol' Richard throw the ball?"
Hendrix (red arrow) lead blocks for Appleby's
end-around pass against Florida in 1975.

On Georgia's memorable 80-yard touchdown pass from tight end Richard Appleby to receiver Gene Washington, it was Hendrix's responsibility to pull off the line and lead block for Appleby's end-around pass.  Due in large part to Hendrix, the tight end-turned-passer was untouched by the Florida defense and completed one of the greatest plays in UGA football history.

With Hendrix in the lineup through the end of the season, he did "a good job in [Parrish's] place," said Vickers back in 1975.  "We know we can move the ball on anybody."  In addition, before hundreds of players in the conference were annually chosen as "Academic All-SEC," like in recent years, Hendrix earned a spot on the conference's 25-member first team.  In doing so, the hard-working, B-plus business major became the first Bulldog lineman in two years selected first-team Academic All-SEC.

In the offseason, Hendrix was attending summer school at UGA while working out regularly with several other Bulldog players.  The lineman who "rarely made a mental mistake on the gridiron" was preparing for his senior season of 1976, expecting to start at the guard position opposite of Parrish in place of departed All-American Randy Johnson.

One day in July, Hendrix reportedly began slurring his words while complaining of flu-like symptoms, including chills and a fever of 105.  He was promptly sent home to his parents, who took their only child to DeKalb General Hospital for tests.  Hendrix was then transferred to Emory University Hospital.

On the afternoon of Wednesday, July 14th, Hugh Denson Hendrix suddenly died of cardiac arrest, caused by an acute blood infection.  Speculation was that the 21-year-old's infection could have been caused by drinking contaminated water, however, Hendrix's case remains somewhat of a medical mystery.

Hendrix, "who plugged along and got the job done with hard work," according to then-head coach Vince Dooley, was honored by the program with the establishment of the Hugh Hendrix Memorial Award, which was given from 1976 to 1992 to the Bulldog player who "most strained his potential."  Shamrock High School had its own Hugh Hendrix Award as well, given to the student athlete who best represented Hugh's great merits.  In addition, for several years following his death, UGA's chapter of Phi Gamma Delta, which was later joined by Georgia Tech's chapter of the same fraternity, held the Hugh Hendrix Memorial Run for Leukemia.

Following Hendrix's passing, Dooley added, "I know his death will have a profound effect on the team."  The coach was flawless in his foresight as the Bulldogs dedicated their 1976 season in memory of their one-time teammate.  After quarterback Matt Robinson was named ABC-TV’s Chevrolet Offensive Player of the Game in Georgia's victory over Clemson in mid-September, the senior quarterback indicated he wanted to honor Hendrix with the award.  Nearly two months later, following a victory over another bitter rival, the Bulldogs' other senior standout quarterback asked ABC to do the exact same thing, bestowing recognition to his late friend:

After the win over Florida, Goff's "little sprain" which felt "great" kept him out of practice the entire following week.  Nevertheless, although he could hardly lift his arm and did not attempt a single pass, the signal-caller from Moultrie led the Bulldogs to a 28-0 victory at Auburn and an SEC title.

It was said Hugh Hendrix was not super talented, certainly not Clint Castleberry-like.  He had to work hard for every one of his achievements and rewards.  But above all, Hendrix was a special and rare player and person, who literally inspired a football team to win a championship.

April 5, 2012

A Creaming of Clempson Remembered

When Clemson visited Athens in '94, Georgia --
even the Bulldog defense -- had its way with the Tigers.
Besides perhaps Kyle at Dawg Sports, there may be no other Bulldog fan more thrilled than yours truly that the Georgia and Clemson meetings for 2013 and 2014 now appear probable

Growing up following the Bulldogs during the 1980s, there was personally no other opponent I annually looked forward to Georgia facing more than Clemson.  The Tigers handing the 1980-to-1982 Bulldogs their only regular-season loss coupled with the fact the opposing school was located only 75 miles away (and they were good -- unlike Georgia Tech at the time) first stirred my hatred for the foe.  As I've mentioned before, if Georgia-Georgia Tech is recognized as clean, old-fashioned hate, the Georgia-Clemson football rivalry, at least from the late-70s to the late-80s, was simply plain hatred.

One of my first Sanford Stadium memories was the season opener of 1982 when the Bulldogs hosted the defending “You might be Number One but you smell like Number Two” Tigers.  There was absolutely no complaining from this 7-year-old when my parents told me I had to take a nap the afternoon of the game -- I had school the next day -- in order to attend the 9:11 p.m. Labor Day kickoff for the first night-time affair at home in more than 30 years.

In 1984, Sanford Stadium witnessed a miraculous kick against Clemson, followed by the Tigers winning with a game-winning field goal of their own in 1986 (and then the same result at Death Valley the next year).

The final results of the rivalry were just as close as the schools' locations for more than a decade.  For 11 consecutive meetings from 1977 to 1987, a normally lopsided series was dead even (5-5-1), while no team ever won by more than 12 points, and the average winning margin was less than five points.

However, after a two-year hiatus, the Georgia-Clemson game had not only become a non-annual event, but one featuring the occasional rout.  In 1990, the Tigers pounded a poor Bulldog squad 34-3 in a game even more one-sided than its score.  The following year, freshman Eric Zeier led unranked Georgia to a shocking upset win by more than two touchdowns over 6th-ranked and undefeated Clemson.

In the six games between the one-time rivals since the yearly meetings have ended, the Bulldogs are 5-1, including winners of five in a row.  The average winning margin of the last six games is by nearly three touchdowns.  Likely, my personal favorite Georgia-Clemson rout:

In Georgia's 41-14 blowout over Clemson in 1994, the Bulldogs' offensive attack was just as potent as it had been since the arrival of both quarterback Zeier and offensive coordinator Wayne McDuffie in 1991.  Against a reputable Tiger defense, Zeier passed for 328 yards and two touchdowns and became the SEC's all-time leading passer during the third quarter.  Other Georgia record-setters were receiver Brice Hunter, who set the school career mark with his 14th touchdown reception, while Kanon Parkman's 16 points were the most ever in a single game by a Bulldog kicker.

When Bill Montgomery and Marisa Simpson are your team's top two rushers ahead of Terrell Davis and Hines Ward, odds are your offense had some success.

Most notably, however, was the play by Georgia on the other side of the ball.

Of course, the '94 Clemson offense was sub-par at best.  Regardless, the Bulldog defense from that season was downright dismal, arguably the worst defense in the modern era of UGA football.  Granted, it was an inexperienced unit -- only three of its 11 starters had been starters the season before -- run by a Swamp Fox, first-year (and only year) defensive coordinator Marion Campbell, who five years removed from coaching football, decided to shift the Bulldog defenders into an unfamiliar 3-4 formation. 

The results in 1994 were defensive performances that were simply tragic.

The week prior to hosting Clemson, Georgia had allowed Alabama's Jay Barker to pass for nearly 400 yards and rally the Crimson Tide to a one-point win in Tuscaloosa after the Bulldogs once led by two touchdowns.  The week after the Clemson game, Georgia gave up 415 rushing yards to Vanderbilt (five weeks after yielding 383 yards rushing in a loss to Tennessee at home) in maybe the most embarrassing loss in the history of the program.

Nevertheless, for this one game right smack in the middle of the season, the old Swamp Fox and his unit of young pups shined... And as an added bonus, especially for some of us Georgia followers, it just happened to be against hated Clemson, or Clempson, or Clempsun, whichever you prefer.  The Tigers were held to 252 total yards, committed four turnovers, and scored both of their touchdowns in the final quarter when the contest had long been decided.

The 1994 Georgia-Clemson game reminds me that as grand as the sport of college football might be, it's just as bewildering and unpredictable.  Just when your team is down and the odds seem totally stacked against it (and although it's supposedly "sold out," your 86,117-seat stadium appears to be only half full just prior to kickoff against a bitter rival), you never know what kind of performance you'll witness on any given Saturday... 

...and whatever the case may be, hope it's not followed up with a loss to Vanderbilt on Homecoming.