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March 19, 2014

A Damn Rabbit's Tears

Swinford set sails on a 59-yard punt return vs.
Clemson, while leading the charge for the
program's turning point of 1964.
Yesterday, I could tell a new college football season was right around the corner: the opening of spring practice, I was contacted by a newspaper writer to list my opinion of the top 20 "most significant" wins in UGA football history, and finally, a report of player arrests. 

I submitted my list by early afternoon and promptly received the response, "#14 Clemson in '64 ???" like I had made a mistake for listing that particular contest amongst championship wins, bowl victories, and triumphs over the highly-ranked.  For one who might think something similar regarding a 1-1-1 Bulldog team defeating a Clemson squad which would capture just three victories all that season, let me explain how this August 30th, facing the  detested Tigers from the same university as before, will mark the 50th anniversary of the ultimate turning point in UGA football history.

Consider the status of our football program when a 32-year-old Vince Dooley took over in 1964: three consecutive losing seasons, and only five winning campaigns the previous 15 years.  And, you thought the Ray Goff era was bad...  Opening with three consecutive road games, much of the same seemed apparent as the young head coach's team got drilled by Alabama, barely beat a bad Vanderbilt squad, and tied a really bad South Carolina team.

Following the 7-7 draw in Columbia, a dejected Wayne Swinford sat mournfully in the locker room.  The senior cornerback, who had waited patiently to finally become a starter, was losing patience with the Bulldogs' non-winning ways, and was literally brought to tears.  Defensive back coach Hootie "Don't Call Me '& The Blowfish'" Ingram approached the player, who had been called "tough" by Dooley just days prior for fielding kickoffs and punts "perfectly" with injured wrists, to see what all the fuss was about.
Here, the CU ballcarrier wound up knocking
down both photographers, marking perhaps
the only folks the Tigers took out all afternoon.

"Coach, I've never been on a winning team at Georgia," Swinford cried, "and we've finally got a chance to do it and can't even beat South Carolina!"

A week later, a confident Clemson squad came into the Classic City coming of a fine performance where they nearly defeated Georgia Tech.  Whereas Dooley was in his inaugural season, Frank Howard, the Tigers' showman of a coach, always quick with a quip while chewing tobacco, was celebrating his silver anniversary at Clemson.  Howard and his Tigers were actually a slight favorite to prevail on the road.

Alas in the end, it would be the Bulldogs who'd prevail playing in front of 31,000 at Sanford Stadium in perfect, 65-degree October weather.  It was the first sign of what was to come during the Dooley era: the use of two quarterbacks, Lynn Hughes and Preston Ridlehuber, a strong running game which gained 221 yards, and a passing attack completing just a single pass for 18 yards.  Another sign to come was the showing of a stingy defense coordinated by Erk Russell.  Erk's troops held the Tigers to 149 total yards, while forcing nine punts and three turnovers.

Leading 17-0 late in the game, Georgia nearly pitched a shutout before Clemson finally scored a touchdown.  The Tigers would get the ball back, but in true Russell form, the Bulldog defenders rose up to record a safety on the game's final offensive play.

Over the next 25 years, great special teams play would also be indicative of a Dooley-coached team, and it was evident on this afternoon in 1964.  Leading the way was the speedy Swinford, who returned a kickoff for 23 yards, and toted back five punts for 108 yards, including a 59-yarder early in the fourth quarter setting up a field goal.  From his cornerback position, Swinford also tallied four tackles and picked off a Tiger pass just prior to halftime, returning it for 29 yards.

Another view of the speedy Swinford's
spectacular 59-yard return...
Following Georgia's 19-7 victory, legendary Dan Magill noted in his postgame remarks that "[Clemson's] Howard was probably in the most disgusted mood seen in a long time after the loss."  Howard said his Tigers "couldn't have broken an egg" and added "if we could have caught that damn rabbit," he said of Swinford and his blazing speed, "we could have won."

The following week, Georgia nearly upset 10th-ranked Florida Statea loss both Kirby Moore, sitting in the stands during a redshirt year, and Steve Greer, doing the same as a high school senior, indicated in my latest book as their opinion of the point of turnaround for the UGA football program.  Consider that after winning just two of 31 games against AP-ranked foes during the previous 15 campaigns, Dooley's Dogs would go undefeated at 8-0-2 under the same circumstances from that point over the next four-plus seasons.    

But, personally, I was asked for Georgia's most significant games ending in a victory.  And, in my opinion, there are only a handful more worthy than when in just a week's time, a damn rabbit went from tears to cheers, and the star of the program's turning point.

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