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October 4, 2014

Today, I'm Especially Grateful for Change

Jermaine Johnson running all over Bulldogs, a dejected
Coach Goff leaving the field with some players who 
"obviously" didn't look like they cared...
During one of the few nail-biting moments of Georgia's close victory over Tennessee a week ago, my friend sitting next to me leaned over and muttered, "If we drop this one, it would have to rank as one of the biggest upset losses by the Bulldogs I can remember."

Fortunately, we didn't "drop" the game; however, my friend's remark compelled me to later wonder what if.  And, as far as point spreads, which are considered "reliable" beginning around the mid-1960s, a loss to the Volunteersan 18-point underdogwould have indeed ranked as one of Georgia's biggest upset losses since a lot of us can remember:

Losses by Georgia since 1964 as a two-touchdown favorite or more
-20 over Vanderbilt, 1994 (lost 43-30)
-18 over Wake Forest, 1979 (lost 22-21)
-17 over Vanderbilt, 1973 (lost 18-14)
-16 over Kentucky, 1996 (lost 24-17)
-15½ over Vanderbilt, 1991 (lost 27-25)
-14½ over Tulane, 1970 (lost 17-14)
-14½ over Vanderbilt, 2006 (lost 24-22) 

What first grabbed my attention regarding the above was most of Georgia's significant upset losses have come to Vanderbilttoday's Homecoming opponent and current 33½-point underdog.  Next, I noticed all of the upsets were actually quite closethe Bulldogs losing by only a single touchdown or lessthat is, except for the biggest upset, which wasn't even as close as the 43 to 30 score indicates.

It has been 20 years since the 1994 Vanderbilt debacle, which was that season's Homecoming game, as well.  However, besides the Bulldogs' dismal play on the field, what also made for one the most depressing experiences I had as a UGA student was the protesting which persisted during the game, and the disheartening rumor which lingered afterwards.

I try not to make a habit of reminiscing about discouraging moments or events I experienced in the past.  But, I do believe reflecting upon certain rough times from the past helps us appreciate the present even more, while looking forward to an even brighter future.  Such is the case with the Vanderbilt game from two decades agoI'd like to think times have certainly changed since then.

I reached out to a player from the '94 team, who still remains relatively close to the program today, wanting to inquire about three occurrences I recall the most surrounding the infamous Vanderbilt fiasco.

1) The Game: After being only a late third-down completion away from upsetting Alabama on the road, followed by routing Clemson, Georgia stood at 4-2 overall and 2-2 in the conference with presumably easy victories over Vanderbilt and Kentucky ahead prior to facing Florida.  Armed with senior quarterback Eric Zeierone of the leading candidates for the Heisman Trophy at the timethe Bulldogs seemed to be on the verge of contending for the SEC East title.  With the much-inferior Commodores winless in the SEC at 0-3 while starting three freshmen defensive backs, it appeared Zeier and the rest of the Dawgs would certainly have their day, and their way with Vanderbilt on Homecoming. 

2) The Protest: Despite the school's crowning of an African American on Homecoming in 1993 and the fact seven of the original 38 nominees for Miss Homecoming a year later were minorities, UGA's Homecoming of 1994, which was given the theme of "Glory Days at Georgia," was more like the "Olden Days at Georgia" to some.  No minorities being chosen among the 10 Homecoming finalists, plus a lack of minority representation on the panel of judges, whose committee admitted their judging process was flawed, created what was regarded as "racial tension" which was "not just about lack of representation but lack of consideration," according to a student group member.  In protest, a number of student groups, consisting primarily of minority students, decided to not participate in most of the weekly Homecoming activities, while planning to march to Sanford Stadium during the Vanderbilt game. 

3) The "Rumored" Fix: I can't tell you exactly when I heard it, or from exactly whom, but not long after Vanderbilt defeated Georgia, there was a rumor that some Bulldog players laid down, or didn't necessarily give it their all, in the loss to the Commodores as a way of joining in the protest against UGA's selection of Miss Homecoming.  The rumor made then-head coach Ray Goff's postgame comment of "Obviously, we didn't look like we cared to play," rather ironic.  

For two decades, I haven't thought much of the rumor, believing it was just thata fabrication, and a ridiculous excuse for a bad loss.  Regardless, this past week, I contacted an old college friend and big Georgia fan, asking if he too remembered any such rumor. Not only did he remember it, but claimed he and another individual had actually discussed the rumor "not long ago."  I did a quick Internet search and found the following in a comments section of a blog, discovering we weren't the only ones to recall the rumor:

Does anyone remember the rumor going around regarding the surprising 1994 thrashing at the hands of Vandy? The rumor was that a number of black players "laid down" as a form of protest against, what they thought was, an unjust selection of the Homecoming Queen.

After asking the '94 player I contacted if there was anything to the rumor from what he remembered, he declared, "Patrick, what it was was an ass whippin'plain and simple. That guy ran all over us."

"That guy" was tailback Jermaine Johnson, who rushed for 177 of Vanderbilt's staggering 415 rushing yards that day against Georgia.  The Commodores ran the ball 71 times while having an unfathomable 41:51 to 18:09 advantage in time of possession.  

...and "racial tension" dampened Homecoming in 1994.
Twenty years later, I'd like to think times have changed.
Early in the second quarter as protesters began crowding the rail at the bridge overlooking the stadium while chanting "No justice, no peace," the Bulldogs' offense began to bog down after an early 14 to 7 lead.  Zeier entered the game having completed 61 percent of his passes, while averaging just 12 incompletions per game and an interception thrown almost every 50 pass attempts during his then-41-game UGA career. However, against Vanderbilt's inexperienced secondary, he completed just 43 percent of his passes, while throwing 31 incompletionsalthough this included a number of drops by his receiversincluding an uncharacteristic three interceptions in 54 attempts.

In what was the perfect storm of Georgia failing in all facets of the game, even steady Kanon Parkman had a rough outing.  The Bulldog placekicker's lone missed PAT of 41 attempts all season resulted against Vanderbilt, as did his only missed field goal of 17 attempts from less than 46 yards out.

At one point, the Commodores outscored the Dogs, 36 to 10, to take a 43-24 lead. Georgia tacked on a late touchdown, but it mattered little as any hope for a Heisman for Zeier, and most importantly, the Bulldogs being a threat in the SEC East were completely dashed.    

The '94 player hardly recalled the protest, but stated, "What's the saying—'cooler heads prevail'?  These are 18, 19, 20-year-olds, and any young personblack, white, whatever; student-athlete, or notcan be highly influenced by a larger group of people who want to protest. Therefore, it's been my experience that often college-aged cooler heads don't prevail."

The player admitted he faintly recollects some "rumblings"not necessarily within the program itselfabout how some players might not have tried their hardest, while adding, "And, when there's smoke, there's usually fire.  However, any talk of guys not playing hard went away fairly quicklyI honestly never heard about it again."

The former-player's overall assessment of the rumor: "If I had to say, no, nobody 'laid down' against Vanderbilt in '94; we just weren't that good.  But, I will say, I don't know for 100% sure, and anything is possible."

He ended our conversation stressing that he was "not sure" the Vanderbilt game rumor had anything to do with that particular team, head coach, group of players, etc.  "Rumors like that had been around for a long time, and not just at the University of Georgia," he said. But then, the rumors, especially ones as extreme as players laying down, ceased for the most part 10 to 15 years or so ago, or "when all this technology came about (i.e., internet, cell phones, social media, etc.)."

"As I said, anything is possible, and it's been my experience that players engaged in extreme wrongdoingslike laying downcould happen at any point in time," he concluded. "However, unlike when I played and before, now, there are very few places to hide (most wrongdoings are discovered and publicized)."

Today, with my seven-year-old son, I'll return to my alma mater on Homecoming. Although there are undoubtedly issues which surround us, I'm grateful for a few drastic changes at UGA, and its football program, since I attended school.

For one, although I tend to believe the conduct of today's scrutinized collegiate athletes is somewhat unfairly judged compared to those prior to "all this technology," I'm grateful today that there are "few places to hide."  The fewer the number of places to hide, the fewer the scandalous rumors, and the more we discover the truth.

Also, I'd like to think a loss as a substantial favorite to Vanderbilt on Homecoming although once a reality, is simply impossible now.  Although far from ideal, Georgia's football program is in much better shape than it was 20 years ago.  

While we sat in Sanford Stadium in 1981, I remember my dad awkwardly trying to explain to his confused son, when I was about my son's age, why black players didn't play for the Bulldogs just 10 years before. Thirteen years later on Homecoming as a confused student, I stared at the "racial tension" on the Sanford Stadium bridge, stemming from minority students believing they weren't being fairly considered.  However, and the current situation is far from perfect, UGA has since culturally changed for the better.  While the school's percentage of minority students has risen to 17 percent currently from 12 percent in 1994, within the last five years, UGA crowned an African-American Homecoming queen and king the same year for the first time in school history. 

Today, I'm especially grateful for change. While my son could become confused today (like father, like son) for a number of reasons, on this Homecoming day, I'm blessed any confusion he has will have nothing to do with race. 


Tlkdawg said...

Good article!

Anonymous said...

not the only game fixed in bulldog history.Trust me I know

Gambler Dawg