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February 25, 2015

Here's John (for Johnny)!

With OC Charley Trippi there for support, DC
John Gregory backs up Johnny Griffith as head
coach against Alabama in 1961. 
It's been a long, three weeks since my last post. Recently starting a new full-time job covering a few college football teams, including our beloved Bulldogs, while in the thick of working on two book projects both due to be released this fall, more of the same sporadic blog posting is anticipated over the next few months. 

A reminder: please visit and "like" my UGA football page, where I post at least once, often multiple times, nearly on a daily basis.

Speaking of continuity, or lack thereof as is the case recently with my blog, following Tony Ball's departure and Thomas Brown's arrival, I discovered Georgia has now experienced three or more annual coaching changes, whether by coordinator or position coach, entering back-to-back seasons under the same head coach for only the second time in the last half-century-plus since Coach Dooley's arrival in 1964. The only other time this occurred was in 1999-2000, or entering the final two seasons of the Coach Donnan era.     

Such coaching changeoverlikely, a sign of the times, so to speak, more than anythingreminded me of the overall importance of assistant coaches to a program, especially to the players, beginning with the recruitment process (just ask UCLA about Roquan Smith), and the head coach they serve under. Thus, I'm prompted to tell the intriguing but obscure story of a particular Georgia assistant coach from a long time ago, who loyally served under a pair of Bulldog head coaches, only to be caught between the two in the end:

"No, I don't think so," answered the only person reachable for comment at the time, Winnie Butts. "Probably one of the assistants will do it."

Winnie, the wife of Georgia's then-previous head coach, Wally Butts, was who remained after the quick departure for Athens General Hospital by her husband and the wife of the then-current Bulldog head coach, Johnny Griffith. Griffith played and been an assistant under Butts, and had succeeded him less than nine months earlier. He was rushed to the hospital to undergo emergency surgery for acute appendicitis, and Winnie was left to answer if her husband was going to fill Griffith's spot the next day as Georgia's head coach for its 1961 season opener against Alabamawhat was supposed to be Griffith's first game at the helm.  

"What A Way To Start A Season," headlined the United Press International, "and also a head coaching career," might I add, for Griffith, who at 36 years old was set to be the second-youngest head coach in the SEC. While Griffith laid in a hospital bed, assistant John Gregory was handed the daunting task of heading up a team less than 24 hours before facing the third-ranked Crimson Tide and their head coach, Paul "Bear" Bryant. 

Gregory had college head coaching experience, guiding McNeese State to a combined on-field record of 12-6-1 in 1955 and 1956 before departing for Georgia, where he was named ends coach under Butts, and chosen over the likes of the esteemed Joe Tereshinski. With Griffith replacing Butts four years later, Gregory was promoted to defensive coordinator, but first he'd have to undertake an even bigger task.

Just a touchdown underdog to Alabama at Sanford Stadium, Gregory's Dogs hung around the Tide for a half, trailing only 10-0 at intermission, until the visiting foe opened the flood gates, building a 32-0 lead late in the fourth quarter despite the fact they had gained only 256 yards of offense. Georgia's offense, which totaled a paltry 112 yards and five first downs, finally found paydirt on the game's last play when Dale Williams tossed a 13-yard touchdown to Carlton Guthrie.

In the hospital, Griffith had planned to follow the game by radio but reportedly slept through the 32-6 loss. While on the field, the defeat was unfortunately a sign of things to come for the next three seasonsall losingwhich made up the Coach Griffith era. 

Gregory was the defensive coordinator for the first two seasons of Griffith's tenure, but absent from the 1963 campaign because of a certain article printed in the Saturday Evening Post in March of that yeara piece many in the Bulldog Nation are quite familiar with, although you probably won't find it mentioned anywhere in the annals of UGA football. Of course, the article claimed Butts, who was Georgia's athletic director at the time, gave away "Georgia's plays, defensive patterns, all the significant secrets Georgia's football team possessed" to, ironically, Alabama's Bryant prior to the teams meeting in 1962a 35-0 loss by the Bulldogs in Birmingham with, this time, Griffith present on the sidelines versus the Tide.

Because of the article, Butts filed a libel suit against the publisher of the Post, resulting in an 11-day trial prior to the start of the 1963 season. In defense of Butts included two Georgia assistant coaches, including Gregory, claiming the plays supposedly passed between Butts and Bryant wouldn't have aided Alabama significantly. On the contrary, testifying for the publisher were three Georgia coaches, including Griffith, declaring the information would have indeed helped the Crimson Tide.

After emergency surgery, Griffith (right) is back
the next week vs. Vandy. After the next season,  
Gregory would be gone for his backing of Butts.
Despite the fact Gregory had first curiously signed a statement indicating the information allegedly passed would have actually helped Alabama, and the popular opinion of the time was Butts and Bryant were likely in cahoots to "fix" the 1962 Georgia-Alabama game, Butts came out of court on top (similar to another aforementioned ex-Bulldog head coach when it seemed to most he probably would lose a highly-publicized trial).

Regarded as a star witness in Butts' successful suit, John Gregory had stepped up and defended his old head coach against an opposition, which included his current head coach, after previously relieving the current head coach two years before, all of which involving the same competitionAlabama and Bear Bryantin successive seasons. 

Soon after the jury awarded Butts a whopping $3.06 million in general and punitive damages, Griffith asked Gregory to resign from his coaching position at Georgia, and not surprisingly. The head coach really had no other choice but to ask for as much; as Gregory would say to the media, "I assumed that I was [already] fired."

The response to Griffith's request for a resignation over the phone: "I would not resign," according to Gregory. And then, perhaps motivated by all that time spent in a courtroom, where two coaching legends faced a head coach who would be forced to resign himself less than three months later, Gregory added to his refusal that Griffith, "could talk to my attorneys."

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