50 years ago: Reliving UGA’s exciting 1971 football season

Athens native Andy Johnson took over as quarterback in his sophomore year at UGA. (University of Georgia)
University of Georgia

It’s hard to believe, but it’s been half a century since the terrific Dawgs season that was a highlight of my sophomore year at UGA.

While the previous year’s football season was undistinguished, the 1971 season couldn’t have been more different — a thrilling, well-played and successful campaign that doesn’t get the respect it deserves these days, because the Dawgs didn’t win an SEC championship.

But, those 11-1 Dawgs always will be one of my favorite teams.

Erk Russell had a tremendous defense that year, featuring rover Phil Sullivan; defensive ends Mixon Robinson and Rusty Carter (an Athens High classmate of mine); tackles Chuck Heard, Dennis Hester and Jim Cagle; guards Dennis Watson and Paul McPipkin; linebackers Chip Wisdom and Steve Kitchens; defensive backs Buzy Rosenberg and Gene Swinford; and safeties Jerone Jackson and Don Golden.

In his second year as offensive coordinator, Fred Pancoast had a talented bunch in tight ends Billy Brice and Mike Greene; wide receivers Rex Putnal, Lynn Hunnicutt, Bob Burns and Steve White; tailbacks Ricky Lake and Jimmy Poulos; fullback Robert Honeycutt; flanker Jimmy Shirer (also the punter); and offensive linemen Royce Smith, Tom Nash, John Jennings and Mac McWhorter.

Those of us who’d grown up in Athens had an additional reason to be excited in 1971, because Andy Johnson, a classmate of mine ever since my junior high school days, took over the quarterback spot as a sophomore, having played on the freshman Bullpups the previous year. (The NCAA didn’t allow freshmen to compete on the varsity in football until the following year.)

Junior QB James Ray, who had been the starter the previous year before getting hurt, led the second team, dubbed the Jets, who ended up getting plenty of playing time as the Dawgs went unbeaten through their first nine games. (This was the season Georgia regularly started playing an 11-game schedule, not counting a bowl.)

UGA fans enjoy the action at Sanford Stadium during the 1971 season. (Hargrett Library)
Hargrett Library, Dawgnation

Recalls Tom Hodgson, who had grown up playing YMCA football with Johnson: “He was the best athlete I will ever know. Because of my confidence in Andy, it’s just possible I did not get as fanatical about the ‘71 season as others. It seemed sorta destined to me.”

Helen Castronis, whose father, the beloved “Coach Mike,” signed Johnson to Georgia, noted that “it seemed like we lived with Andy for several years while he was being recruited. I remember that every Sunday we went to McWhorter Hall for lunch, and Andy went with us. That was, of course, before there were any limitations on the number of visits. … So, it seemed like we had been waiting to see Andy play at UGA for several years, and he didn’t disappoint.”

It was a notable year for Vince Dooley’s program in another way, too, marking the debut of Black players in Georgia football. Since they were freshmen, we didn’t get to see the five African American players on the varsity that year, but Richard Appleby, Clarence Pope, Horace King, Chuck Kinnebrew and Larry West made history, nonetheless.

Also new that season was an Astroturf practice field. And, there were a couple of notable changes with UGA’s marching band: The Redcoat Band dropped Dixie from its name, and it supplemented the electric bassist it had added a few years earlier with electric guitar, electric piano and a trap set of drums, to create the popular Electric Squad.

Meanwhile, other changes were fended off by Athletic Director Joel Eaves, who dismissed a call by the campus ministerial association to get rid of the pre-game prayer, as well as a Student Senate vote declaring that UGA athletes should be allowed to have grow their hair however they wanted.

Fall quarter classes at UGA didn’t start until Sept. 23 that year, by which time the Dawgs already had played two games. The season got off to an exciting start on Sept. 11 at Sanford Stadium, with a 56-25 romp over Oregon State of the PAC 8, as it was then known.

Buzy Rosenberg had a very big game in the opener against Oregon State. (The Red & Black)
The Red & Black, Dawgnation

The Beavers were coached by Dee Andros, known as the Great Pumpkin for his bright orange shirts, and featured the nation’s best fullback in Dave Schilling. But, they were no match for Dooley’s Dawgs, sparked by the diminutive (5-foot-9, 177 pounds) Rosenberg, who returned punts of 66 and 79 yards for touchdowns and had another 37-yard return that set up a score, racking up 202 yards in returns that day (breaking a record set in 1968 by Jake Scott). Rosenberg also intercepted a pass and had 6 tackles. AP named him SEC back of the week, and he set new SEC and NCAA records for average punt return yardage in a game, at 40.4 on 5 returns.

Fan Darrell Huckaby remembers “nobody got excited” after Rosenberg’s first touchdown, “because he was wearing a tear-away jersey, and after he scored, there were pieces of red cloth all over the field. Penalty flags were red at the time, and everyone assumed there were multiple penalties, and the play would come back. One by one, the officials conferred, and, finally, the referee signaled touchdown! The next year, they started using yellow handkerchiefs.”

Johnson, the quintessential running quarterback, led the team with 112 yards rushing and scored two TDs. Backup Ray ran for one TD and passed for another. Poulos scored twice, on a pass reception and a run.

Next, the Tulane Green Wave came to Athens, losing to the Dawgs 17-7, as Andy ran the ball 27 times for 127 yards and a touchdown, mostly on sweeps and options. Lake added 82 yards on 24 carries. Tulane was surprisingly tough, however, with the game tied 7-7 in the third quarter.

The Bulldogs were on the road at Clemson the next week. Georgia was a 21-point favorite and more than covered the spread, winning 28-0, as Shirer’s punting kept the Tigers in a hole most of the day. On one UGA scoring drive, fullback Honeycutt made a backpedaling catch at the Clemson 4. Asked after the game whether he was surprised Honeycutt made the catch, Dooley replied, “I think the most surprised person on the field was Robert Honeycutt.” After that game, AP had Georgia ranked 11th while UPI had them 13th.

Then, it was back to Athens for Mississippi State, which fell to the Dawgs 35-7. Georgia had 390 yards rushing, 132 of it by Johnson, including a 64-yarder.

The next week, Georgia faced Ole Miss in Jackson, where Billy Kinard was in his first year as head coach and having to replace departed QB Archie Manning. The most unusual play of the game saw Georgia’s Lake blindsided, with the ball popping out, only to be caught by teammate Jennings, who rumbled 39 yards for a score. Poulos ran for 116 yards, and Ray and the Jets got to play a good bit of the game.

Erk Russell had another tenacious Georgia defense in 1971. (The Red & Black)
The Red & Black, Dawgnation

It was back on the road the next week, to meet Vanderbilt in Nashville. Georgia entered the game ranked No. 8 nationally and a 25-point favorite. They missed that by 1, winning 24-0. Poulos and Honeycutt each ran for more than 100 yards, and, for the first time since 1946, Georgia had won its first six games of the season.

Kentucky came to Athens the next week, but the Wildcats were no match for the Dawgs. A Homecoming crowd of 57,832 saw Georgia take a 6-0 lead at halftime, but the final score was 34-0. The Dawgs had 325 yards of offense (216 rushing, 109 passing), and Hal “the Missile” Bissell played much of second half at tailback. There was no senior parade at halftime, because of the previous year’s antics, when drunken students had carried vulgar signs and attacked the visiting cheerleaders. Georgia’s defense was leading the SEC after this game.

The Dawgs traveled to Columbia the next week to meet South Carolina, playing its first season as an independent. Johnson scored on a first-quarter drive, but took a hard hit to the thigh on the third series and was replaced by Ray, whom Dooley later called “the best second-string quarterback in America.” Ray scored two touchdowns, had runs of 56 and 84 yards, and set a Georgia individual one-game rushing mark of 151 yards. The Georgia defense limited the Gamecocks to just one rushing first down and minus-23 rushing yards for the game. It was the Dawgs’ fourth shutout of the season.

Next up was Florida in Jacksonville for what still was called the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. Coach Doug Dickey had a highly rated offense in his second year at UF, led by QB John Reaves and receiver Carlos Alvarez. No matter. Dooley emptied the bench as the Dawgs crushed the Gators 49-7. Ray started at QB, threw 12 times for 127 yards and a touchdown, and ran for 43 yards and another TD. Poulos had 75 yards, Lake had 43 yards and two scores. A defensive highlight came when defensive end Robinson scored on an interception. At this point, Georgia was leading the country in scoring offense, averaging 33.8 points per game. Ray was UPI’s Southeastern offensive player of the week.

Defensive end Mixon Robinson returns an interception for a touchdown against Florida. (University of Georgia)
University of Georgia, Dawgnation

That set up an SEC showdown in Athens the next week with Auburn, which boasted passing sensation Pat Sullivan (who subsequently would win the Heisman Trophy) and his favorite receiver, Terry Beasley. Both teams were undefeated, and Dooley said it was “for all the marbles,” which meant a Sugar Bowl berth and at least a share of the SEC championship (the Tigers still had to play Alabama, also undefeated). UPI had Auburn ranked fifth and Georgia sixth. Auburn led the SEC in total offense; Georgia led the SEC in total defense. They were meeting for the 75th time, but it was the first time both teams brought perfect records into the game.

The excitement that week was unlike anything I’d ever experienced in the Classic City. A mini riot ensued when student guest tickets to the game went on sale, and some people decided to break in line. A pep rally was held Thursday night at the athletic dorm, McWhorter Hall. Darrell Huckaby remembers Erk jumping up on the back of a flatbed truck at the rally, forehead still bleeding from butting heads with players at practice. “It was bedlam after that,” Darrell recalled. “For the next 40 hours, we students were riding up and down Lumpkin and Baxter and Milledge, blowing horns and screaming and having a giant party. Baxter was closed down all Friday night in front of the high-rise dorms. The bank in front of the trestle and the tracks themselves were covered up by 5 o’clock Friday afternoon. It was crazy.

“When Notre Dame came to Athens a couple of years ago, everyone kept saying it was the biggest buildup of any game,” Darrell noted. “Not even close — at least, on campus.”

The lead story in Friday’s Red & Black had the headline: “Who, who, whooo’s nervous?” Dawgs tight end Greene said, “I’ve been so nervous since the Florida game my stomach hurts. I can’t even sleep at night. I’ve never played in a game that means so much.”

Starting about midday Friday, downtown Athens went insane, with drivers (not just students) honking their horns incessantly. Friday night, boisterous Georgia fans stumbled from the Fifth Quarter on Atlanta Highway to the Baxter Street dorms and then to the Holiday Inn downtown, where Auburn was staying.

About 300 press representatives were accredited for the game, which Sports Information Director Dan Magill said was about 100 more than usual. That included Sports Illustrated, the Chicago Tribune, the New York papers, the Los Angeles Times and all the big papers in the South. Plus, scouts from six bowl games were in attendance.

Standing-room-only tickets for the Sanford Drive bridge went on sale at noon that Saturday for $3. Attendance was 62,891, not counting those on the railroad tracks, which was a new state record for a sporting event.

Quarterback Andy Johnson and tailback Jimmy Poulos helped give Georgia a dominant running game in 1971. (The Red & Black)
The Red & Black, Dawgnation

Auburn scored on its opening drive, sparked by a 27-yard Sullivan pass. Later in the first quarter, Sullivan threw a 34-yard TD pass to Beasley. Down 14-0, Johnson, back from injury and reclaiming the starting QB spot, led the Dawgs on a drive in which he had a 67-yard run down to the AU 2. Poulos scored from there.

Georgia tied the game up in the second quarter. Then, a controversial call ruled that an Auburn fumble recovered by Georgia was an incomplete pass, and the next play saw a pass interference call that was hotly disputed by the Dawgs. Another Sullivan TD pass put Auburn up 21-14 at the half. The loss of All-American offensive guard Smith to a knee injury hampered Georgia’s running attack.

Neither team scored in the third quarter. As the fourth quarter began, Georgia fell on a fumble at the Auburn 25, but three plays netted only 6 yards and placekicker Kim Braswell was wide on a field goal attempt. Auburn was penalized for roughing the kicker, so Georgia was back in business at the 12. Poulos got it down to the 2 and then Johnson scored. The extra point was blocked, so Auburn led 21-20.

The Dawgs trailed by 1 point with 11:46 left in the game, but a 70-yard bomb from Sullivan to Beasley 28 seconds later put the Tigers up 8 points, and Sullivan later threw his fourth touchdown pass of the afternoon to ice the game. Auburn won 35-20.

Sullivan completed 14 of 24 passes for 248 yards. Johnson had a season high 163 yards on 23 carries, as the Dawgs rushed for 311 yards.

Auburn fans ripped up the hedges, of course. AU Coach Shug Jordan waved a piece of hedge as he met the press, saying, “This is a little souvenir for my wife.”

Said Dooley: “We were beat by the best doggone quarterback I have ever seen. Pat Sullivan is a Superman, having a super day. You’d have to call Terry Beasley a Boy Wonder, I guess. … I’d like someone to go back and show me a better combination in college football.”

The Dawgs were down. Linebacker Kitchens put it like this: “We lost a diamond ring, the SEC, a Sugar Bowl bid, the national defensive championship for fewest points allowed, and a possible national championship.”

Jimmy Poulos leaps over the pile for the winning score in the Thanksgiving night game against Georgia Tech. (University of Georgia)
University of Georgia, Dawgnation

Fans also were deflated, but resilient. Joel Provano was in his first quarter living off-campus, in Callaway Garden Apartments, behind the Fifth Quarter bar. “It was also the first time in my college life that we had a really good football team,” he said. “The 1969 and 1970 teams both finished with .500 records. But the ‘71 Dogs were a different breed, and what I remember most about that fall was the electric mood at the apartment complex on football Saturdays.” Auburn may have spoiled the Dawgs’ perfect record, he said, but “somehow, we still found a reason to party.”

Georgia was off the following Saturday, since the Dawgs were meeting rival Georgia Tech in a nationally televised Thanksgiving night game in Atlanta.

With Eddie McAshan at QB, Tech had won four straight games after starting 2-4, and had a tough defense. Offensive linemen Royce Smith and Paul Fersen were out for the game with knee and leg injuries, and linebacker Chip Wisdom also out with a hurt knee. But, helping No. 9 Georgia get over the Auburn loss was a desire for revenge against the Jackets, who had won in 1969 and 1970.

And, Dawgs fans were pumped. “I snatched a rat cap off a guy’s head in the Varsity before the game and he and his buddies chased me all over their dinky little stadium the rest of the night,” Huckaby recalled.

Tech jumped out to a 14-0 lead. Georgia then drove 60 yards in seven plays, with Johnson going over from the 1. Tech kicked a field goal for a 10-point lead. But the Dawgs drove 77 yards, with Johnson hitting Shirer for 23 yards and a TD. Georgia scored again in the fourth quarter to go ahead 21-17, after another 1-yard run by Johnson. Tech then retook the lead.

Trailing Tech 24-21, Georgia got the ball at its own 35-yard line with 1:29 on the clock. In one of the most memorable drives I’ve ever seen, Andy led them downfield. He got the comeback started with a 22-yard scamper, but it was the four passes he completed on that drive that made the difference, especially a clutch fourth-down 18-yard throw to Greene that gave the Dogs a first down at the Tech 25 with 48 seconds remaining. Johnson completed a couple of passes to Lynn Hunnicutt to get the ball down to the 9, before he was sacked for a 4-yard loss. Then, after a controversial timeout (Tech claimed officials granted Georgia an extra one), Johnson hit Shirer, who ran out of bounds at the 1. Poulos went over the top to score with only 14 seconds left on the clock. Georgia won, 28-24. Johnson completed 9 of 19 passes for 107 yards and one TD, his first touchdown pass of the season. He also ran for 99 yards.

Said Dooley in the locker room: “I’ve never been prouder of a team than this one tonight. They kept coming back and coming back.” He admitted that he might have gone for a field goal and a tie after Shirer’s catch if the distance had been greater, but since it was just 1 yard, “thank goodness, I didn’t have to make that decision.” His wife Barbara ran into the locker room and planted a big kiss on the red-faced head coach. “We won, we won,” she cried. “Now we can have Christmas!”

Said Helen Castronis: “That game versus Tech has to be one of the all-time best I was able to attend,” ranking it alongside the 2018 Rose Bowl win over Oklahoma.

The Dooley brothers, Bill (left) and Vince, faced off in the 1971 Gator Bowl. (Gator Bowl)
Gator Bowl, Dawgnation

Despite missing most of two games, Johnson led the Dawgs in rushing that season, with 870 yards on 174 carries for a 5.0 average. He also set an SEC record for most touchdowns by a sophomore, scoring 13. He averaged 87 yards a game, also an SEC record for a sophomore.

With four backs averaging 5.0 yards or better, Georgia set a new team rushing record of 303 yards per game, breaking a mark set in 1941. Besides Johnson, leading rushers were Poulos (733 yards), Honeycutt (530), Lake (393) and Ray (293).

The postseason saw Georgia in the Gator Bowl. The opponent was expected to be Notre Dame, but the Irish (8-2) lost their season finale to LSU, and the players voted not to play in a bowl game, so the Dawgs faced ACC Champion North Carolina (9-2), coached by Dooley’s brother Bill, who formerly had been Georgia’s offensive coordinator.

The game quickly was dubbed the “Dooley Bowl,” and Vince played along, saying, “my brother and I have been fighting all our lives. ... We might as well do it again in the Gator Bowl.”

Offensive lineman Royce Smith and Vince Dooley accept the Gator Bowl trophy. (Gator Bowl)
Gator Bowl, Dawgnation

It actually was a pretty boring game, with a lot of three-and-outs in the first half. Overall, there were 19 punts and three turnovers between the teams, who both preferred the run, each having 51 rushing attempts in the game.

A high snap led to Shirer’s first blocked punt of the season. But the Heels fumbled the ball back to the Dawgs two plays later. In the third quarter, Carolina kicked a field goal. On Georgia’s next series, Johnson threw a 32-yard pass to Hunnicutt to the North Carolina 25, and Poulos scored on the next play. The Heels couldn’t get anything going offensively, and Georgia killed the clock with a long fourth quarter drive that ended at the Carolina 9. Georgia won 7-3, in the second-lowest scoring Gator Bowl ever. Poulos, the game’s MVP, had 161 yards rushing. Said Dooley: “If you like defensive games, then you saw a darn good one.”

And, if you don’t judge Georgia teams strictly by whether a championship was won, the 1971 season was a darn good one, too.

You can read about student life at UGA in 1971 in my Quick Cuts blog, including an interesting tale of future Detroit Lion Horace King.

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