As Bulldogs players and fans prepare for the kickoff of Georgia’s 126th football season, UGA’s Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library is opening another exhibition on Dawgs history — with a difference. Instead of focusing on the days when leather helmets were worn, or even when Wally Butts was coach, this year’s exhibition looks back just two years.
“Beautiful and Brutal: Georgia Bulldogs Football, 2017,” opening Friday, Aug. 30, revisits that magical season when Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Roquan Smith and Jake Fromm led the Bulldogs to within a heartbreaking overtime play of winning the national championship.
Why focus on such a recent season? I put that question this week to Jason Hasty, UGA athletics history specialist at Hargrett and curator of the exhibition, who previewed the show for me.
“In the past, we’ve done deep-dive, reseach-heavy exhibitions,” Hasty said, “but I want people to realize that history isn’t necessarily something that happened 70 years ago, or 100 years ago. These guys made history! Plus, it was such a monumental season for Georgia football, and I want people to be able to celebrate that.”
And, why not?
“Georgia’s 2017 season resembled one of those old-fashioned Hollywood rags-to-riches tales. Consider: The national championship game was played in Atlanta for the first time ever, and one of the two teams in it was the home state heroes. Throw in the Cinderella story of that team being led by a freshman who replaced the injured starter at quarterback — and who won his first start on the road at Notre Dame. Plus, a second-year head coach took his team to the program’s first-ever College Football Playoff game, and it was in the fabled Rose Bowl, where the team came back from a 17-point deficit to take a double-overtime win — all in all, a scenario that might have been considered unlikely even by old-time La La Land scriptwriters.”
That’s how I summed up the 2017 season a few weeks back when Hasty contacted me, saying he wanted to include “the voices of Georgia fans” in this year’s exhibition, and asking me to contribute.
Overall, Georgia fandom is featured prominently in the new exhibition of photographs, uniforms, tickets, credentials and other artifacts. One of the most eye-catching displays in the rotunda of the Richard B. Russell Building Special Collections Library, near the intersection of Baxter and Lumpkin streets in Athens, will be the uniform (or costume, or whatever you want to call it) worn during the 2017 season by Kelby Canada, a member of the Spike Squad, the ardent and flamboyant UGA fans who occupy the front row of Section 109 at Sanford Stadium during home games. Canada donated his decorated spiked shoulder pads and floppy hat to Hargrett’s collection after he graduated.
The exhibition also will have a space where fans can leave their own memories of the season, Hasty said.
Among the other materials for the exhibition that Hasty showed me this week in the library’s preservation area were the ball carried and gloves worn by Michel on his game-winning touchdown run in the Rose Bowl; a pair of Chubb’s black game shoes; a Rose Bowl jersey; and a large collection of photos provided by the UGA Athletic Association, some never seen before by the public. The story of the season is told in the exhibition in text provided by Athens native John Frierson, staff writer for the athletic association and curator of the ITA Men’s Tennis Hall of Fame at UGA.
The exhibition takes its name from a georgiadogs.com column Frierson wrote about the national championship game at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, in which he described Chubb, Michel, Terry Godwin and Smart consoling one another on the sideline after the disappointing loss to Alabama:
“It was a moving scene, beautiful and brutal. Seeing that kind of anguish, you wonder if all that work and effort and struggle to get here is worth the risk of a painful moment like the Bulldogs were experiencing on the sport’s biggest stage.”
Said Hasty: “I tend to like exhibit titles that have layers of meaning, so I took ‘Beautiful and Brutal,’ not just because of the end of that particular game, but because of the beauty of that season for all of us as well as how brutal that team could be (our game against Mississippi State, for example).”
As a fan, I have to say it was very cool seeing the artifacts up close before they’re put into the exhibition, but it was even more fun sitting around talking Dawgs with Hasty and Frierson, two lifelong UGA fans.
The dramatic Rose Bowl overtime win over Oklahoma, already enshrined as many UGA fans’ favorite game ever, naturally plays a big part in the exhibition, with a framed shot of the Pasadena stadium. Frierson said the game still looms large for those members of the current team who played in it.
“There’s something about that Rose Bowl that lingers,” Frierson said. “It still gives you goosebumps. If it’s on the SEC Network, you can’t help but stop and watch it again.”
Hasty added that he thinks fond memories of that Rose Bowl “will live on as long as there are Georgia football fans.” Each summer, he takes pop-up exhibitions of UGA sports artifacts out on the road to libraries across the state, and “in talking to Georgia fans, hardly anyone ever brings up the national championship game. And it’s not because we lost, it’s because everyone wants to talk about the Rose Bowl. That was a defining moment for many fans. Some said it was the greatest moment of their lives.”
“The setting is so perfect,” Frierson said. “I think it’s one of probably the 20 best college football games ever,” whereas Georgia making it to the national championship game “was, for me, icing on the cake. Anything that happened after [the Rose Bowl win] was gravy.”
Winning the Rose Bowl tends to outshine even how wonderful it was for Georgia to come back and beat Auburn in the SEC Championship Game, just three weeks after losing handily to the Tigers. Frierson, for one, wasn’t surprised by the loss at Auburn that was the only regular-season defeat for the 2017 Dawgs. Georgia had been beating opponents so handily up that that point that “there was a sense of that game being trouble. The play of the team had dropped off some, because they were winning too easily.”
Once the “Beautiful and Brutal” exhibition is installed this week in the Special Collections Library rotunda, fans can visit it for free daily, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Also, at 3 p.m. on Fridays before a home game, Hasty will be on hand in the rotunda to talk about the exhibit. Also, he’ll show off older items from Hargrett’s UGA athletics collection that visitors can handle — “Herschel’s helmet, things like that” —only during the Friday tours.
Hasty, who grew up in metro Atlanta, graduating from Pebblebrook High School, entered UGA in 1994, “and I’ve pretty much been here ever since.” As a lifelong Dawgs fan, he said, “I feel very lucky, honestly” to be doing what he does for a living.
“I come into work every day, and I get to deal with the artifacts and the sports history of the university. That’s something I don’t ever take for granted. The fan in me is excited to be here, and I hope that translates into the exhibits. I’m excited about this show, and I hope other people are, too.”
Hasty also got to help with the sports history graphics added to the walls of Sanford Stadium last season, writing the text. “I take a great deal of pride when I see people posing in front of them. Sometimes, I want to walk over to them and say, ‘I wrote that’” (but he doesn’t).
He thinks most fans don’t realize how serious the athletic association is about not only preserving the history of UGA sports programs, but sharing it. “They really are excited about getting these things out there and letting people see them.”
Hasty also feels lucky to get to meet and talk with other Georgia fans. “I love hearing those stories.”
He and Frierson both believe this is the perfect time for this sort of celebration of Georgia football, especially with Notre Dame coming to town this fall, amid unprecedented fan excitement.
“We’ll never have seen a Saturday in Athens like that one,” Frierson said.
And, with any luck, the Saturday that the Irish visit Athens might wind up as part of another special season — one that Hasty can commemorate someday in the future with another exhibition.
“Beautiful and Brutal: Georgia Bulldogs Football, 2017” will be on display in the Rotunda Gallery of the Richard B. Russell Building, 300 S. Hull St., in Athens, from Aug. 30 through Feb. 28, 2020. The exhibit is free and open to the public. For more information, call 706-542-7123.