Crazy things had to happen for Georgia to close deal on 1959 SEC championship

UGA football-Loran Smith-Fran Tarkenton-Georgia Bulldogs beat Auburn-1959 SEC championship
The 1959 season had plenty of twists and turns

This is the second of a two-part series relating to the recent death of LSU’s fabled back, Billy Cannon, and how Georgia’s football team became the surprise winner of the Southeastern Conference championship in 1959. CLICK HERE FOR PART 1.

When Billy Cannon returned a punt 89 yards to defeat Ole Miss on a foggy Halloween night in Baton Rouge in 1959, many of the Georgia players were listening to the game on the radio at Payne Hall, the football dormitory.

No one from that era remembers anybody thinking that the victory might have a propitious silver lining for the Bulldogs.  In those years, the rights holder for Georgia football radio broadcasts was the Jerry Johnston Agency in New York. Johnston had a partner, Richard T. Frick, who managed the football networks for several SEC schools — Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Ole Miss and Kentucky, among others.

The broadcasts were sponsored by Texaco with a barter arrangement. As the sponsor, Texaco got half the commercial time, with the local network getting the other half. Frick came up with a popular model that he called The Pick of Dixie. Stations on the various state networks could broadcast selected games across the conference, which became very attractive programming. LSU was a frequent pick because the Tigers preferred nighttime kickoffs. So did Kentucky, but most of the rest of the schools kicked off at 2 p.m.

The week after the Ole Miss game, while LSU was playing Tennessee in Knoxville, Georgia was defeating Florida in Jacksonville 21-10 in a pulsating thriller that brought the Bulldogs regional and national attention. Tennessee upset LSU when Billy Cannon was swarmed by the Volunteers defense on a 2-point conversion attempt, which knocked the Tigers from their exalted, undefeated status.

One of the players in on the gang-tackling of Cannon was Bill Majors, Johnny Majors’ younger brother, who became a Volunteers coach. He later lost his life, along with two other Volunteers assistant coaches, in a car-train accident in Knoxville in 1965.

Following Georgia’s defeat of Florida, Auburn bused over to Athens for the showdown with the Bulldogs. Temporary bleachers were added at the top of the stadium. For big games such as this game and for Georgia Tech, there was space to accommodate additional seats, bringing the total capacity to 50,000-plus.

It was a rugged defensive battle for most of the afternoon, with Auburn having difficulty scoring on the unrelenting defense of Bulldogs assistant coach Jennings Bryan Whitworth, who was beloved by the players. He had the same rapport with the players of his era that Erk Russell would later have at Georgia.

Auburn made two field goals but finally got on the scoreboard with a touchdown when quarterback Charley Britt, lined up in punt formation in the searchlight position, backed up from the Auburn defensive charge and couldn’t handle the ball, with Auburn recovering the bounding ball in the end zone.  This gift touchdown put Auburn ahead 13-7.

This brought about an interesting sideline decision that went unnoticed by the media and most everybody in the stadium except the Auburn coaching staff.  In 1958, the NCAA rules committee instituted the 2-point conversion rule, but Auburn’s head coach, Shug Jordan, elected to kick the extra point. Georgia would win the game on a late drive, following an Auburn fumble.

A Fran Tarkenton touchdown pass in the closing minute of play enabled Georgia to kick the extra point for victory.  Had Auburn attempted a 2-point conversion and made it, the Bulldogs would have had to score two points to win.

It was just as hard for Georgia to move the ball on Auburn in that game.  The Bulldogs came up with the only drive in the game with its final possession of the day. The Bulldogs recovered Auburn’s late fumble and drove 35 yards to win the game 14-13 with Tarkenton completing a 13-yard pass on fourth down to Bill Herron.

“Pandemonium prevailed,” publicist Dan Magill said in his postgame summary.

In this era before the coming of daylight saving time, the evening shadows were about to emerge, but the fans stayed in the stadium and partied until nightfall settled on the hedges. Going home was the last thing on their minds.

Loran Smith is a freelance writer in Athens who works for the University of the Georgia in development and as an administrative specialist, is editor of the football game program and co-host of The Tailgate Show. You can read his columns about UGA sports weekly at DawgNation.

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