In the archives of the Georgia Sports Information Office, there is a photo of Billy Payne when his father, Porter, was the Georgia captain in 1949. The photo was re-staged when Billy was a freshman in 1965, and it fits the time-honored preachment that a photo is worth a thousand words.
Father-son relationships can be prickly or they can be auspicious. With Billy Payne, he admired and respected his father to the extent that in his youth, his unremitting goal was never to disappoint Porter and to be the best that he could be.
With a job well done, Billy could count on Porter asking if he could have done better. Billy never wanted to look his dad in the eye and admit that he could have. No son ever wanted to earn his father’s approval more than Billy Payne. He cannot review his life’s path without invoking his regard for his father and Porter’s influence on his life.
When Billy, an all-around student-athlete at Dykes High in Atlanta, signed with Georgia in December 1964, a new day was coming for the Bulldogs, who would shake up things in the state. Bobby Dodd was still coaching at Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets had the advantage even though Wallace Butts’ teams had mastered the Jackets four years in a row ― 1957-60, when Fran Tarkenton and Pat Dye gave depth and meaning to Butts’ last hurrah.
Three lean years for Georgia followed as Butts made his exit. Then, Vince Dooley took over in Athens in 1964. Winning the recruiting battle in the state was the Dooley objective. He succeeded. In short order, there was a five-year winning streak in the rival game, played on Saturday after Thanksgiving, and two SEC championships. The Bulldogs banner waved proudly throughout the state.
It was Billy Payne’s signing class that became the foundation for Vince Dooley’s success at Georgia. Billy was an overachieving end who started out on offense and switched to defense, where he made the All-Conference team. He appreciated the leadership principles of the late Erskine Russell, who made the player with the least talent feel that he was part of the team and convince him that he could contribute
Payne was taken by the professorial style of coach Dooley, who invoked military discipline and underscored percentage football concepts, which dictated primarily that you emphasize fundamental football, win the close games, finish strong and not beat yourself. His coach would become the winningest coach in Georgia history, topped off by a national championship in 1980.
The 1980s found both coach and player flourishing. Dooley was going through his greatest era, winning three consecutive SEC titles, a national championship and with a play here and one there, it is conceivable that Dooley could have won two more national titles.
Billy was established in a law practice in Atlanta, and things were moving along without a hitch for him and his wife, Martha, with whom Billy was smitten by from the first time he saw her on campus. Both coach and player had an itch that would bring about a signature development. Vince wanted to build a building that would house Georgia’s historical artifacts, with new administration offices and plush locker rooms for football. That building would become the best of its type in the country.
I remember meeting with Billy in Atlanta to tell him about Vince’s plan with regard to him being a possible donor and serving in the role of helping identify potential donors, especially those who were capable of making big gifts.
He said, “You know I will always want to do anything I can to help Georgia, but I’m not sure what I can do financially. There is something about to happen that would occupy my time to the extent that I wouldn’t be able to do much with your campaign.” Then he added, “However, you know that I want the plan to succeed.”
A few days later, there was a headline in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that revealed Billy Payne had figured out a plan that could bring the Centennial Olympics to Atlanta. The announcement stunned a lot of people. It seemed as audacious as Jimmy Carter’s announcement to run for president in the 1970s.
When you evaluate Billy’s talent and leadership, the two things that stand out are his vision and his tenacity. A big-picture advocate, fueled by energy and a positive stance with far-sighted concepts, he set his goals high and reached them without patting himself on the back or calling attention to himself.
There were obstacles along the way, especially with the Olympics, but that unequaled tenacity set him apart. He has been an overachiever for the ages with the courage to make the tough decision while honoring diplomacy as a partner in his modus operandi. He has always been one step ahead of everybody.
One morning he simply woke up and wondered aloud — why couldn’t Atlanta host the 1996 Olympics which, at the outset, was forecast for Athens, Greece, the original site of the games? His organizational structure showed how it could be done. His marketing skills and salesmanship gained the commitment of the Atlanta business community and many titans of corporate America. He had to exercise patience in dealing with sticky issues with the City of Atlanta but his loyalty, perseverance and that tenacity won the day. Atlanta is still benefiting from hosting the Olympics, according to many city insiders.
While preparing for the Games, he had the notion that golf should be included in the competition. Where better to host international golf competition than the Augusta National Golf Club? He made a cogent proposal to Chairman Jack Stephens. It didn’t work out, but Stephens was so impressed with Billy’s proposal and style that he made him a member of the club.
When Hootie Johnson ― who, like Billy, would have played football at Georgia except that he lost his scholarship when he announced to Coach Butts that he wanted to get married ― was getting ready to retire as chairman at Augusta National, he chose Billy Payne to replace him.
Billy is, without question, one of the most accomplished ― some would say the most accomplished ― former Georgia football lettermen in the history of the university. All Bulldogs are proud of him. The state is proud of him. But what Billy appreciates the most is that Porter would be the proudest of all.
“Billy Payne Day Between the Hedges” is a red-letter day for the University of Georgia that will bring residuals to UGA for years to come.