Herschel Walker called it. Well, he nearly called it. The most famous member of Georgia’s last national championship team was asked during last season whether the 2017 version of the Bulldogs could win it all.
“There’s no doubt,” said Walker, who recalled more than a month later watching Georgia win at Notre Dame, largely on defense and saying to himself, “That looks like the old Junkyard Dawgs.”
As we all know, Georgia came within a play of indeed winning it all — just as Walker’s final team at Georgia did in 1982.
There were a lot of flashbacks for players on that Georgia team. It was the same type of team, built on defense and a strong running game, but the program was in a far different stage 35 years earlier.
Vince Dooley was in his 19th season in Athens in 1982. Kirby Smart was in just his second in 2017.
After that great three-year run — plus Georgia also had a very good season in 1983 — there was a drop-off. Some of it was due to an unforeseen scandal. Some of it was due to the departure of Walker. This time around, however, Georgia’s near-title is being greeted by unbridled optimism about the future, even after the loss of some great seniors. The reason? Smart and his staff have emerged as a recruiting monster.
Knox Culpepper, a reserve linebacker in 1982, went to a Georgia practice after Smart was hired.
Culpepper could tell right away the difference in energy in practice.
“He wants to be physically tough. That’s where Coach Dooley came from,” Culpepper said. “I can tell you games were a breeze [because] back in the ’80s you practiced so hard.”
Tim Crowe, a starting defensive lineman from 1980-82, said he has “no doubt” Georgia’s 2017 team was right up there with the 1980 team.
“I just don’t see how you can have another season like that, line up to play Alabama for a national championship, and win a Rose Bowl. That’s just unbelievable,” Crowe said.
As good as Smart is with recruiting, Crowe said, it’s still hard to get back every year. But that Georgia team felt like it did. It won three straight SEC championships — the first one was capped by a national title but the Bulldogs were beaten by Dan Marino and Pittsburgh and then Todd Blackledge and Penn State the following two seasons.
“It’s such a challenge to get back in that top 4 to play for that,” Crowe said. “I’m the luckiest guy in the world to play in 1980, I feel, and then here it is 37 years later and all people talk about is the national championship. I don’t hear anything about ’81 and ’82. All I hear is that national championship.”
There was life, however, after that great run.
The 1983 team – without Herschel Walker, and without Crowe and four other seniors who had started on defense – went 10-1-1 and won the Cotton Bowl, where it upset Texas.
“We were basically told all week we shouldn’t be there,” Culpepper said. “That was probably one of the most satisfying wins I’ve ever had.”
Then the drop-off began.
The Jan Kemp scandal hit in the mid-1980s. There was coaching turnover, including Dooley stepping down after the 1988 season. Between 1984 and 2002, the Bulldogs only had two double-digit win seasons, after doing it four straight seasons from 1980-83.
“So it kind of came to an abrupt end, in some sense,” said John Lastinger, a quarterback for the Bulldogs in the early ’80s. “But listen, my hat’s off to this group (in 2017), because I will say this: I just think it’s so much tougher today to do what they did, to win conferences. Everybody’s so good.”
Lastinger also firmly believes it wasn’t a fluke. He said he has believed that from the beginning of the Smart era.
When Georgia played North Carolina to open the 2016 season, Lastinger was in the stands at the Georgia Dome. His wife and daughter, a UGA graduate, were with him.
“She and I are sitting there in the Georgia Dome. And it’s right before kickoff, and she looks at me and goes, ‘Dad, I’ve never seen you so calm before a football game,'” Lastinger said. “I just kinda shrugged, and I said, ‘Honey, I don’t know what’s going to happen today, or the rest of the season. But I feel really good about where we’re going to be. We’ve got the right guy.”
“Really?” Lastinger said his daughter replied.
“Yeah, I just feel like let’s be patient and see how this plays out. But I just had a real calmness that we were going to be OK,” Lastinger said.