ATHENS — Georgia will honor its 1968 and ’78 teams this weekend. Those teams played 50 and 40 years ago, respectively, a reminder that some of them are getting long in the tooth, as are those of us who witnessed their memorable and unforgettable highlights.
However, the memories of their times warm hearts when there are rocking-chair moments by a wood burning fire as the leaves are turning and the love of alma mater reminds us there is nothing to match the emotions of the home team winning and causing the chapel bell to ring into the night.
In 1968, the seniors would become the second of Vince Dooley’s teams to win a Southeastern Conference Championship. As sophomores, they were the core of Dooley’s first SEC title grabbing team.
Those were serendipitous times. Nobody expected such success so quickly. Dooley’s first staff was one to turn heads, with Erk Russell running the defense and Vince’s brother, Bill, managing the offense. The Bulldogs won seven games and defeated Texas Tech in the Sun Bowl, 7-0. One of the big games was the defeat of Georgia Tech, 7-0, between the hedges. Those with an affinity for the Red and Black were swooning like they had not swooned since 1959 when the Bulldogs surprised everybody in the league by winning what would be Wallace Butts’ last championship.
There were seasoned stars like Bill Stanfill and Jake Scott on defense and a precocious sophomore quarterback in Mike Cavan, who sparked the team to victory after victory.
Opening with Tennessee, the game marked the first time that the clock stopped after a first down. In the end that enabled the Volunteers to tie the Bulldogs (17-17) with a late score. There was another tie versus Houston, 10-10 between the hedges, but it turned out to be an undefeated regular season.
All opponents after Houston were disposed of with dispatch. But there was a postmortem following the Auburn game that would bring about a downer. Conventional scuttlebutt had Georgia going to the Orange Bowl. Auburn students threw oranges on the field as the ‘Dogs headed to the locker room a 17-3 winner.
Georgia did not go to Miami, but to New Orleans instead. There are several takes on the story. Those were the days when teams could not communicate with the bowls, at least officially. The night before the game, Dan Magill and I took the Orange Bowl representative to dinner and they were emphatic about their directive from Miami: “We have to have a winner.”
Sugar Bowl officials obviously tipped their hand? “We will take you, win or lose?” Whatever, the players were upset and were obviously displeased. Georgia lost to Arkansas and disappointment prevailed in the Dawg Nation, a term not yet coined.
The Seventies were up and down years, good in ’71 with Andy Johnson and a band of sophomores, the serendipity Cotton Bowl season of 1975 after President Fred Davison quieted the wolves by giving Coach Dooley a five-year contract extension, the SEC title in 1976 behind the splendorous option running of Ray Goff and the 9-2-1 “Wonder Dogs” season of 1978, when a tie at Auburn knocked the Bulldogs out of the SEC title.
In the final minutes of play, Georgia scored a touchdown. A successful two point conversion would have brought victory, but Dooley chose to kick the extra point thinking there probably was enough time on the clock to get the ball back.
However, he second guessed himself and apologized to his team in the locker room after the game. Over the years, I came to realize that Dooley was a canny percentage football coach. He made the right decision more often than not, but this was a time when he felt he had misjudged the situation; so he let his team know that he felt he had made a mistake.
There was some exciting football played in those aforementioned even numbered years and set the stage for the dominating Herschel years that would come about as the decade of the Eighties began.