Coming off an 11-1 season, optimism was high for Vince Dooley’s Dawgs in 1972.

Sports Illustrated had Georgia in its preseason Top 10, and ABC’s Beano Cook even had the Dawgs as his preseason No. 1.

The early optimism didn’t pan out. Even if you were around to cheer for that team 50 years ago, you probably don’t recall much about the games.

However, you might remember it as the dawning of a new age: Three of UGA’s first five Black players made their varsity debut.

Horace King was the first Black player to start and score for the Georgia Bulldogs. (University of Georgia) (University of Georgia/Dawgnation)

It was a frustrating season that saw Georgia whip rivals Florida and Tech, but lose just enough games to be left at home come bowl season. (Of course, there were fewer bowls back then; these days, a team like the 1972 Georgia Bulldogs would be a cinch for a postseason spot.)

While Dooley had some talented returnees on the 1972 team — including quarterbacks Andy Johnson (named to Southern Living’s preseason All-South team) and James Ray, tailbacks Jimmy Poulos and Hal Bissell, fullback Robert Honeycutt, split end Rex Putnal, tight end Lynn Hunnicutt and placekicker Kim Braswell — he had to replace All-American Royce Smith and All-SEC picks John Jennings, Kendall Keith and Tom Nash, all linemen.

The defense returned only four starters, with Milton Bruce the only returning starter on the defensive line. Dooley saw the secondary — with All-SEC corner Buzy Rosenberg back, along with strong safety/punter Don Golden and free safeties Jerone Jackson and Dick Conn — as a plus, but was concerned about the interior line and linebackers (where former tailback Ricky Lake had been moved).

For those who don’t remember that season, my buddy Joel Provano sums it up: “We were a mediocre 7-4, losing early to Tulane (ugh!) and later to Alabama, Tennessee and Auburn. We did manage to beat Florida (as usual) and Tech, so the season wasn’t without its high points.”

Among those high points was the play of Horace King, who’d grown up in Athens to become the first Black player to appear in a game for the Bulldogs, as well as the first Black player to score for the Dawgs. He was one of three Black players on the varsity team that year, along with defensive guard Chuck Kinnebrew and cornerback Larry West.

Georgia’s pass rush put a lot of pressure on Ole Miss quarterback Norris Weese in the 1972 game. (The Red & Black) (The Red & Black/Dawgnation)

King, who had been part of the first integrated team at Athens’ Clarke Central High School, was the early standout.

Having spent the previous year playing for the Bullpups (freshmen still weren’t eligible to play for the varsity at that time), where he set a freshman record rushing for 711 yards, King wound up fourth on the team in yardage as a sophomore in 1972, but he had the best average per rush at 4.7 yards, and also caught 13 passes (third-most on the team), and scored three touchdowns.

Perhaps King’s most notable performance came in the win over North Carolina State at Sanford Stadium, his first start. Playing wingback (now called flanker), he caught 6 passes for 70 yards, scoring a touchdown, and set up another score. “I felt a little pressure playing at home” he said after the game, “and the coaches helped me a lot this week, so I’d be ready. I was hoping I could have a game like this.”

Dooley later told Tony Barnhart for “Dooley: My 40 Years at Georgia” that King’s “attitude was, ‘I only have time to go to school and play football. I don’t want anything to interfere with that.’ He was very focused, and he ended up being a heck of a running back for us. I remember we discussed the possibility of moving him to fullback, because he was so strong, but Horace didn’t want any part of that.”

Of course, there was another notable Athenian on that team in Johnson, in his second year as the starting quarterback for the Dawgs. Andy, the hero of the last-minute win over the Yellow Jackets in Atlanta the previous Thanksgiving, had been a classmate of mine since seventh grade, so I had extra incentive to get excited on game days, and always was among the first students inside the stadium.

The team gives coach Vince Dooley the game ball after the win over Ole Miss (The Red & Black) (The Red & Black/Dawgnation)

“I swear, you love those Dawgs more than any Greek,” said my neighbor Ken Powell, who was a freshman that year and a Kappa Sigma pledge.

I took that as high praise, of a sort, since the Greeks made game day practically a religious experience back then.

Tom Hodgson, another Athens boy with whom I’d grown up, recalls: “Game Day in the fall during the early ‘70s was a bit different for the fraternity men and sorority girls than it was for the balance of the UGA student body. The Greeks took these Saturdays as opportunity to dress like their parents and party like their crazy Uncle Joe. "

It was crucial to have a date for the game, Tom said, but with all the social networking between the fraternities and sororities, “very few who wanted a date found themselves without one.”

Fullback Robert Honeycutt leads the way for tailback Hal Bissell after a handoff from quarterback Andy Johnson. (The Red & Black) (The Red & Black/Dawgnation)

Date tickets to the home games were much in demand, and were distributed by lottery that year, but I only occasionally went with a date to a football game during my college years. It wasn’t until I met my future wife that I regularly needed two seats. I bought the two I still have as a season ticket holder.

Most students had given up wearing their Sunday best to games by my junior year at UGA. As Joel said, “We never dressed up for the football games, and, if I recall, some of the Greeks had stopped dressing up, too, although some still did.”

Tom, who was a KA, begs to differ. “I’m sure there were exceptions, but from my point of view, it was all young men and women dressed like they were going to church.”

He also touched on one other aspect of game day in Athens that hasn’t changed through the years: “The drinking started early with bloody marys made in the driveway of the frat house. Modern tailgating wasn’t a thing for college kids yet. We met at the frat house and walked to the stadium, drink in hand, at 10 minutes to kick-off. ... Fraternity pledges had arrived at the stadium an hour early to reserve 100 bench seats somewhere on the upper deck of the South side.”

Heavy drinking at games always has been a sore spot for those who don’t mix football and alcohol. Michael Simpson, a UGA student who was lead singer of the popular band Ravenstone, recalled the 1972 season recently: “The band was playing a lot of gigs in other cities and states. We were traveling so much that I missed all the UGA football games that season, although I admit I had all but sworn off attending games in the student seating area after a frat guy who was sitting in the row in front of me puked all over his date the year before.”

Head coach Vince Dooley is seen with some of his players from Athens, including Horace King (24), Andy Johnson (14), John Duke (7), Rusty Russell (86), Clarence Pope (51) and Richard Appleby (84). (University of Georgia) (University of Georgia/Dawgnation)

Meanwhile, Tom said, for many Greeks the highlight was after game. “Soul bands would be hired to play beach music and Motown from the front porches of the frat houses on Lumpkin Street,” he said, “and all were welcome.” Still, he said, “if there were 300 people on the front lawn, you would know 275.”

Those post-game celebrations always were more joyous after a win, Tom recalled. “Every guy was suddenly 2 inches taller, and every girl looked like a princess in disguise.”

Unfortunately, the Dawgs lost two of that season’s six home games. And, even the opening win on Sept. 16 (the season started a lot later then) wasn’t the blowout everyone had expected, with the stubborn Baylor Bears providing stiff opposition. It was an underwhelming 24-14 Georgia victory, in which the 16th-ranked Dawgs, who had been 28-point favorites, led 10-6 at halftime. Putnal was a highlight, catching three passes for 103 yards, including a 55-yard TD toss from back QB Ray. Backup tailback Bissell, nicknamed “the Missile” by UGA publicity chief Dan Magill, scored on a nice 19-yard run.

All that preseason optimism pretty much evaporated the next week when the Dawgs traveled to New Orleans for a game against the Tulane Green Wave that was televised regionally. After getting out to a 7-0 lead, Georgia saw receivers Hunnicutt and Putnal and QB Johnson go down with injuries. A Ray interception set up a Greenie field goal, and then Tulane had two long drives for TDs, to lead 17-7 at the half. In the second half, another Georgia drive ended with a Ray pass being picked off, and Tulane returned a punt for another TD. After a bad Greenie punt, Georgia scored, but a 2-point attempt failed.

The Dawgs were back home the next week against a North Carolina Wolfpack team coached by Lou Holtz. Dooley called it a “critical” game for his team, which saw Ray starting at QB for the still-injured Johnson. As mentioned previously, King had his first start in the 28-22 Georgia win. The Dawgs played ball-control, with fullback Honeycutt the Dawgs’ leading ground-gainer, rushing for 82 yards to Poulos’ 77. Ray was 10 of 14 passing, for 104 yards, despite two main receivers, Putnal and Hunnicutt, being out. The QB also ran for Georgia’s fourth score, faking a handoff to Poulos, who dived over the pile, while Ray strolled around the end to score. Georgia also blocked a Pack field goal attempt. After the block, Ray pitched to King, who threw to Bob Burns for a 24-yard gain.

Said Holtz after the game: “This was not the same Georgia team that I’ve seen on film the past two weeks.”

UGA players congratulate Horace King after a big play during the 1972 season. (Hargrett Library) (Hargrett Library/Dawgnation)

Next up was fourth-ranked Alabama. It was the first time the Dawgs and the Crimson Tide had met since the “flea-flicker” upset in 1965. Georgia shut down the Tide running game up the middle in the first half, but in the second half Bear Bryant shifted his running game to the outside and Bama QB Terry Davis ran the wishbone triple-option with devastating effectiveness. The Dawgs made too many mistakes, including four fumbles and two interceptions, as well as a dropped pass that likely would have scored, and also punted poorly. Johnson came off the bench to start the second half and led Georgia’s only scoring drive in the 25-7 loss.

The Dawgs traveled to Jackson the next week to play Ole Miss, and Georgia squeaked out a 14-13 come-from-behind win after trailing 13-0. Ole Miss was held scoreless in the second half, so the difference was Conn’s blocking of Mississippi’s second PAT attempt. Bissell scored Georgia’s first TD on a 74-yard pass from Ray over the middle, and Johnson led the Dawgs on a fourth-quarter drive. On fourth-and-5, Johnson went for it, and made it by inches. In addition to the blocked kick, Conn intercepted a pass, returned a punt 34 yards and was in on 5 tackles.

Said Dooley afterward: “I’m really proud of our football team. … We just showed a lot of guts out there.”

Back in Athens the next week for Homecoming, Georgia beat Vanderbilt 28-3, with Johnson running for 99 yards and throwing a 38-yard scoring strike to Putnal. West returned an interception 75 yards for the final score on a day when Georgia picked off four passes, but Dooley still wasn’t pleased. “We should have had more,” he said.

The next opponent was Kentucky. It was a fairly dull game, with the Wildcats punting 13 times and Georgia punting 10 times, with a pair of Braswell field goals the only scoring in the second half. The Cats only gained 40 yards total after intermission. The Dawgs intercepted 3 passes and recovered a fumble, winning 13-7.

The Tennessee Vols — featuring one of Johnson’s former Athens High teammates, David Allen, a defensive back — came to Athens the next week. With Johnson playing most of the game, Georgia had two passes intercepted that killed drives, and had several other passes dropped by receivers. Johnson ran 10 times for 73 yards, while Bissell had 85 yards on 23 carries. Georgia punted 7 times, as the Vols won 14-0. A few boos could be heard from the Sanford Stadium crowd. Said Dooley: “It was very discouraging to drop that many passes, especially two weeks in a row.” It was Dooley’s first home shutout loss in nine seasons.

One of the high points of the season came in Jacksonville, where the Dawgs topped Florida 10-7, thanks to a Braswell 37-yard field goal with about 50 seconds left in the regionally televised game. He earlier had missed one from 27 yards. Putnal caught a 44-yard bomb from Johnson for Georgia’s only TD. Dooley summed the game up: “You saw two evenly matched teams out there today, and we just happened to hold on longer.”

The Dawgs celebrate in Jacksonville. (The Red & Black) (The Red & Black/Dawgnation)

Back on TV again the next week, Georgia traveled to Auburn for a mean-spirited game that saw a lot of trash talking from the Tigers and some questionable hits. Georgia center Chris Hammond complained that AU players were hitting out of bounds all day. On one play, Johnson was pushed into a bench by a late hit in the third quarter, and didn’t return to the game. However, in a typical show of class, Andy didn’t blame the Auburn defender. “I don’t think it was a cheap shot,” he said. “I thought I would be able to jump over the bench, but I got there too fast.”

Georgia again made too many mistakes, with Ray throwing four picks, and was hit by crucial penalties in a 27-10 Auburn win. The loss eliminated the Dawgs from bowl consideration.

After a week off, Georgia played Liberty Bowl-bound Tech in Atlanta, and the Dawgs prevailed, 27-7. King, having been shifted from flanker to tailback, led all rushers with 78 yards on 19 carries. Ray threw a 37-yard TD pass to Putnal, and King scored twice.

Jackets QB Eddie McAshan didn’t play, after being suspended shortly before the game due to “personal problems,” and the Dawgs’ pass rush sacked Tech backup Jim Stevens 7 times. He still managed to throw for 202 yards, but Tech had no ground game, gaining only 27 net yards on 43 runs.

After the game, Georgia players groused about not getting a bowl bid, despite a 7-4 record, noting that they had played a tougher schedule than Tech. Still, as defensive guard Jim Cagle put it, a win over the Jackets “sure makes going home easier.”

Horace King goes over the top in a game against Georgia Tech. (University of Georgia) (University of Georgia/Dawgnation)

After the game, Dooley said he thought that, overall, it had been “a successful year,” with his Dawgs defeating two bowl-bound teams, Tech and N.C. State, and losing to three teams going to bowls, Alabama, Tennessee and Auburn.

Argued the head coach: “With a 7-4 record and the schedule we’ve played, you should be able to go to a bowl.” He noted that some teams that did get bowl invitations had worse records than Georgia’s.

Decades later, though, Dooley conceded to Loran Smith in the “Dooley’s Dawgs” book that “inconsistency plagued us” in 1972. “We didn’t complement ourselves like we seemed to do in the past. When the offense was having an off day for whatever reason, the defense was not effective at taking up the slack. And when the defense went through a bad afternoon, the offense couldn’t carry them. The schedule then included Tennessee before the annual Florida game, giving us four tough games in a row, and that increased our challenge considerably.”

Dooley summed it up well, saying, “There are many places where seven victories are roundly appreciated, but not in Athens, once you get your program established.”

A post-script to the forgettable season: King ended up gaining 1,673 yards and scoring 20 touchdowns during his Georgia career, and he was named second-team All-SEC by the AP as a senior in 1974. He played for the Detroit Lions from 1975 to 1983. He also received his degree from UGA.

You can read about student life at UGA in the fall of 1972 in my Quick Cuts blog.

Special thanks to Jason Hasty of the Hargrett Rare Book & Manuscript Library and Steve Colquitt of the UGA Athletic Association.