(This in one in a series of stories looking at some of the greats who wore the Red and Black.)
ATLANTA – Fran Tarkenton almost went to Georgia Tech. He probably should’ve gone to Georgia Tech. Based on the logic and the indicators of the day, that would’ve made the most sense.
In the late 1950s, when Tarkenton was getting ready to graduate from Athens High, he had established himself as one of the best quarterbacks in the state. At the time, Georgia Tech was the best program in the state and perennially one of the best in the country. Same with Auburn, which was rolling at the time.
Meanwhile, Georgia was terrible. The 1950s was the worst decade in UGA football history. Not only that, but the Bulldogs already had not one, but two, great quarterbacks on the roster.
“Charlie Britt and Tommy Lewis were two quarterbacks that were there,” Tarkenton said in a recent interview. “They were very good, really terrific. They had talent. I was advised by everybody not to go to Georgia because they were there.
“Georgia Tech was the power. They had depth and they had Bobby Dodd. Auburn was really good, too. So I wasn’t going to Georgia. I was recruited, very happily, by Auburn and Tech. I liked them both better than Georgia. They had better programs. I was gonna go to Tech.”
A northern transplant then just a few years removed from living in Washington, D.C., Tarkenton had grown up a Maryland Terrapins fan and idolized the Terps’ quarterback, Jack Scarbath.
He had no loyalty or connection to the hometown Bulldogs.
Well, except for one.
May Whatley was his seventh grade teacher. She made quite an impression on Tarkenton when he first came in as an out-of-towner. And Mrs. Whatley was married to Jim Whatley.
‘Big Jim’ was a big influence
Better known as “Big Jim” Whatley of Alabama and Georgia fame, Whatley became Tarkenton’s first Little League coach in Athens. He also became a mentor, the first major male influence in Tarkenton’s life besides his father.
Whatley was an assistant coach at Georgia under Wally Butts and the coach of the UGA baseball team. He thought young Francis needed to come play for the Bulldogs.
“Georgia was terrible in the ’50s; go back and look,” Tarkenton said of the Bulldogs, who had only three winning seasons out of the previous eight when he was being recruited. “Had no coaches, no organization, Wally Butts was on his last legs. He’d stopped coaching. The great Frank Broyles, who just passed away [Aug. 14, 2017], was recruiting me for Tech and I was going to go there.
“But Jim Whatley was a big man with a bigger-than-life personality. He was a great baseball and football player at Alabama. Coached our baseball team at Georgia. And so he came over and sat me down. ‘You need to go to Georgia.’
“I said, ‘If you say so, Coach Whatley, that’s what I’m gonna do.’”
So Tarkenton essentially went to UGA at the behest of his bigger-than-life Little League coach. And then he proceeded to make them all look good.
Right away, Tarkenton made an impact for the Bulldogs. Back then, freshmen were ineligible to play. But Tarkenton took over as quarterback for the freshman team and led the “Bullpups” to wins over Clemson, Auburn and Georgia Tech.
The next year, 1958, the plan was to redshirt Tarkenton. But that’s when Tarkenton’s fiery, competitive personality began to emerge. Though he entered the season third string behind Britt and Lewis, he told Butts he wouldn’t hang around for his senior year if he redshirted him.
It was in the first game of that season that Tarkenton pulled off the boldest move of his career. The Bulldogs opened the year on the road at Texas. They were trailing 7-0 midway through the third quarter and Tarkenton hadn’t played. After a Longhorns’ punt, Britt was distracted on the sideline and hadn’t gone into the game. So Tarkenton just threw on his helmet and ran onto the field.
Twenty plays and 95 yards later, Georgia scored a touchdown. It just so happened to be the first season that the two-point conversion was implemented in college football. After the score, Butts sent the kicking team onto the field. But Tarkenton waved them off and called another play. The Bulldogs converted to take an 8-7 lead.
Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, the lead was short-lived. Tarkenton was admonished and didn’t get back in the game and the Longhorns held on for a 13-8 victory. But Tarkenton had served notice that he was not going to be an ordinary player.
Quarterback controversy in Athens
Not surprisingly, a quarterback controversy ensued. Back in Athens all the talk on the radio was about how the Bulldogs needed to play Tarkenton more.
This was in the era of platoon football. Sure enough, the next week Butts started Tarkenton on the road against Vanderbilt. But he played only the first three plays of the game and then no more. It was Butts’ way of showing Tarkenton and the Georgia fans who was in charge.
Two weeks later, Tarkenton threatened to leave the team. Well, he actually DID quit. And he took best friend Pat Dye with him, along with teammate Phil Ashe.
But their departure lasted only a day. Quinton Lumpkin, who’d been their freshman coach, came to their dorm and made a personal appeal for the trio to return.
“He said, ‘Things are gonna change,’” Tarkenton recounted. “He looked at me and said, ‘You’re gonna play. You’d do me a personal favor if you’d come back.’ But that’s what I had to do to play.”
They did. And those players formed the foundation of the team that would become the 1959 SEC champions. But to this day, Britt is listed as the starting quarterback on the 1958 and ’59 teams.
SEC champions, and more
It wasn’t until 1960 that Tarkenton took over as the full-time starter. He was made the Associated Press All-America team that year.
“Officially, the whole year of ’59 I was the second-team quarterback,” Tarkenton said. “But on our team, I played 90 percent of the offense and 10 percent of the defense, and Charley played 10 percent of the offense and that’s how it worked out. Charley was more of a defensive guy. He became a very good safety man and went to pro football as a safety man.”
Tarkenton would go down in Georgia lore for his TD pass and two-point conversion to lift the Bulldogs past Auburn 14-13 to clinch that 1959 title. And the rest is history, as they say.
Tarkenton would take that same moxie to the NFL and use it to build a Hall of Fame career that ended with him as the league’s most prolific passer. But, again, he would have to prove himself on the field as five quarterbacks were taken ahead him in the 1961 draft before he landed with the expansion Minnesota Vikings.
But Tarkenton wouldn’t change any of it. All of it has made him into the man he is today. Now 77, he is president and CEO of Tarkenton Companies, which includes Tarkenton Financial and several other firms housed on the 23rd floor of the Tower Place building in Atlanta’s Buckhead district. There he teaches others to apply that can-do attitude to their business ventures and personal dreams.
“I build companies, I solve problems,” said Tarkenton, sitting behind his larger-than-life mahogany desk where he still comes to work every day. “I’ve got a bunch of kids around here who are depending on me to give them some leadership. They do amazing things. I just love getting up every morning and seeing how we can change the world.
“I can’t play football anymore, but I can help people do better and put the resources in and the money in to be able to do that. I love doing that. I’d rather do that then play golf.”