Junkyard Mail: Fan Day, NIL, a song for Sanford, the Steg and more

Brian Herrien greets a fan at the most recent Georgia Bulldogs Fan Day, held in 2019. (Tony Walsh/UGA)
Anthony Walsh

Let’s see what UGA fans are barking about in the dog days of summer.

Hey Bill. What are the chances that UGA will have a Fan/Picture Day this season?

— Omar Oliver

Hey Bill, I wonder if we’ll ever get to have a preseason Fan Day with the Dawgs again. They got rid of Picture Day in 2016 after Kirby [Smart] arrived, and the signing day event at Butts-Mehre, and he does fewer booster club meetings, too. We did still go on the field with the players and get to watch an open practice at Fan Day after Picture Day ended, but that hasn’t happened the past couple of years because of the pandemic. What about this year?

— Heather Brown

I put the question to Claude Felton, senior associate athletic director, and he reported that there is “no fan day on the schedule” this year.

Of course, besides the pandemic, a lot has changed since the last Fan Day in 2019. Even then, fans were limited to getting autographs on no more than two posters provided at the event, and individual posed photos could be taken only with Uga X. No posed photographs with players or Smart were permitted.

Quincy Mauger poses with a fan at one of the old Picture Days held at the stadium. (John Kelley/UGA)
John Kelley, Dawgnation

And, that was before the new NIL rules allowed players to benefit financially by signing and posing for pictures at paid events. One such event, planned by the Players Lounge, was set for Saturday at the College Football Hall of Fame, and was to include UGA players and Mark Richt. However, the event was postponed, amid another COVID-19 surge, with the announcement noting: “We must be cognizant of the health and safety of everyone, and the best interest of the players.”

Still, even after the virus’s variants (hopefully) play themselves out, I’m not sure we’ll ever see free mass signing events like Fan Day again. And, sad as that is, I think that’s just the way the game has evolved, rather than having anything to do with Smart not being enthusiastic about meeting fans.

Bill, The wild, wild west of NIL money and no “enforceable” rules, leads me to believe schools are paying players to play. … I’m bummed Kirby has Georgia in position to play for national championships, year in and year out, and now it will all be wiped away by Texas oil money or Hollywood money, [against which] neither UGA nor Alabama can compete.

— Jim Parry

Actually, that’s not the case, according to Bama’s Nick Saban, who bragged at SEC Media Days in Atlanta this past week that his team, as a whole, has name, image and likeness deals totaling more than $3 million, which he said was “better than anybody in the country.”

Ironically, that’s the same Saban who was complaining earlier in the summer that Texas A&M had “bought” its top-ranked recruiting class.

Of course, as the AJC’s Chip Towers pointed out, none of that is independently verifiable. NIL money directed to college athletes — whether through individual deals or fan-funded “collectives” — is protected from public view by federal privacy laws.

A lot of those deals do get announced, though, and Stetson Bennett is believed to be the leading among the 95 Dawgs getting NIL money, with the quarterback getting an estimated $713,000.

Stetson Bennett, seen at SEC Media Days in Atlanta, is believed to be the largest beneficiary of NIL money among Georgia players. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Curtis Compton, Dawgnation

Although NIL was not intended to be used as a recruiting inducement, it’s clear that is exactly what’s happening at some schools, and the fear among coaches, including Georgia’s Smart, is that recruits will start prioritizing NIL money over a relationship with coaches or a chance to play in an elite program.

Frankly, I don’t think we’re there yet. I think the chance to start for a Georgia or Alabama or some other team seen as competing for a College Football Playoff spot will continue to weigh heavily in recruits’ decisions, as will a school’s record of producing players taken in the NFL draft (where UGA excels). After all, the players still can rake in the NIL money after signing with the school of their choice (as originally intended by the rule), especially if it’s an elite program in the national title conversation.

Still, it’s clear that some guidelines are needed as to what’s acceptable, and what’s not, when it comes to NIL collectives trying to influence where recruits sign. Whether that guidance will end up coming from the increasingly irrelevant NCAA, or from some sort of legislation in Congress, remains to be seen.

The game against Oregon is as huge as last year’s opening game against Clemson. We have to set the tone for the season, and that game is a must win. [Dan] Lanning will have his team ready to play but I believe Kirby & Co. will also be prepared and will prevail. As is usual, you wonder what game the team will not show up for. This year’s team is as talented as any team I have seen in my 60-plus years of following Georgia football … [but] a key injury could hurt us more this year than last, as we are not quite as deep. It will be fun to watch, and the SEC just gets more interesting every year.

— Gary Cody

I don’t think the opener with Oregon is quite as “huge” as last year’s first game against Clemson in Charlotte, just because the Ducks aren’t on the same level as the Tigers and won’t be as highly ranked coming into that game. However, you’re correct in thinking a big win in a neutral-site game can set the tone for the season. And, you’re also right that Georgia doesn’t have quite the depth of experience that allowed it to weather numerous injuries last season. (That’s right, Bama fans, your team wasn’t the only one that lost starters to injury!)

I do think, though, that the recruiting tear Smart has been on in recent years gives the Dawgs a talent advantage over most opponents they’ll play. As I wrote recently, I won’t predict whether Georgia can repeat as national champions — there are too many unknowns that factor into that at this point — but I’m cautiously optimistic that the 2022 Bulldogs again will play for the SEC title, and will be a playoff contender.

Vince Dooley gets a victory ride early in his career, before Sanford Stadium was double-decked. (University of Georgia)
Walker Montgomery, Dawgnation

If UGA coaches of the modern era were compared to vehicles, starting with Coach [Vince] Dooley, what would your pick for each be?

— Phillip Joiner

Well, that’s a fun exercise to ponder. On the one hand, Dooley was known for powerful, methodical but not terribly flashy offenses, along with stout defenses. However, he also had his fun side — he loved to pull out the occasional flea-flicker or shoestring play. Overall, though, he always was a classy coach. So, I think I’d go with a prestige car like a Cadillac.

I think you could make the case that Ray Goff was the Jaguar of UGA coaches — sleek, looked good, could go fast, but prone to break down. Jim Donnan was a bit like a Mustang King Cobra, in that his teams looked great, but didn’t have a lot of power. Mark Richt was the Toyota Camry of UGA coaches: solid, reliable and family-oriented, but, ultimately, not going to get anyone too excited.

As for Smart, he’s definitely a Mercedes-Benz S-Class. Enjoy the ride.

Jordan Davis and his National Champion teammates are the subject of the SEC Network’s “Year of the Dawg.” (Tony Walsh/UGA)
Tony Walsh, Dawgnation

Hey Bill, what did you think of the SEC Network’s “Year of the Dawg” program that premiered this week? I enjoyed it, but I would have liked to hear more from the players.

— Peggy Garner

I agree with you. I thought the hourlong show did a good job of encapsulating the season, devoting the first half to the regular season and the last half to the postseason, with a good mix of game action, sideline and practice footage, and behind-the-scenes material.

I thought the best scenes were the locker room addresses by Smart, with the Kirbyisms flying left and right, like “It ain’t about how you look; it’s about how you hit,” and “We’re not practicing to beat somebody; we’re practicing to beat everybody.” I especially liked when he told the players after the national championship win to take a breath and soak it all in. “I want you to remember this for the rest of your life.”

But, while there were some player interviews in the program, I would have liked to hear more from them, particularly about the SEC Championship Game loss, and maybe from JT Daniels, about the way things turned out for him. He just sort of disappeared from the latter two-thirds of the program.

All in all, I don’t think “Year of the Dawg” was quite as effective as the old “1980!” documentary I have sitting on a VHS tape somewhere, but it still is a keeper.

Bill: I share the concerns voiced by others of the plan to close Sanford Drive bridge for games. But I recognize the need to relieve crowding at the South ticket gates. I would add that the Northeast ticket gate, No. 2, also needs to be expanded or otherwise improved. Dawg Nation tends to arrive to games a little later (no doubt because of our great tailgating and all that downtown Athens offers), but the result is a tremendous crush of fans.

And, to reprise a suggestion from a couple of years back: I wish we could get the powers that be behind playing a song (maybe at the beginning of the third quarter) that engages the entire stadium. Wisconsin has “Jump Around.” Florida has Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” North Carolina has “Sweet Caroline.” There were several great suggestions last time around, but still no progress.

— Jaxlawdawg

As much as I don’t like the idea of having to “enter the stadium” in order to access the south end of the bridge, once you do that, you’re inside, so I would imagine that would somewhat lessen the crush at Gate 2, on the North side. It’d be nice if most of the crowd didn’t try and enter the gates during the last half hour before kickoff, but that’s sort of how Bulldog Nation is programmed, and I’m not sure there’s any way to change that.

“Love Shack” by Athens’ own B-52’s is one suggestion for a Sanford Stadium sing-along. (AJC file)
AJC File, Dawgnation

As for your song idea, when you first raised it in March 2019, some of the possible stadium sing-alongs suggested by fans included “Love Shack” by the B-52′s, “R.E.M.’s “Shiny Happy People,” the Allman Brothers Band’s “Ramblin’ Man,” Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” and Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is a Place on Earth.” I think any of those would do the job. The main thing, as someone pointed out at the time, is that it needs to be a song that bridges the generations, in order to get the whole stadium singing. If you’d like to pitch your idea to the UGA Athletic Association, you could try Director of Athletics Josh Brooks at athdir@uga.edu, or Matt Brachowski, the senior associate athletic director in charge of game-day operations, at mattb@sports.uga.edu.

Bill, I am intrigued by what Mike White will do with the basketball team. The key is recruiting well in the state. I believe we are at a disadvantage with Stegeman. I was at the first game [of the season] there in 1965, when the Dawgs upset Billy Cunningham and UNC. The facility was built as a multi-use facility, and it is past its prime.

— Jim Sandifer

I’m one of those stalwart defenders of the Steg, and I readily admit that a good portion of my devotion to it probably stems from watching it being built while attending nearby Barrow Elementary School.

As I wrote a few years back, the history of the arena, originally known as the Georgia Coliseum, is so intertwined with my own family history that I take offense when I hear clueless fans badmouth it and claim that the Bulldogs will never have a top-notch basketball program as long as they’re playing in “the Stegesaurus.”

Frankly, I think many of the people who talk that way likely haven’t visited Stegeman in years, probably not since the athletic department shared the facility with the ag school for cattle shows and rodeos — which doesn’t happen nowadays.

Besides, the size and age of the arena doesn’t determine a program’s success. Duke University’s Cameron Indoor Stadium is 24 years older than Stegeman and has 1,200 fewer seats, but that certainly hasn’t kept the Blue Devils from having one of the nation’s most successful basketball programs.

Stegeman Coliseum may be old, but it’s not the reason Georgia basketball isn’t more successful. (University of Georgia)
Brian C. Robbins, Dawgnation

Also, UGA opened a beautiful $30 million adjoining state-of-the-art basketball and gymnastics training facility in 2007, which probably speaks more to players’ needs than does the arena in which games are played. Speaking of which, in recent years, more than $20 million has been spent bringing Stegeman into the 21st century, with renovated concourses, a state-of-the-art scoreboard, improved lighting and new seating.

Basically, when the product on the court is good, the fans respond, packing the old arena and giving the roundball Dawgs quite a home advantage.

That’s not just my built-in bias talking, either. Stegeman Coliseum was listed at No. 21 in the 2020 arena rankings of NCAA Division I basketball venues by Stadium Journey, which reviewed 334 of 353 NCAA Division I arenas and then compiled its rankings utilizing a “fanfare” system, which took into account a facility’s food, atmosphere, neighborhood, fans, access, value and more.

Jim, I think you’re correct in pegging in-state recruiting as a key to any future success that White (or any other head basketball coach) will have in Athens. The problem there is sort of a which came first, the chicken or the egg scenario. Even a spiffy, brand-new arena probably wouldn’t attract the state’s top basketball talent if they didn’t think the program had a decent chance of making the NCAA tournament.

On the other hand, how do you make the tournament without signing the top talent? Having a coach who makes good in-game decisions would help.

Still, I don’t really think a new arena is the key. Who knows, maybe some UGA boosters can start a basketball-specific NIL collective, and that might keep some of that Atlanta high school basketball talent at home for college.

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