A week of unbridled celebration has ended with shock and grief.
I’d already written the account below of Saturday’s national championship celebration in Athens when the tragic news broke that offensive lineman Devin Willock and football recruiting staff member Chandler LeCroy died as a result of a car accident early Sunday morning. Reportedly, fellow lineman Warren McClendon suffered minor injuries in the accident, and another recruiting staff member, Tory Bowles, is hospitalized in stable condition with serious injuries.
My sincerest condolences go to the families of the two young people lost, and I pray that the others recover completely.
Before that terrible news, it had been a very special week for Bulldog Nation.
Of course, being a celebration of Georgia’s second consecutive national championship, Saturday’s sights and sounds felt really familiar: thousands of fans lining both sides of Lumpkin Street as a parade of vehicles bearing the Georgia players, coaches, staff members and their families slowly drove by … the Dawg Walk at the end of the parade … dignitaries inside the stadium hailing UGA’s national championship, won earlier in the week.
In other words, the festivities pretty much were a repeat of what happened 364 days earlier in Athens, when the Dawgs and their fans marked the first of what is now back-to-back national championships.
So, if there was a been-there, done-that feeling to Saturday’s party, that in itself is another reason for Bulldog Nation to celebrate: We could get used to this!
“I’ll see y’all next year” is how former Dawgs cornerback Brandon Boykin put it to colleagues Zach Klein and Aaron Murray as they wrapped up WSB-TV’s live coverage Saturday of UGA’s national championship parade and celebration.
In fact, optimism about next season was the major difference during the five days following this year’s natty, compared with last year’s, which was the first in 41 years.
This time last year, fans and college football observers mostly were noting the large amount of NFL-caliber talent that was going to be leaving the Dawgs, and only the most die-hard optimists (like my brother Jon) were talking about the possibility of Georgia winning another national title this year. While some sort of record may have been set for utterance of the phrase “back-to-back” in the past week, you weren’t hearing it much, if at all, last January.
However, this year, immediately after the final whistle of Georgia’s 65-7 demolition of TCU for another national championship, everyone from the talking heads on ESPN to Bulldog Nation in general started looking ahead, just like Boykin did Saturday.
Get used to the words “dynasty” and “threepeat,” because you’re going to hear them a lot in coming months. Of course, that will present a challenge for Kirby Smart and his 2023 team — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Smart loves a challenge.
As Georgia’s head coach said Saturday during his address to the crowd inside Sanford Stadium, “Achieving success is hard, it’s really hard. Sustaining success is even harder.”
Earlier in the week, shortly after the win over TCU, Smart had touched on one of the things his 2023 team will have to overcome: “The disease that creeps into your program is called entitlement,” he said. “If you can stomp it out with leadership, then you can stay hungry. And we have a saying around our place: We eat off the floor. And, if you’re willing to eat off the floor, you can be special.”
Knowing Smart, he’ll hammer into his new and returning players the notion that the past two seasons won’t do anything but put a target on their backs, and they haven’t won anything … yet.
He did the same thing this past season, and it seems to have worked out pretty well.
In the meantime, though, the rest of us can enjoy the Georgia Bulldogs’ “Glory, Glory” days, which received a suitable salute Saturday in Athens.
The four major Atlanta television stations with news operations were on hand to provide live coverage of the parade, with multiple reporters along the route, while UGA broadcast partner WSB/Channel 2 had exclusive rights to the stadium ceremony (which also was streamed online).
Fans started arriving before daybreak to stake out places along the parade route, with some setting up tents and tailgating. There was good reason to arrive early, because, at some points along Lumpkin, the fans standing by the side of the road were about 20 deep.
The parade began at 12:30 p.m. at Butts-Mehre and then turned right off Pinecrest Drive onto Lumpkin Street. The end of the route differed from last year (as did the setup inside the stadium) because of construction.
Smart, his wife Mary Beth and their youngest child, 10-year-old Andrew (known for his enthusiastic cheering on the Georgia sideline), were in the lead car, a BMW convertible, and the rest of the players, officials, staffers and their families rode in a variety of vehicles: convertibles, SUVs, pickup trucks, 18-wheeler flatbeds with hay bales and atop a couple of firetrucks. This year, a lot of the players were closer to street level, making them more accessible to fans — some of whom ran up to the cars for autographs — as well as to TV reporters seeking a quote.
It was interesting that Smart’s son Andrew had folks calling out to him along the way. He apparently already is a fan favorite. There also was an amusing moment when Smart answered his cellphone during the parade, leading to widespread guessing that he probably was taking a call from a 5-star recruit — or maybe his parents.
Quarterback Stetson Bennett, hero of the playoff games and a favorite of the large numbers of children attending the parade, was sitting in the back of a convertible with center Sedrick Van Pran, while safety Chris Smith was in the front seat. Some of the team’s units — secondary, running backs, offensive and defensive lines — rode together. And, at the tail end of the parade was a flatbed carrying the team’s early enrollees, who actually didn’t take part in the championship season, but got to be a part of the parade anyway.
Fortunately for the autograph seekers, the vehicles carrying the team crawled along, taking about 40 minutes to cover the route, which ran just over a mile. At the end of the parade, Smart led fans in the “Call the Dawgs” cheer before getting out of the car.
Because of construction on the south side of the stadium, which has closed off the Tate Center parking lot through which the Dawg Walk usually proceeds, the parade ended at Baxter Street, and then the players, coaches and their families walked past the Miller Learning Center and through the Tate Center Plaza, then down some steps to enter the stadium.
During the leisurely Dawg Walk, players were slapping fans’ hands, posing for selfies and signing autographs. Explained Dawgs linebacker Jamon Dumas-Johnson, who was among those stopping to chat briefly with WSB’s Alison Mastrangelo: “We’ve got the best fans in the world. They’re throwing us love, so we got to show it back.”
Inside, the south side’s stands were closed, reducing capacity for the event to 54,000, instead of last year’s 92,000. VIP seating was set up on the field in front of the stage, which faced the northern stands.
The team sat onstage, with most players in black or dark gray athletic wear. Bennett was the exception, wearing a bright red sweatshirt emblazoned with “THEM DAWGS IS HELL.”
While the crowd along the parade route, estimated at more than 100,000 people, looked bigger than last year’s turnout (when the weather was a bit dicey), the upper deck inside the stadium was not completely full this time. The Spike Squad and Paint Line were up front, of course.
The Redcoat Band performed (with the “Battle Hymn” solo trumpeter again on the stage) and DJ Shockley, a former Georgia quarterback now on the Bulldogs’ radio broadcast team, emceed the program and interviewed those who didn’t give formal speeches, including Athletic Director Josh Brooks and team captains Van Pran, Smith and Bennett.
The latter, a no-show at Tuesday’s day-after press conference in Los Angeles, gave a rambling answer to one question from Shock that miffed some fans, as he referenced doubts raised about him and the team this season.
“Y’all didn’t want to believe it,” Bennett concluded. “But, screw it, we got two rings, man.”
While it certainly wasn’t Bennett at his most gracious or eloquent, I don’t think he meant his comments as a shot at Georgia fans, as some believe. Rather, I got the impression he had in mind those in the media who doubted him and the team, especially before the Tennessee game.
Besides, the huge chip on his shoulder is just part of who Bennett is, and what drove him to become a great quarterback and a two-time national champion.
Elsewhere in the ceremony, SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey worked in a tailgating joke (in reference to the College Football Playoff banning traditional tailgating in its parking lot at the championship game) and advised Bulldog Nation: “Enjoy today, but get ready for tomorrow.”
Sankey wasn’t the only one addressing future expectations for college football’s new behemoth.
In his address to the crowd, Smart noted how much support the program is getting these days and the progress being made, gesturing to the stadium renovations. “Progress gives us an opportunity to continue this success,” he said.
Smart also quoted legendary basketball coach John Wooden, saying, “Winning takes talent, but to repeat takes character.”
National championship trophies then were presented, including the National Football Foundation’s MacArthur Bowl (a silver stadium), the American Football Coaches Association’s classic crystal football, and the CFP’s golden cylinder, which had been available for fans to pose with on Wednesday and Thursday at Kroger and Walmart stores in Athens.
“There’s only nine of these,” CFP Executive Director Bill Hancock said, “and you have two of them.”
The late Vince Dooley (who was heard on the big video screen at the beginning of the ceremony) was mentioned frequently, and his wife Barbara and members of the Dooley family wound up Saturday’s festivities by raising the new national championship and SEC championship pennants over Sanford Stadium as confetti was shot into the air.
Then, Smart was off to greet a bunch of highly rated recruits, the true lifeblood of his program.
Saturday’s celebration at UGA’s stadium was the culmination of an unforgettable week for Dawgs fans.
UGA students and fans flooded downtown Athens Monday night, after the Dawgs’ record-breaking thumping of the Horned Frogs at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California.
And, in the afterglow of the big win, Bennett was declared the greatest of all time among Georgia football players (not just the greatest quarterback) by a host of folks, including Smart, longtime UGA athletics official Mike Cavan, former UGA stars Murray and Matthew Stafford, and WSB Saturday coverage cohost Boykin.
Their case for Bennett being the GOAT is bolstered not just by the two consecutive natties won by teams he quarterbacked, or him being named offensive MVP of four playoff games. His stats also are pretty mind-blowing, as Bennett set a school single-season record for passes completed (310), passes attempted (454) and for passing yards (4,127). His completion percentage of 68.28 is the best in UGA history, and his 4,332 yards of total offense are the most in program history.
(Murray, who has started lobbying for a statue of Bennett to be erected on campus, jokingly wondered which version of him the monument ought to represent: curly-haired Stetson or Stetson with the fade.)
Also this week, the Dogs already were occupying the No. 1 spot in several “way too early” Top 25 preseason polls for 2023, but Smart didn’t want to talk about that. He did, however, take a moment away from recruiting to attend a Georgia basketball game at Stegeman Coliseum with his family. The basketball Bulldogs beat Mississippi State, with the Smarts sitting in the front row.
The personnel turnover that always accompanies the end of a season these days already was underway this past week, too, with at least seven underclassmen declaring for the NFL draft, while several underutilized Georgia players announced they were entering the transfer portal. Conversely, the Dawgs have picked up three transfers from other programs — Mississippi State receiver Rara Thomas, Missouri receiver Dominic Lovett and Texas A&M defensive back Deyon “Smoke” Bouie.
In another repeat from last year, there were long lines Thursday at the Raising Cane’s chicken place near the UGA dorms on Baxter Street in Athens, where Bennett had a return engagement running the drive-through window and cash register for about 90 minutes.
This year, though, a couple of other Dawgs got into the celebrity appearance game, with Malaki Starks working on Thursday at a Your Pie pizza location in Athens (including tossing dough!), while he and Ladd McConkey signed autographs separately Friday at a couple of Academy Sports & Outdoors locations.
Already, a couple of books about the Dawgs’ 2022 championship season have been announced — with a volume from Triumph featuring coverage from the AJC and another from Pediment making use of coverage from the Athens Banner-Herald. Pediment also has announced a forthcoming book about the rise of UGA football under Smart, also based on Banner-Herald stories.
Even the electronic marquee at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre paid tribute this week to the Dawgs’ latest national championship.
And, of course, fans have been scrambling to buy T-shirts, sweatshirts, caps, toys and other pieces of memorabilia celebrating the Dawgs’ back-to-back championships.
It could be an expensive winter for Bulldog Nation, but that’s to be expected when your team wins not just one national title, but two of them in consecutive years.
Come to think of it, maybe we’d better start putting a few bucks aside for next year. …