Oh! What a week for the Dawgs and their fans
“I have never been to a stadium full on a Saturday in January.”
That was well-traveled Greg Sankey, who’s been to a few national championship celebrations in his time as SEC commissioner, paying tribute Saturday to Bulldog Nation, while addressing a capacity crowd at Sanford Stadium.
Of course, Georgia’s College Football Playoff National Championship celebration also honored the players who won the title, as well as their coaches, the coaches’ families, the athletics support staff and the University of Georgia’s administrators.
But, make no mistake, this was a day for the fans, and Athletic Director Josh Brooks and head coach Kirby Smart paid special tribute to the Dawgs’ enthusiastic supporters, who filled the stadium on a chilly, overcast day in Athens, despite a winter storm being just hours away.
Smart told the crowd that it all began with that 93K packed-house G-Day spring scrimmage in his first season as head coach, when “you guys answered the bell as fans.” That level of fan support has continued over the past six seasons, he said, not just in Athens, but in South Bend, Nashville, Jacksonville, Miami and, most recently, Indianapolis. “You travel wherever we go, and you take over stadiums,” Smart noted.
In addition to the fans who snagged the 92,000 free tickets to Saturday’s stadium festivities, thousands more crowded both sides of Pinecrest Drive and Lumpkin Street to watch the team members, coaches and their families parade from Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall to the Tate Center parking lot. There, they were greeted by the Redcoat Band and thousands more fans for a special Dawg Walk that saw players signing autographs, hugging fans and Redcoats, and a particularly animated Smart woofing as he initiated a “call the Dawgs” cheer. There were noticeably more young children on hand, along the parade route and inside the stadium, than you usually see at a game.
The four major Atlanta television stations with news operations were on hand to provide live coverage of the parade, while UGA broadcast partner WSB/Channel 2 had exclusive rights to the stadium ceremony (which also was streamed online).
Fortunately, the parade took its time (unlike the Braves’ recent breakneck run through downtown Atlanta), with kids allowed to run up and slap the hands of players, who rode in the backs of pickups, convertibles, 18-wheeler flatbeds, and a firetruck. (Unfortunately, the players on top of the firetruck, including quarterback Stetson Bennett, were out of fans’ reach.)
The 12:30 p.m. parade even paused occasionally for some players to answer questions from reporters stationed along the way, with Zamir White telling Fox 5′s Claire Simms (a UGA grad) that the day was “crazy, amazing. We’re just blessed to be here. I love this crowd. The fans are great.”
Sanford Stadium had opened to fans at noon (with the parade shown on the big video screen), but it wasn’t until after the Dawg Walk was finished, about an hour and 15 minutes later, that most of the crowd entered the gates. Meanwhile, fans without tickets packed the Sanford Drive bridge.
Inside, it was pretty much like a game day, with concession stands open and a free commemorative poster handed out. A large stage, bleachers for the players (who were in white Dawg hoodies) and seating for the Spike Squad, family members, major donors and recruiting prospects were set up on the field, which was painted differently than usual, with sharp-looking black GEORGIA and BULLDOGS end zone markings that drew praise from quite a lot of fans. There also were more speakers set up, so the Redcoats could be heard clearly throughout the stadium.
The beginning of the hourlong 2 p.m. ceremony pretty much followed the usual pre-game script, with the Redcoat Band playing and 89-year-old former head coach Vince Dooley featured in the “It’s not just any Saturday” video — which, I have to admit, I found to be an emotional moment.
(All four of Smart’s predecessors — Dooley, Ray Goff, Jim Donnan and Mark Richt, all of whom live in Athens, were on hand Saturday.)
One key difference from the usual routine was that the young woman who was the Redcoats’ solo trumpeter for the “Battle Hymn of the Bulldog Nation” performed from the stage set up on Dooley Field, rather than in the upper deck of the stands. Also, when the team came out, it was Smart himself who broke through the big banner, as they entered the field.
For the ceremony itself, emcee DJ Shockley introduced various dignitaries to speak, with the Henry David Thoreau-quoting Smart giving the longest address. Shockley also interviewed Georgia players Jamaree Salyer (representing the offense) and Jordan Davis (the defensive rep, who pulled up his sweatshirt to reveal a Braves jersey, which got the crowd revved up).
Asked by Shock why he decided to return for one more year playing as a Bulldog, Davis said, “We knew we had something special.”
As for what UGA means to him, the oversized fan favorite said he was “a kid from Charlotte, North Carolina. Not that big of a recruit, feeling a little nervous coming in. Dawg Nation embraced me with open arms. And, for that, I am forever grateful. This is something nobody can ever take away from us. We are forever legendary. So, to all of Dawg Nation, we love you.”
All three national championship trophies were presented, including the National Football Foundation’s MacArthur Bowl, 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 a couple of Athens Walmarts.
Finally, the seniors from the championship-winning 1980 team raised the new 2021 national championship pennant over Sanford Stadium, and colored confetti was shot out on the field, much to the delight of the folks seated down there.
Saturday’s celebration at UGA’s stadium was the culmination of a very special week, the likes of which Bulldog Nation hadn’t seen in 41 years, if ever.
Many Georgia fans spent the week tuning in to various replays of the game, or watching some of the specialized streaming versions (including one in which Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher and his staff provided insider commentary). As for the original telecast of the game on the ESPN family of channels, it drew 22.6 million viewers, which was up 19 percent from last year’s national championship contest between Alabama and Ohio State, but fell short of the 28.4 million who tuned in for the January 2018 game between Georgia and Bama. (The inaugural CFP national championship game in 2015, between Oregon and Ohio State, still holds the record for the playoff era, with 34.2 million viewers.)
Fans also spent much of the week sharing various viral clips online, with one of the most popular being the footage of Smart jumping several feet into the air on the sideline as Kelee Ringo made the victory-sealing interception. Another favorite: Davis, an honorary Redcoat, saluting the band during the “Battle Hymn” at the end of the game in Indy. “I love y’all. I love y’all so much,” the defensive lineman said to the musicians before entering the tunnel.
And, fans also were busy this week “buying the Internet,” as my kids put it, ordering UGA national championship shirts, caps, glasses, signs, and other mementos, as well as snapping up newspaper special sections and laminated pages, a special Sports Illustrated cover and a commemorative Coke bottle. (The UGA Bookstore, across the street from the stadium, which sells more Bulldogs memorabilia than it does books these days, also was slammed Saturday.) Speaking of books, at least four forthcoming titles about the Dawgs’ special season have been announced.
A good bit of time also was devoted in fan circles this week to discussing the inevitable post-season departures from the team, via the NFL and the transfer portal, and what the quarterback room will look like next season.
Focus of much of that discussion, of course, was on the future of Bennett, who had quite a week himself, following his offensive MVP performance in Indianapolis, starting early the next morning with an unwisely scheduled live-via-satellite appearance on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Hailed widely as the Georgia QB’s “drunk” interview, it added a new dimension to his folk-hero status. Whether Bennett was hungover from celebrating all night, or just exhausted, he was listing to one side, with his eyes half closed, as he took questions, but, while he spoke very slowly, he answered the questions thoughtfully. His indication that he’ll play football next season — though he wouldn’t say where — provided fodder for innumerable fan tweets and Facebook posts.
Meanwhile, late in the week some fans in Athens were shocked to find themselves ordering from Bennett himself when they stopped by the Raising Cane’s chicken outlet near the UGA campus — a special appearance that sparked speculation about a new NIL deal.
And, then came Saturday’s celebration. Mostly, it was a feel-good day for Bulldog Nation, though some folks on social media were nitpicking the lack of identification of the players in the parade; the rather straggling nature of the Dawg Walk; and the frequent commercial interruptions, needless host chattering and technical glitches of the WSB broadcast of the ceremony (problems largely absent from the Internet stream).
Frankly, though, it seems kind of churlish to be focusing on those minor annoyances when you’re talking about such a joyous occasion as a Sanford Stadium celebration of a national college football championship.
It might not have been a perfect production, but it was the only national championship celebration going on Saturday, and it was Between the Hedges.
Forever legendary, indeed.
(Special thanks to Leslie King, William Thornton King and Olivia King.)
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