UGA has a pretty illustrious sports history, including having produced such stars as Dominique Wilkins, Teresa Edwards, Frank Sinkwich, Courtney Kupets, Spec Towns, Charley Trippi, Fran Tarkenton, Bubba Watson and, of course, Herschel Walker, recently named by ESPN as the second-greatest college football player in the history of the game.
You’d expect an athletics program with such a storied history to be celebrated on campus in high style, as a way of commemorating past accomplishments, inspiring current student athletes and impressing future enrollees.
Perhaps a statue like the University of Florida has for Tim Tebow? Maybe a street named after them like Peyton Manning has in Knoxville?
No? Well, surely, there’s at least a first-class museum or hall of fame paying tribute to UGA’s past athletes, right?
Unfortunately, that’s not the case either, a point driven home to me this week when I stopped by Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall in Athens to drop off my annual Hartman Fund contribution, and I spent some time in the athletics headquarters’ rotunda, perusing the somewhat underwhelming historical displays (you can’t really call it a “museum,” despite the Explore Georgia website optimistically trying to do so).
The best thing you can say is that there’s a display case for every varsity team that UGA fields, men’s and women’s.
Plus, there are displays for three of UGA’s football coaches (Harry Mehre, Wally Butts and Vince Dooley), cases for Sinkwich and Walker that include their helmets and their Heisman Trophies, and a display paying tribute to longtime UGA publicist and tennis coach Dan Magill. Another case shows the evolution of football helmets through the years.
Although all sports are represented, the emphasis is on football. Kupets winning the 2008-2009 award as the national women’s athlete of the year is noted inside the Gymdogs’ case, rather than in a display of her own.
Around the rotunda are wall displays with photos and artwork depicting different eras of UGA football (the early years, the Butts years, the Dooley years, and 1989 to the present). There’s a wall case with the four retired football jersey numbers (Sinkwich’s 21, Trippi’s 62, Theron Sapp’s 40 and Walker’s 34), and another display listing all of UGA’s SEC championships. The national championship crystal football trophy is on display, too.
Also in the building is the Larry Munson Trophy Room, featuring awards and trophies Georgia football has garnered through the years, but that’s on the second level (one floor down from the rotunda), where fans aren’t as likely to roam. (It’s aimed mainly at recruits, I think.)
Still, the most prominent display area is in the rotunda, where visitors have more immediate access.
Unfortunately, my latest visit to the rotunda displays left me with the feeling the athletic association is not really trying much anymore when it comes to celebrating UGA sports history. The touch-screen audio-video displays with vintage footage and Munson calls that my son used to check out when he was a kid? Gone. And, I noticed the bowl history display hasn’t even been updated since 2014!
The SEC championship display does at least include 2017, but that is the rotunda’s only mention of that fairy-tale football season. (Thankfully, over on the other side of campus, the Hargrett Library’s current football exhibit, “Beautiful and Brutal: Georgia Bulldogs Football, 2017,” runs through Feb. 29. Thank goodness for Hargrett!)
Senior Associate Athletic Director Claude Felton explained that “most of our individual sport ‘museums’ are spread around at the respective sport facilities. … We have lots of special displays in various facilities — the Boyd Golf Center, Stegeman, in and around the men’s and women’s basketball and gymnastics areas, equestrian facility, etc. All have historical displays (and graphics) of those particular sports. For example, we have a Teresa Edwards display in Stegeman that includes some of her Olympic medals, jerseys, etc.”
That’s fine, but I believe such displays would have a greater impact (and the historic artefacts more easily could be maintained and protected) if they were gathered together in one proper museum space.
I asked Athletic Director Greg McGarity whether, in the current $80 million expansion of Butts-Mehre, there are any plans for the history display area to be expanded/changed/moved at all. Any thought given to a more elaborate museum covering Georgia athletics?
“We do not have any current plans to renovate this space; however, we do have future plans that would address updating this area of the Butts-Mehre,” he said, adding that the timing is still to be determined.
As for what happened to the touch-screen displays that my son used to use? “There were those kinds of screens years ago, but they always malfunctioned, so I assume they were never replaced,” McGarity said, adding that “they were not here when I returned in 2010.”
The only touch-screen they have now is “a display that indicates the hometowns of our football players, and it’s located outside the public entry of the football offices on the second floor,” one level down from the rotunda display. It is open to the public.
Also, McGarity said, “We have TV monitors that display content throughout the indoor [practice] facility, as well multiple areas throughout the entire facility. We have a mix of ‘static’ displays and a mix of the monitors that provide content change throughout the year.”
However, the indoor practice facility is not open to the general public.
So, a proper athletics museum may not be in the cards any time soon, but at least the recognition of UGA’s past glories has improved a little bit at Sanford Stadium in recent years, with the addition of wall graphics, such as one emblazoned with “Oh you Herschel,” borrowing a phrase from Munson.
But, aside from the SEC championship banners and the mascot cemetery, that’s about it.
It seems like they could at least add some plaques or busts or something to Reed Plaza.
As I’ve written before, I’ve often wondered why you see so little of UGA’s football history at Sanford Stadium, in contrast to schools like the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where Tar Heel history is a tangible presence at Kenan Memorial Stadium. UNC generally isn’t thought of as a football power these days, but it has a statue of Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice.
Speaking of statues, aside from an 8-foot-long bronze likeness of former mascot Uga VI outside the veterinary school and another small statue of one of Uga’s predecessors, Mike, in front of Memorial Hall, the only athletics-oriented statue at UGA is that of Dooley, located at the southernmost tip of the campus, in the athletic complex named for the coach.
It’s not for want of trying. Athens sculptor (and UGA alum) Stan Mullins, who did the bronze statue of Dooley being hoisted by some of his players, also has created an 8-foot-tall bronze sculpture of Walker, but so far has had no luck getting the athletic association interested in putting it on display.
When he approached UGA few years ago, he said, “the initial pushback was that they needed to honor Sinkwich and Trippi first.”
So, Mullins also created clay models of those two players. His grand plan, dubbed the Crowns of Glory Project (which has its own Facebook page), called for monuments at the four corners surrounding the stadium, with the Walker statue to be at the bookstore end of the Sanford Drive bridge, a Trippi statue at the other end of the bridge, and a Sinkwich statue near Gate 6 on the east side. A fourth monument, located at the other eastside corner, would have an uncarved 12-ton Carrara marble block as an unfinished sculpture, which Mullins views as a recruiting tool and incentive for players, showing that Georgia is waiting on its next hero.
Mullins self-financed the casting of the bronze statue of Walker out of money he made doing a monument at Marshall University, and he unveiled it in 2016. The Walker sculpture spent time at various locations around Athens, and several months at the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in Macon, before settling down at Mullins’ studio, a renovated and redesigned 18th century cottonseed oil refinery on Pulaski Street in Athens. “He’s attacking the Greenway, the entry way to the river,” Mullins said of the Herschel statue this week. The public is welcome to visit the statue there and take pictures, he said.
I asked Mullins about the status of his efforts to have the sculpture put outside the stadium. “I don’t know,” he said with a sigh. “I stopped trying. I kept hitting resistance.
“It seems like everybody else has one,” he added, referring to athletic statues on other campuses. “It does not make sense.”
McGarity said the issue of adding statues “will always be an item for discussion moving forward,” but he added that there are “no firm plans.”
These days, Mullins is busy working on a sculpture of Tomochichi, a Yamacraw chief instrumental in Georgia colonial history, to be located in a park near Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. He made the point that commemorating past heroes with monuments is all about inspiring future heroes.
“The pageantry of sports leads to the pageantry of humanity,” Mullins said. “And, if we don’t celebrate it, it goes away.”
I’ve never understood the reluctance to do more to celebrate UGA’s athletics history. Whether it’s the statues offered by Mullins, or monuments created by someone else, UGA athletics should do more to embrace its past, and not just Walker.
As a friend put it, “We have such a rich history, and I think we undersell it; we’re more than just Herschel, as great as he was.”
On Georgiadogs.com, it says that part of the UGA Athletic Association’s mission is “to serve as a source of pride, a rallying point, for the legions of supporters that follow its teams.”
I think that’s one area where greater effort is warranted.