UGA football: Celebrating the 40th anniversary of ‘the sweetest season’
While rivals might take great pleasure in pointing out it’s been four decades since the Dawgs last won a national championship in football, UGA has chosen to accentuate the positive, launching an official celebration of the 40th anniversary of the 1980 season on georgiadogs.com, complete with a sharp-looking logo.
Every week in a series of articles, “40-for-80: The Sweetest Season,” Jeff Dantzler of the Georgia Bulldog Radio Network does a deep dive into a game from the national championship season (starting this past week with the opener against Tennessee), plus you can view that week’s installment of the “Vince Dooley Show” and listen to a “Pawdcast” hosted by Dantzler (the first one features guests Hugh Nall and Chris Welton from the 1980 team).
Reading about the games is fun, but, for many fans, including me, the best thing about the 1980 season is the personal memories that come up whenever we think of that 12-0 team, which was “unbeaten, untied and unbelievable!” as The Atlanta Journal’s front page headline said the day after the Sugar Bowl.
My wife, Leslie, said that, whenever she thinks of the 1980 season, “I always think of Herschel,” and that pretty much goes for most Dawgs fans.
Those memories start with the first game, which saw Georgia come back from a 15-0 deficit to the Vols in Knoxville. I remember listening to the Tennessee game on the radio, and nervously walking continuous laps around an office we rented. I just about wore a groove into the carpet as Larry Munson described the action, including the unforgettable call of Herschel Walker’s first touchdown as a Georgia Bulldog: “He’s running all over people! Oh, you, Herschel Walker. My God Almighty, he ran right through two men. …. He drove right over orange shirts, just driving and running with those big thighs. My God, a freshman!”
Munson’s call is what my longtime friend Ben Anderson thinks of when the 1980 season comes up. “I will never forget that call,” he said. “Certainly, a preview of a remarkable season and college career.”
Bill Hartman, a UGA grad who was a sportscaster for WAGA-TV in Atlanta at that time, recalled, “I had a devil of a time finding out who won the Tennessee game. I was in Minneapolis to cover the Falcons-Vikings game the next day and the local TV stations didn’t report the score. I knew that the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire had won its game, but had to call home to find out Georgia had beaten Tennessee.”
(As unbelievable as it might seem to younger fans today, only three of Georgia’s games were on TV that season: South Carolina, Florida and the Sugar Bowl. No wonder Munson’s radio broadcasts were so important to us!)
Singer Dirk Howell, an Athens native, was lucky enough to attend that 16-15 Dawgs win in Knoxville and remembers Georgia was in its red road pants, which “looked great.” Walker, a freshman playing his first game, didn’t start the game, but to help spark a lackluster offense. “When Herschel broke through the line and ran over Tennessee’s Bill Bates to put Georgia ahead in the fourth quarter, the Georgia fans went nuts,” he said.
When Howell reached over to high-five a friend, he was “face-down, with his legs sticking up, three rows down below us.” After the friend righted himself, Howell said, “his glasses were broken in half, with the two pieces hanging on each of his ears. He didn’t even notice … or care. A great memory to begin the championship run!”
Also at the game was my buddy Scott Peacocke, who remembers “a Vols fan trying to pick a fight as I exited the stadium, but I just ignored him. I was too euphoric and drained from the game!”
Kevin Whaley said that, prior to the Georgia-Tennessee game, he was “only a casual Georgia football fan” and had “never attended a game and probably had never watched a full game on television. … But, for that game at Neyland Stadium, my uncle and aunt had the game on the radio on their poolside speakers, so we were listening that warm night after a day of swimming and eating. I can’t say I really remember the details of the game that well, except that I was glad we came from behind to win. … After that game, my dad and I listened to some games on the radio the rest of the season … and I remember vividly watching the Florida game and being excited. That was my indoctrination to fandom.”
Georgia then began a stretch of five consecutive games in Athens, easily taking care of Texas A&M 42-0, and survived a 20-16 scare against Clemson. Scott remembers a play late in the game where Walker fumbled the ball and was pinned to the ground but “executes a violent pushup to get leverage off the ground, and crawls to the ball — with 260 pounds clinging frantically in a futile attempt to prevent him from getting there. Herschel snatches the ball back just the other Clemson players dive for it.”
Next, an easy 34-3 win over TCU in which Walker limped off the field, but it wasn’t serious. That game marked the first home game since the beginning of the 1965 season that I’d missed, but I had a pretty good excuse: Leslie and I had taken my parents to Wales to visit Mom’s family — my Dad’s first trip back since he was stationed there before D-Day in World War II.
Ole Miss then came to Athens, losing 28-21 in a competitive game, and the extended home stand closed out with a 41-0 spanking of Vanderbilt. Stu McGarity (older brother of UGA Athletic Director Greg McGarity) remembers the Vandy game was the first time the two sides of the stadium alternated on the “Herschel … Walker!” chant. He also remembers UGA legend “Dapper Dan” Magill in the pressbox calling Walker “the goal-line stalker.”
After a 27-0 win over Kentucky in Lexington, Georgia welcomed No. 14 South Carolina and leading Heisman Trophy candidate George Rogers to Athens for a game broadcast nationally by ABC. The game was seen widely as a “showdown” between Rogers and Walker. The UGA tailback came into the game with 877 rushing yards, averaging 6.2 yards per carry, and Rogers had amassed 1,089 yards (averaging 6.4).
Both generally were great that day, with Rogers gaining 168 yards on 35 carries and Herschel racking up 219 yards on 43 carries, one of which is considered by many to be his finest run ever: Early in the third quarter, he shot down the right sideline. Three South Carolina defenders had the right angle to stop him, but Walker suddenly accelerated, scooting untouched into the end zone. As my brother Tim said, “It was amazing!”
Georgia held a slim 13-10 lead late in the game when the Gamecocks began driving, only to have the ball stripped from Rogers and recovered by the Dawgs. That fumble was the stat that mattered.
Rogers went on to win the Heisman (with many not voting for Walker because he was only a freshman) but the win over the Gamecocks, coupled with top-ranked Alabama losing to Mississippi State and No. 2 UCLA being upset by Arizona, vaulted Georgia to No. 2 behind undefeated Notre Dame in the polls.
Which brings us to the Florida game in Jacksonville, which provided many Dawgs fans’ most memorable moment of that season: the legendary and often replayed Buck Belue pass to Lindsay Scott, with its classic “Run, Lindsay!” call by Munson on the radio.
Watching the Florida game on TV, Tim and I jumped to our feet, yelling in unison: “Go! Go! Go!” during Buck-to-Lindsay. Upstairs, Leslie thought we were yelling “No! No! No!” and feared the worst.
Said Tim: “I still remember we jumped up and down, yelling and screaming for the longest time afterward. Probably more than for any game, even the Rose Bowl. Of course, we are a lot older now.”
It was a similar scene for my friend Joel Provano and his dad. Joel was standing and his father was sitting as they watched the TV broadcast with the sound muted, so they could listen to Munson.
Joel admitted that what Munson later said after the big play was dead accurate: “‘I gave up, you did too.’ I had pretty much given up.” Then Belue-to-Scott happened. “The last thing I heard Munson say was ‘Run, Lindsay!’ At that point my dad and I both began screaming, drowning out the broadcast. As Lindsay crossed the goal line, I was no longer standing, and my dad was no longer sitting. We were both on our knees, inches from the TV and pounding each other on the back as we celebrated the miracle.”
Added Joel: “As much as I still love Georgia football and have loved it through the years, I don’t think it will ever top celebrating a truly miraculous moment with my dad.”
Broadcaster Dantzler, who was 8 at the time, remembers watching the 26-21 Georgia victory at his grandparents’ house, and drawing a game poster. With the back-and-forth nature of the game, he said, “I was in tears. Then ecstatic.”
Helen Castronis, who had grown up in the Bulldog football program (her dad was a longtime assistant coach) remembers that “back in those days I had a bad habit of hiding in the bathroom when the going got tough. … So, yes, I missed the pass from Buck to Lindsay, heard the roar, ran out of the bathroom to see what had happened.” She added: “It did cure me from hiding in the bathroom.”
Brent Huss was with his family at his father’s company’s annual picnic in Sylvester, where a large group watched the game on TV. However, when Florida scored late to take the lead, his dad was so mad that he insisted they leave early, turning on the game on the radio. “As a result, everyone in my family can honestly say that they heard Larry Munson’s call as it happened,” Huss said.
The 1980 season is the only one where Darrell Huckaby attended every game, so he, too, was in Jacksonville. “I remember Lindsay Scott running right toward me in the Gator Bowl end zone, and having a big ‘altercation’ with the Florida fan in front of me after he scored.”
Tony Barnhart, a fellow alum of The Red & Black who would go on to become “Mr. College Football” in print and on TV, was working for a Greensboro, NC, newspaper at the time and was in Florida to cover a game between North Carolina A&T and Florida A&M. He watched the Georgia-Florida game in his hotel room and “when Lindsay Scott went the distance, I jumped out of my chair with my arms in the air and literally destroyed a hanging lamp. … The next morning, I checked out of the Econo-Lodge in Tallahassee and informed the manager about the lamp and offered to pay for the damage. He said, ‘Let me get this right. You broke a lamp cheering for somebody to beat Florida?’” Barnhart told him yes, and the man replied: “You don’t owe me a thing. I’m a Florida State fan.”
Sportscaster Hartman did not go to the Georgia-Florida game, because “WAGA didn’t want to spend the money, so I watched it at home.” He remembers that, “after Belue hit Scott on the famous touchdown play, I walked outside, looked into the sky and thought, ‘Wow! We’re going to be number one in the nation on Monday.’”
That’s because the same day the Dawgs beat Florida, Notre Dame was tied 3-3 … by Georgia Tech. The irony of the Jackets playing a part in elevating Georgia to No. 1 in the polls was not lost on Bulldog Nation (or Tech fans).
The top-ranked Dawgs went on the road to Auburn the next week and Scott and a friend were there, “to see us clinch the SEC title, and to play as the No. 1 ranked team in the country for the first time in my lifetime. Auburn wasn’t very good, but we both were nervous as the Tigers were often a thorn in the side of Dooley teams. We fell behind 7-0, but blocked a punt for our first TD, which remains the only specific-play memory I have of the game.” Georgia won 31-21.
Back in 1980, Sanford Stadium had not yet been enclosed at the east end, and fans would gather for free beside the railroad track that runs right behind the stadium to view the action on the field. For the game against Tech, which Georgia won 38-20, Huckaby remembers the Dawgs getting off the team bus “and they all had T-shirts thanking the ‘Track People’ — Coach [Erk] Russell’s idea — and they took them off and tossed them into the crowd on the tracks.”
That was the game where a long Walker touchdown run broke Tony Dorsett’s freshman college football rushing record. But, Scott’s main memory is of watching four guys smuggle a keg into Sanford Stadium. “They had strapped it underneath a wheelchair, which was being used by a student who had clearly feigned a leg injury of sorts. They simply wheeled him past security at the gates, and then four guys hauled the wheelchair/keg to the top row of the stadium.”
The New Year’s Day matchup of the No. 1 Dawgs and No. 7 Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans didn’t produce the season’s greatest game by any stretch of the imagination. The Fighting Irish dominated in rushing, passing and first downs, even though Walker ran for 150 yards despite dislocating his shoulder early in the game. Take away Walker’s 36 carries, and Georgia amassed minus-30 yards of offense, partly due to four sacks of Belue. However, the Irish sucked on special teams, with Georgia blocking one kick and recovering a muffed Notre Dame catch on another. With 2:05 left, and Georgia clinging to a 17-10 lead, Belue was 0-11 in passing and the Dawgs were facing third-and-7 at midfield, needing to retain possession to kill the clock and win the game. That’s when Belue finally completed his first — and only — pass of the day. Of course, as a beaming Dooley put it afterward, “That was the only one we needed.”
Barnhart couldn’t talk his paper into sending him to cover the game, so he and a buddy threw a party. “It was a great day that ended with me drinking champagne out of my Georgia Bulldog mug,” Barnhart said. “I found out that if you drink champagne out of a beer mug, you’ll get drunk very fast.”
Castronis and her family attended the Sugar Bowl, but, she said, “my biggest memories happened after the game. We went as a family to congratulate Coach Dooley and Mrs. Dooley in their suite, and then headed to Bourbon Street for the party.”
The celebration of the Dawgs’ national championship went on for months in Georgia, resulting in numerous commemorative items that fans treasure to this day. I have three of the special Coca-Cola bottles issued to mark the occasion, as well as a set of the tumblers the AJC produced featuring the Journal and Constitution’s front page headlines announcing the championship; an engraved Bulldog brass belt buckle; a Bulldogs mug; books, VHS tapes and DVDs; and, packed away somewhere, the negative for the Constitution front page that some anonymous soul left rolled up on my desk in the newsroom.
Doug Vinson, who grew up near my family’s home in Athens’ Five Points neighborhood, also treasures his commemorative Coke bottle, as well as his autographed copy of “Glory! Glory!,” Lewis Grizzard and Loran Smith’s “marvelous look back at a special season.”
Noted Doug: “It’s a treasure trove of great writing and wonderful memories.”
Yeah, wonderful memories — 1980 produced a lot of those for Dawgs fans.