From laid-back affairs where sunbathing Dawgs fans could wander in whenever they wanted and stretch out, to today’s nationally televised games in a packed stadium, the glorified spring scrimmage known as G-Day has changed a lot since my days growing up in Athens.
During those years, the contrasts sometimes have been stark: I’ve been one of 10,000 or so fans crammed into the bleachers at Clarke Central High School’s stadium in 1996 to watch a G-Day game transplanted because of Olympic preparations (Kirby Smart had two interceptions), and seen thousands turned away from Sanford Stadium on the famed 93K Day (Smart’s debut as head coach).
I’ve seen G-Day games that pitted current players against alumni, and literally had father and son facing off on the field.
Thus, Leroy Dukes, who had played on Vince Dooley’s first team 20 years earlier, got into the 1984 G-Day game for one play to jump offsides and wrap-up his quarterback son, David. And, in the 1989 game, another Dooley-era player, Ray Rissmiller, played against lineman son Scott. When the elder Rissmiller got spun around by another player, his solicitous son asked, “Are you alright, Daddy?” So much for trash talking.
As nonfootball G-Day entertainment, I’ve seen fans involved in various punt-pass-kick challenges, races between silly costumed mascots, former Georgia quarterbacks competing in a pretty impressive passing contest, Frisbee-catching dogs (the four-legged variety) and a mini-concert by Ludacris. (Unfortunately, I was less than 2 years old the year Andy Griffith regaled the G-Day crowd with his famed “What It Was Was Football” comedy routine, so that’s one I don’t recall.)
The past decade or so, the G-Day games have been preceded by a flag football game featuring two teams of returning lettermen, which are surprisingly competitive (and fun).
I’ve watched intense quarterback battles — the 2010 Zach Mettenberger vs. Aaron Murray game is just one of several that come to mind. It’s funny how often fans walk out of G-Day thinking the backup quarterback should replace the entrenched starter (remember the Hutson Mason fan club?).
I’ve also seen games where unheralded players became fan favorites with amazing, big-time performances (like Carlton Thomas, Jonathon Rumph and A.J. Turman), only to be forgotten come the regular season.
For many, G-Day is notable as the first chance to see the latest in the continuing series of Next Big Stars the team has signed.
The most memorable such debut I can recall was quarterback Matthew Stafford’s in 2006. I remember the electricity in the crowd when the big kid from Texas took the field for the Black team. Sure enough, on his very first UGA snap, Stafford ran play-action, faking to a back, and then throwing deep down the left side to a wide-open receiver for a 64-yard touchdown. The freshman QB’s debut couldn’t have gone better if it had been scripted (and I remember wondering at the time if that was the case, just as a treat for the fans).
Back in the day, the team frequently was divided up into competing squads somewhat evenly by the coaches, and at one point, in the Mark Richt era, the lineups even were drafted by the captains, recess-style, before the current format of pitting the No. 1 offense against the No. 1 defense came to the fore.
We’ve seen the game evolve from a day primarily for the fans to the current prime recruiting extravaganza, where attendance numbers are bandied about like badges of honor, and the crowd basically serves as a backdrop to impress prospects. (Recruiting, of course, is not something you share with another program, which pretty much killed Dabo Swinney’s idea from a few years back that Georgia and Clemson should petition the NCAA to allow them to play each other in a spring game for charity.)
About the only constant over the decades has been the fact that, as we used to joke as kids, it’s the one game of the year that the Georgia Bulldogs are guaranteed to win.
Technically, G-Day is just another of the 15 spring practices the NCAA allows. And, with its unique rules and limitations, it’s not even a real football game. (Heck, one year, during the Jim Donnan years, they didn’t even keep score!) The games generally consist of 12-minute quarters — rather than the standard 15 — though, when his team was plagued with lots of injuries, Richt was known to cut them to 10 or even 8 minutes.
Still, as the only taste of Georgia football we get from early January to late August, it’s still a big deal for Bulldog Nation. And, whatever transpires on the field, it’s a fun day for fans — though considerably more fun when the weather is glorious, as opposed to some of the chilly, drizzly G-Days I’ve sat through.
UGA’s first spring football game was in 1941. I’m not sure when they actually started using the name “G-Day” for the game. At an auction a few years ago, I saw a program from one of Wally Butts’ spring games from the early 1950s that was labeled the “Red vs. White” game, and that’s how the teams were tagged during the Butts era. It was Dooley who made the game Red vs. Black, though only a few times has the Black team actually worn black jerseys.
The first G-Day game I can remember attending was one of the early ones during the Dooley era, when I went with my friend Chipper and his dad, who was part of the UGA press box crew. We watched that game from the press box, and had fun fooling around on the old wire service teletype machine. I remember a big deal was made of the fact that the winning team would eat steaks that night, while the losers got beans and franks. I don’t know whether that tradition is still around.
Over the years, there’s been at least one G-Night game held under the lights (in the Butts era), and, in 2000, the game wasn’t held at all because of drainage problems at Sanford Stadium.
Dooley liked to play around with G-Day, often using celebrity coaches — usually Atlanta media personalities (including Lewis “Let the Big Dawg Eat” Grizzard in 1978), but sometimes bigger names like Brent Musberger and Pat Haden.
In 1984, Dooley also came up with that idea of having the game feature the current Dogs against an alumni team rather than making it an intrasquad scrimmage. The alumni, of course, played it kinda loose, as in the first game, when future state court Judge Kent Lawrence snagged a touchdown pass after slipping onto the field from the sideline. That looseness got out of hand in the 1989 game (Ray Goff’s first year as head coach) when the alums had about 15 men on the field, and half of them blitzed quarterback Preston Jones, breaking his wrist and derailing his UGA playing career.
In recent years, the games have gotten more controlled, with no rushing of kicks and whistles blown whenever anyone gets near one of the quarterbacks. And, of course, now they’re televised by the ESPN family of channels.
For many years, you had to pay to attend G-Day, and crowds tended to run about 18,000 to 20,000. Then, other schools started touting their spring game attendance. So, Georgia made G-Day admission free, starting in 2009, and the crowds basically doubled into 40,000-plus for the latter part of the Richt era (the largest pre-Smart crowd was announced as 46,815 in 2015, though that seemed a rather fanciful number since there were no tickets and nobody counted who was coming in the gates).
Smart, of course, upped the ante on arriving in Athens as head coach in 2016, and challenged the fan base to fill Sanford Stadium for his first spring game, in what the school quickly dubbed 93K Day. He also added a very popular G-Day version of the Dawg Walk. The fact that everyone wanted to see new 5-star QB Jacob Eason didn’t hurt, either.
Since then, Smart has downplayed any actual attendance goal, while still urging fans to turn out for the game, stressing the impact it has on top recruiting prospects, many of whom are invited as guests to G-Day.
Coming off a disappointing first season, Smart’s second G-Day saw a crowd liberally announced as 66,133 (though it looked quite a bit smaller), but, then, in the wake of the Dawgs playing in the national championship game and signing the nation’s top recruiting class, G-Day attendance bounced back last year to 82,184 (some sections of the stadium were closed due to the west end zone renovations). That made it the second largest spring game crowd in the nation.
What do the players think of G-Day? Quarterback Jake Fromm said recently that it’s “awesome,” recalling that, when he visited in 2016 as a high school senior, “It was incredible to see a fan base that cared so much about the football program. It was exciting, and I think a good indicator of where the program was going in the future. It definitely had an impact on me.”
This year’s game is set for Saturday, April 20, with gates due to open at 11 a.m. Admission is free of charge, but you’re encouraged to make a donation to the Food Bank of Northeast Georgia. They’ve dispensed with last year’s dumb idea of trying to direct you to sit in a section near the gate you entered, so you can sit wherever you want — first come, first served — except Section 141 and Sections 208-228 (Club Level). The alumni flag football game is set for 11:15 a.m., the Dawg Walk for 12:50 p.m., and the game (to be televised live by the SEC Network) will kick off at 2 p.m.
There aren’t any really riveting G-Day story lines this time around, like the quarterback battles of the past couple of years, though Smart has been pushing the angle that this will be Georgia fans’ first chance to see the 14 freshmen from yet another stellar recruiting class who enrolled early.
Even if you don’t find that compelling, there’s always the fact that, as the head coach summed up G-Day recently: “It’s a free chance to watch a game.”
That’s nothing to sneeze at these days.