ATHENS – The 1980 season was special for everybody who had anything to do with Georgia football, and it was a dream-come-true for Bill Lewis in particular.
Lewis had showed up at UGA just before spring practice that year. He had been head coach at Wyoming the previous three seasons. Things didn’t work out – he was fired after the 1979 season and succeeded by Pat Dye — and he ended up accepting a job as secondary coach for the Bulldogs.
Of course, that meant working alongside Georgia’s legendary defensive coordinator Erk Russell. This excited Lewis, a defensive specialist himself, to no end.
What Lewis didn’t know before accepting that assignment was what kind of personnel he would be inheriting in the Bulldogs’ defensive backfield. To say he had wandered into a gold mine would be an understatement.
A quick glance at the depth chart from that season gives you an idea. The starting DBs from that season were: Scott Woerner and Mike Fisher at the corners, Jeff Hipp at safety, and Chris Welton at what they called the “rover” position. Most notably, next to each one of those names was the class distinction of “senior.”
It made for an interesting marriage when the still relatively young Lewis showed up to coach that veteran group that spring.
“So when I started working with them, they already knew the defense,” Lewis recalled in a recent interview. “I was learning the defense. I had been involved pretty much in odd front, 50 defenses. That’s what my background had been in. Here they were running a true eight-man front, with four down linemen and four linebackers with the fourth linebacker being that hybrid, a rover, a safety/outside ‘backer. It was different.”
It was different, and oh, so very, very good.
And not in a dominant, squeeze the life out of opponents kind of way. The Bulldogs were certainly solid on that side of the ball. But they weren’t quite as experienced in the front end as the back end. They had a reputation for giving up some ground, but devastating opposing offenses with opportunistic plays. It would come to be called bend-but-don’t-break defense.
The 1980 Junkyard Dogs, as Erk’s units had been called for years, gave up just 11.4 points a game with three shutouts and a three-point game. But Georgia also eked out six wins by seven or fewer points. The Bulldogs often managed to do that by creating turnovers at just the right time. They recorded 24 interceptions on the season, with Hipp (8) and Woerner (5) leading the way.
The championship-clinching win over Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl was a perfect illustration of this winning defensive formula for Georgia. The Bulldogs were out-gained by the Fighting Irish 328 yards to 127. But UGA racked up five takeaways in the game on three interceptions and two fumble recoveries. All five were executed by Lewis’ charges.
Woerner had two interceptions, Fisher added one, Welton recovered a fumble and the brothers Bob and Steve Kelly combined to force and recover a fumble on a Notre Dame kickoff return.
Oh, and there was this: Freshman defensive back Terry Hoage also blocked a field goal in the game.
Yes, a pretty good day for the kids in the secondary meeting room.
“I don’t know if people remember this but Terry Hoage had been in Colorado that summer and came down with Lyme disease, I think it was,” Lewis said. “So when he reported for preseason training camp he was still suffering from that and, as a result, he didn’t get a lot of work and it kind of put him behind. But as he got back into it, we found out he had a special knack for rushing punters and place-kickers. So he did a lot of that; he worked his way in as an edge-rusher.”
Lewis said it was probably the best defense he ever coached, and certainly the most learned secondary. He said there was a couple of reasons for that.
One was that the defensive backs were all very intelligent naturally. Several of them were converted high school quarterbacks. The other reason was that Russell’s system was so simple, but in a sort of diabolical way. Players repped Russell’s defense exactly the same way, every day, every year. When they were in the system a long time, like all of the 1980 guys were, they knew the defense instinctively.
“They were all tough guys,” Lewis said. “I don’t know that I’ve been around a tougher group of players. That was the whole way Coach Dooley and Erk coached that team. … And the defense was simple. As a result, they had a chance to play and use their abilities. When the ball was snapped they weren’t thinking about a lot of things but making a play.”
Lewis would have more good defenses at Georgia. He succeeded Russell, who left after that season to start the football program at Georgia Southern, as the Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator and remained for eight more seasons. They’d win two more SEC championships, but the defense never could capture the magic again quite like they did in the season of ’80.
Fast forward to today and Lewis remains close to the game of football. He actually lives in South Bend, where he assists the University of Notre Dame with fundraising and alumni relations.
Notre Dame ended up being the last stop in a long line of coaching gigs that would take Lewis to 11 teams in seven states over 44 years. Included on that worksheet were two other college head coaching jobs, at East Carolina and Georgia Tech.
After a short and unsuccessful stint with the Yellow Jackets, Lewis spent nine seasons with Jimmy Johnson and the Miami Dolphins. His last full-time job in the business was as assistant head coach and defensive backfield coach for Charlie Weiss and the Fighting Irish.
Lewis might still be coaching full time – he volunteered his time as an unpaid defensive consultant for Saint Joseph’s High in South Bend for years after retirement – but he finally had to step down at Notre Dame as he was facing double hip replacements in 2007. The years of running 6 to 8 miles almost every day finally took their toll.
So Lewis stepped away from the field and accepted Athletic Director Keven White’s invitation to work in athletic fundraising for the next five years.
“I really enjoyed that,” Lewis said. “I was still able to keep up as a spectator and be involved in the game of football.”
Lewis’s hip-replacement surgery wouldn’t be the last medical challenge he would encounter. Complaining of some lower back pain in January of 2011, an MRI in his lower back revealed cancer. Lewis was diagnosed with multiple myeloma and underwent a stem-cell transplant in July of 2011.
Now 76, Lewis’ disease is in “technical remission.” He is constantly subjected to chemotherapy.
“But I’m able to do anything I want to do,” said Lewis, who had been doing some landscaping in his backyard the day he was interviewed.
If not for the cancer, Lewis and his wife Sandy said they would have moved back to Georgia years ago. Lewis’ doctors and primary care facility are in Indiana. Their son, Geoff, teaches and coaches at Oconee County High outside of Athens.
Notre Dame’s alumni relations office has kept Lewis quite busy the last several years serving as a liaison to donors. It’s because of his duties in that capacity that he is going to miss the Georgia-Notre Dame game.
The Lewis’s both will be in Normandy when the Bulldogs visit South Bend on Sept. 9. Bill, like his old boss Vince Dooley, is a historian by trade. As such, he will be leading a group of Notre Dame alumni on a European trip to see the sights and trace the Allied troops’ track from D-Day in World War II.
So when Georgia and the Fighting Irish kick off at 7:45 p.m. Eastern time that Saturday night, it will be close to 2 a.m. Sunday at the Hotel Honfleur in Normandy.
The Lewis’s plan to be awake – either watching on TV or following via text messages.
Bill and Sandy say their time at Georgia was probably their favorite. They remain close with the families of Charley Whittemore and Steve Greer, fellow UGA assistants on those Dooley staffs of the 1970s and ‘80s.
“We have never, ever, ever stopped bleeding red and black,” said Sandy, who hints and she and her husband each will be wearing something somewhere underneath their Notre Dame attire to show support for the Bulldogs. “Well, there was that brief time we were at Georgia Tech that we could not pull for the Bulldogs. But to be perfectly honest, it was our friends at Georgia who were nicer to us during that period of time.”
The Bulldogs and that veteran group of DBs certainly gave Bill Lewis all he could have hoped for during what was otherwise a crossroads in his career path.
“I’ve never been around a better group of football players,” Lewis said. “They were all tough guys, you know, and they played the game tough, the defense as a whole. They all had kind of the same makeup, so they played the game the way it was meant to be played. And they had fun playing it that way, too.”