Saturday, August 31, 2013

“I think about all the good times that we had,
It makes me happy and it makes me sad.”
When I See This Bar (click to listen)
Kenny Chesney (2013)
It sounded like a small arms battle. Or, since I’ve never been in one, the way I figure a small arms battle must sound.
It was Labor Day afternoon 1982 in Athens, beautiful like a southern college campus tends to be on game day. Pretty Georgia girls and drunk Bulldog boys milled along the top end of Lumpkin Street, drinking and flirting and getting ready for that night’s game against Clemson. I believe the game was the first played at night in Sanford Stadium, and I know it featured the previous two national champions – Georgia having won the title in 1980, Clemson in 1981 – something that had not happened before.
Of all the Georgia games I’ve been to, this one had the most exciting atmosphere.
That tension bubbled up about three hours before the game when two buses carrying Clemson’s football team to the stadium turned off Broad Street and started easing through the crowd.
As the Dog fans realized who was on the buses, they started flinging liquor bottles, beer cans, shoes, rocks, and anything they could launch. I mean it was a pelting of the first order. The buses sped up and got on past that strip of the street. I’ll never understand why Clemson coach Danny Ford had the buses take the route, but it was something else. We were ready for the Tigers that night.
When I think of Georgia and Clemson, that’s what I see.
You’re Too Fat!
The most famous player on the Clemson squad in 1982 was William “The Refrigerator” Perry and for some reason I couldn’t stand him.
I drove a little silver Chevette with a hatchback at the time. The night before the game, so we wouldn’t have to worry about a space, me and a couple of buddies parked it in a lot at the corner of Baxter and Lumpkin right across from old Stegeman Hall (a few hundred yards from where the Tiger buses would get showered). We walked from our apartment and tailgated there the next day … nothing but fried chicken and iced-cold caffeine. I was too hyped for the game to drink anything but Coke (which didn’t really calm me down come to think of it).
After the bus pelting, a couple of us went into the stadium as soon as the gates opened. There couldn’t have been ten people in there yet. We hustled down behind the hedges and stood back of the Clemson sideline. A few minutes later Danny Ford brought his Tigers – still in dress clothes, not uniforms – out for a walk down the field.
As they got close to us, I was really giving it to Ford and Perry. No cussing or anything, just silly stuff like holding up my thumb and hollering about whether Herschel would play (as an aside – typing this as a middle-aged man is pretty humbling; I rarely raise my voice at a game – any game – anymore, and haven’t in a long, long time).
Ford and the Fridge were actually really cool. Ford laughed and shook his head at me when I asked where he parked his tractor. When I told Perry he was too fat to tackle Herschel he feinted like he was coming after me, and I scrambled up about 10 rows. I looked back and a bunch of the Tigers were doubled over laughing.
When I think of Georgia and Clemson, that’s what I see.
But, I just held up my thumb and laughed back. I knew Georgia was going to win that game.
“I see a kid, coming into his own
and I see a man, learning to move on.”
Herschel had a sore thumb.
The best college running back I ever saw – here he is – was the story leading up to the Labor Day opener. Herschel Walker should have won the Heisman Trophy as a freshman in 1980 and would win it in 1982, but nobody knew if he’d play in the game that night in 1981 because he had a broken thumb. The Clemson game was special for Bulldogs of that era, probably more for Herschel than most.
Clemson had recruited him hard. He waffled back and forth between the Tigers and the Dogs for a long time, and the process wasn’t always pretty. Herschel didn’t sign with Georgia until Easter time of his senior year in high school, months later than usual for a top player, and his recruitment was a drawn out affair full of intrigue and rumors that probably signaled the modern era of recruiting in college football best captured a few years later by Willie Morris’ great The Courting of Marcus Dupree.
Herschel immediately led Georgia to a national title in 1980, a season that included a tough 20-16 home win over Clemson. Herschel wasn’t the star of that game though, as Dog defensive back Scott Woerner had two long returns – one of a punt and one of a late interception – to secure the win.
The next year, the Tigers would handle the Bulldogs 13-3 at Death Valley, handing Georgia its only regular season loss during the Walker era. That game saw a Dog offense with about three times more fumbles than points. Herschel was kept in check by a Clemson defense the included three future NFL first-round picks in Terry Kinard, Jeff Bryant, and of course my future friend the Fridge. The win over the Bulldogs set the Tigers on their way to a national championship in 1981.
As the ’82 game approached, Walker’s thumb injury provided Georgia coach Vince Dooley an opportunity for a little scheming.
To call Dooley a conservative a coach would be akin to calling Barry Goldwater a conservative politician, but Vince had his moments. The Kirby Moore to Pat Hodgson to Bob Taylor 73-yard flea-flicker to upset Alabama in the 1965 season opener. The 1975 80-yard end-around pass from Richard Appleby to Gene Washington to knock off Florida. The man could pick his moments and he had picked one for the Tigers.
Leading up the to game, Dooley more or less insisted Herschel Walker wouldn’t play because of the thumb. However, in the second quarter – after Clemson jumped to a 7-0 lead courtesy of a fumbled snap – here came Herschel. As big #34 jogged to the huddle, Sanford Stadium cranked up like a jet getting ready for takeoff. Georgia quarterback John Lastinger turned to give the ball to Walker on the sweep play everybody expected (especially the Clemson defense) but instead handed it to speedy freshman Tron (Electron) Jackson on a reverse that went for a 40-yard touchdown. The euphoria was brief – the play was called back on a motion penalty – but the momentum had shifted.
Herschel eventually convinced Vince to use him as more than a decoy and he would play quite a bit in the second half (he scored a touchdown but it was called back on another penalty). The Dogs would gnaw their way to a 13-7 lead, and finally hang on for the win when the “Tifton Termite” Nate Taylor intercepted a Clemson pass late in the game.
The game was over, the Dogs had won, and all was right with the world.
When I think of Georgia and Clemson, that’s what I see.
It makes me happy and it makes me sad.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Tiger and Jack - The Biggest Story

While fans today enjoy more events, better coverage of those varied events, and increasingly wonderful ways to consume our beloved games – HD televisions with pictures clear enough to put you courtside; hand-held devices with apps for every team and athlete; satellite radio available twenty-four hours a day – expect one story to dominate the sports landscape the next five years or so.
Tiger chasing Jack.
Not the NFL and that league’s looming battles over past cases of head trauma.
Not the college football national championship playoff, which will culminate in Dallas a couple of years hence.
Not the Ed O’Bannon lawsuit that threatens to overturn the American college sport model in place for more than a century.
All those are big stories, and others will arise as the calendar pages turn, but my prediction is that the biggest and best of all will be Tiger chasing Jack.
Jack Nicklaus holds the record for most professional golf major championships with 18. Tiger Woods ranks second on the all-time list with 14.
[* For the non-golf fan, "majors" are played annually and considered the most important professional tournaments. The current majors are The Masters (played the first full week of April at Augusta National golf club), the U.S. Open (played in mid-June to finish on Father's Day on a variety of American courses), the British Open(played the third week in July on one of nine courses in England or Scotland), and thePGA Championship (played four weeks after the British Open on a variety of American courses). The tournaments that constitute "majors" have changed over the decades - originally amateur versions of the US and British Opens counted.]
Five years ago Tiger Woods seemed a lock to eclipse Jack’s record.
When he outlasted Rocco Mediate in a terrific eighteen-hole playoff at Torrey Pines to win the 2008 U.S. Open, Tiger was 32 years old and a full three years ahead of the Golden Bear’s pace (Jack won his 14th major at age 35 in 1975 – the same year Tiger was born). As he limped off the course that day, Woods had won six majors the previous four years. The question was not so much whether he would surpass Jack’s record; instead we wondered how soon he would reach the milestone and how far past it would he push his career total.
Tiger has not won a major since.
No one explanation adequately addresses his majors drought, but I remember a frequent comment from Jack Nicklaus that seemed astute every time he said it, and that holds up even better today. Each time a reporter asked if Tiger would break his record, Jack replied to the effect that “yes, I believe he’ll break my record, but let’s let him do it first … a lot of things can happen.”
Jack is a smart man.
A lot of things happened to Tiger.
First, his body broke down a bit. He has a chronic problem with his left knee and leg, having at least two surgeries on the knee and probably more. He’s also suffered a ruptured disc in his back, and injured his Achilles on the left leg. Some of those problems must be due to longevity. Tiger has been on the national stage since the age of two when he appeared on the Mike Douglas television show (and of course smashed one right down the middle). He was a prolific amateur golfer and was by far the biggest star on tour by age 21 when he won his first major (1997 Masters). That’s a lot of golf. Some of the health problems are also the result of Tiger’s style of play. Throughout his career he’s taken some of the most violent swings you’ll ever want to witness, slashing from the deep rough or pounding out of bunkers. The amount of torque he places on his back, spine, hips, and lower legs must be immense.
Emotional scars cannot be dismissed as part of Tiger’s current five-year majors gap either.
The notoriously private Woods created a well-documented media firestorm in November of 2009 when the first reports of his marital infidelities came to light. Over the next several months, Woods and his family endured searing attention and Tiger faced the public humiliation of recorded phone conversations, the loss of sponsorships, and ultimately the breakup of his marriage.
Between the physical and emotional problems Tiger faced, many fans and pundits dismissed his chances to pass Jack’s record, while everyone who followed sports recognized that the odds of him doing so had at least gone down significantly.
That mindset is probably changing as you read.
Woods has won four of the nine tournaments he’s entered this season, including a convincing victory in The Players Championship, which boasts a field comparable to or better than the majors. He will be a huge favorite heading into the U.S. Open at Merion. That’s the site where, in 1930, Bobby Jones completed golf’s only Grand Slam (at the time the U.S. Open and Amateur versions, and the British Open and Amateur). Surely, Tiger embraces the chance to reignite his pursuit of the career record at a place of such historic significance.
So … will Tiger break Jack’s record?
Yes, I think he will.
Tiger has a few things going for him.
At 37, he is still a year ahead of Jack’s pace, although the three majors Nicklaus won in his 40s will be tough to duplicate.
Physically, Tiger has always kept himself in great shape. He is a workout and nutrition fiend by all accounts, and with an emphasis on fitness that was not around during the Nicklaus heyday (unless you were Gary Player), he should have another decade or more of competitive greatness. Emotionally, Tiger also seems to be back on track. He is in a new relationship with Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn, and his on course confidence, even intimidation, appears to have returned.
This point will be blasphemous to some, but in my opinion Tiger plays against easier – albeit deeper – competition. There are more good players on tour today than in the 1960s and 1970s when Jack won most of his majors. But, there aren’t nearly the caliber of champions. For example, Tiger has finished second in majors six times, losing to fellows named Beem, Yang, Campbell, Johnson, Immelman, and Cabrera (the only one of the group with multiple majors). By contrast, Nicklaus finished second in majors a whopping nineteen times, falling to such giants as Palmer, Trevino, Watson, Miller, and Ballesteros among others. So, Tiger may have to beat more good players, but there are far fewer great champions he must overcome.
Finally, and this is the deciding factor in my opinion, Tiger knows what he has to do. He has to get to 19 professional majors to break the record. Just like Roger Maris knew he had to hit 61 homers and Hank Aaron knew he had to get to 715 career homeruns (both to pass Babe Ruth), Pete Rose knew he had to get to 4192 hits to supplant Ty Cobb, and the next great sprinter knows he has to run 100 meters faster than Usain Bolt’s 9.58 seconds (good luck) to set a world record … Tiger knows he has to get to 19 to move beyond the Bear.
The person chasing the record always has the advantage.
I think Tiger finishes his career with 20 majors.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

March Madness - The Three Card Monte

March Madness, one of America’s favorite annual sporting events, tips off March 19.
We hope for three weeks of buzzer beaters, nail-biters, and bracket busters as teams try to reach the Final Four in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome April 6-8.
If this season’s tournament holds true to form from previous NCAA championships played in years that end with a “three” it should be quite the treat. Like a game of Three-Card Monte, you never know what is going to turn up, and since the tourney began back in 1939, those “3″ years have provided some memorable moments.
1943 – Champion vs. Champion
In only its fifth year, the NCAA championship still played second-fiddle to the slightly older (by one year) National Invitational Tournament (NIT), which had a stronger East Coast presence, received more media coverage, and played at its permanent home in already fabled Madison Square Garden in New York City. Wyoming won an eight-team NCAA tournament by beating Oklahoma and Kansas in the West bracket (the tournament only had East and West brackets) in Kansas City, Missouri. The Cowboys then traveled to Manhattan and defeated Georgetown 46-34 in the finals at Madison Square. Star for the Cowboys was guard Ken Sailors, a early pioneer of the jump shot, but the most famous player in the tournament was George Mikan, one of the game’s first true big men; his DePaul squad lost in the semifinals to Georgetown.
The NCAA event got less attention than hometown St. John’s taking the NIT crown behind legendary coach Joe Lapchick. Two days later, in what may be the only time this happened, the champions of the two post-season tournaments played a charity game at Madison Square Garden to benefit the Red Cross war effort in front of 18,000 fans. The Cowboys downed the Redmen 52-47 in overtime, a precursor to the NCAA overtaking the NIT in prestige and power.
1953 – The Hurryin’ Hoosiers
The 1953 NCAA championship matched two of the sports titans, Indiana and defending champion Kansas, at Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, Missouri.
Seeds for the Hoosier title run were planted a season earlier when the NCAA temporarily suspended the freshman eligibility rule due to the military draft for the Korean War (freshmen, ineligible for varsity competition in football and basketball until 1972, were allowed to play in 1951-52). The relaxation of that restriction freed up “the Ox.” Big Don “Ox” Schlundt, a 6’10 post player from South Bend, played as a freshman in 1952, averaging 17 points, and would go on to become the most prolific scorer in Indiana and Big Ten history to that point, a three-time All-American, and the vital cog of the 1953 NCAA champs. He still holds the record for average points per game for a career at Indiana (23 ppg). Schlundt teamed with Bob “Slick” Leonard, a feisty guard and future ABA and NBA head coach (he would lead the Indiana Pacers to three ABA titles), and forward Dick Farley. They all played for the great Branch McCracken, a Hall of Famer who led the Hoosiers to championships in 1940 and 1953 (both times defeating Kansas and Phog Allen).
The game went to the wire and was very contentious. Played in front of a pro-Kansas crowd (the game was played just about 40 miles from the KU campus), McCracken and the Hoosiers were incensed when Jayhawk star center B.J. Born was allowed to return to the game after receiving what was reported as his fifth foul. McCracken and Allen both argued at the scorer’s table. Slick Leonard converted a free throw with less than 30 seconds remaining, Kansas played for the final shot, but a desperate shot at the buzzer was off target. Indiana won 69-68.
That 1953 Final Four was a “Who’s Who” of mid-20th century basketball. Kansas coach Phog Allen ruled the sidelines in Lawrence for nearly 50 years, and actually played under the inventor of basketball – James Naismith. Dean Smith played on the 1952 Jayhawk team that won the championship and the ’53 squad that lost to Indiana. Smith would go on to win more games than any college basketball coach (a record since surpassed by Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski). Kansas whipped Oklahoma A&M (now OK State) in one semifinal … the Cowboys were coached by Hank Iba, who won 751 games himself and coached three U.S. Olympics teams. In the other semi, Indiana beat LSU and the great scoring forward Bob Pettit, considered the nation’s best player and a future NBA all-star and Hall of Fame inductee.
1963 – Ramblin Fever
The Ramblers of Loyola University won the 1963 championship in an NCAA tournament with racial overtones and historical implications.
Loyola whipped two-time defending champ Cincinnati 60-58 in the finals at Freedom Hall in Louisville, Kentucky. That victory alone was historic. Coach Ed Jucker’s Bearcats were trying to become the first team to win three NCAA titles in a row and were playing in a fourth straight Final Four. This would also be the last season before John Wooden’s UCLA championship run. From 1964-1975, the Bruins would win ten of twelve championships including seven in a row at one point.
Before reaching the finals, Loyola played a second-round game against Mississippi State of the SEC. The Bulldogs of coach Babe McCarthy and star Bailey Howell had been kept out of the tournament three of the past four seasons because of unwritten, but typically unbroken, racial codes that prohibited white Mississippi teams from playing against integrated competition (as the Bulldogs surely would in the NCAAs). This time McCarthy and the team pulled a ruse and essentially snuck out of the state to make the trip to play the NCAA game in East Lansing at the home court of Michigan State (Miss State got a bye in the first round; the game was Loyola’s second round match). In a well-played, respectful game, the Ramblers beat the Bulldogs 61-51 to advance.
The championship game against Cincy was a thriller. In overtime, Loyola’s Vic Rouse tipped in a missed shot just as the horn sounded and the Ramblers had a championship. Rouse and Jerry Harness (Loyola’s star) were two of four African Americans to start for the Ramblers … the Bearcats sent out another three as starters, marking the first time a majority of starters in an NCAA final were African American. By the way, Rouse hailed from Pearl High School in Nashville, Tennessee, where he might have run into young Perry Wallace, who would go on to desegregate basketball in the SEC when he played at Vanderbilt from 1966-1969.
1973 – The Streak
The 1973 Final Four at St. Louis Arena, featured the man who’d already won more NCAA national championships than any other coach (John Wooden of UCLA), the man who would succeed him in Westwood (Gene Bartow of Memphis State), a brilliant and fiery young coach in his second season at Indiana who would go on to win three titles and more games than any coach in history (a total since surpassed by his top protégé) (Bobby Knight), and a gentleman from the East who would be the driving force behind the formation of the most successful basketball conference in America within a decade (Dave Gavitt). What a collection of coaching talent.
A big story before the tournament was one team that couldn’t play. North Carolina State, coached by Norm Sloan and starring the leaping legend David Thompson, 7’2 center Tom Burleson, and fireplug point guard Monte Towe, marched through an unbeaten 25-0 regular season then won two games and the ACC tournament. However, the school was on probation and ineligible for national post-season competition. The Wolfpack would be heard from a year later.
Wooden’s UCLA squad, led by the incomparable Big Redhead Bill Walton, won a seventh consecutive NCAA championship by beating Knight’s Hoosiers in the semifinals and Bartow’s Tigers in the finals. The championship game was played on Monday night for the first time, starting a new tradition in American sport that endures today. The Bruins, in the midst of a winning streak that would eventually stretch to 88 games, were never seriously challenged in the tournament, winning four times by an average of 16 points. The title was Wooden’s ninth and the UCLA dynasty was at its zenith.
That championship would be Wooden’s next-to-last. The long winning streak would end in 1974 in a regular season loss at Notre Dame, and when the Bruins lost back-to-back games later in the season to Oregon and Oregon State, the tiniest of cracks first appeared in the dynasty. Still, the Bruins made it to yet another Final Four in 1974, but lost a double-overtime semi-final classic to N.C. State. The Wolfpack would go on to take the title and erase the empty memories of 1973.
“The Wizard of Westwood” had a final charge left in him. His relatively unheralded 1975 team closed out Wooden’s career by winning the 1975 NCAA championship, the tenth in twelve seasons. It is a record that will not be matched.
1983 – Jimmy the Jester
When the basketball world descended on the desert for the 1983 Final Four at The Pit in Albuquerque, a coronation was supposed to take place. Or perhaps an induction ceremony. The brothers of Phi Slamma Jamma, the Houston Cougar’s coolest, quickest, baddest, and most exclusive fraternity was going to soar up and over powerful Louisville and upstarts Georgia and N.C. State to take the NCAA championship. Instead, a jester of the court slipped in and stole the crown.
One of the most storied Final Fours in the tournament’s history started with a workmanlike win by State over Georgia in the first semifinal game. That game figured to simply be the stage-setter for a dunk contest between Houston’s fly boys of Phi and the Doctors of Dunk from Louisville. The second semi-final lived to its billing as one of the most exciting games in tournament annals. The Cougars, featuring Akeem “the Dream” Olajuwon (he changed to Hakeem later), Clyde “the Glide” Drexler, and Benny “the Jet” Anders (they had the best nicknames too!), raced past a Louisville squad that included Milt Wagner, Billy Thompson, Rodney and Scooter McCray, Flash Gordon, and Charles Jones. The final was 94-81 and most thought the championship game had already been played when the show ended.
Jim Valvano of N.C. State had other plans. His Wolfpack used a controlled offense, played behind the Cougars on defense to limit their dunk opportunities (the Pack chanted “One Slamma Jamma” after the game in reference to the number of stuffs allowed to Houston in the title game), fouled and fouled the notoriously poor free-throwing shooting Cougars, and finally received a gift from Houston coach Guy Lewis inexplicably put his team into a spread delay with about 10 minutes to go in the game.
The game ended with a famous dunk, but it was by State’s Lorenzo Charles who caught a last-second desperation air-ball from Dereck Whittenburg and stuffed it through at the buzzer. State won 54-52, and Valvano scurried across the court looking for somebody to hug. The jester had stolen the crown.
1993 – Flub Five
Michigan’s Fab Five exploded onto the college basketball scene during the 1992 tournament. Wearing black socks and black shoes, the freshmen quintet strutted and smack-talked all the way to the finals before getting pasted by Duke 71-51. The next season, they stormed to the finals at the Superdome to meet another team from the ACC … this time the North Carolina Tar Heels and venerable coach Dean Smith.
The Final Four was basketball royalty. North Carolina knocked off Kansas in one semifinal, and Michigan took care of Kentucky in the other. It set the stage for a contrasting matchup on Monday night.
The Heels were the antithesis of the Wolverines in the eyes of the public. Smith’s system called for players to point at a teammate after a good pass, to subjugate individuality to the team, to never show up an opponent. Even the great Michael Jordan bought into the Tar Heel way, and on the Superdome court eleven years earlier he had clinched the beloved Smith’s first championship with a late jump shot.
The Fab Five showed little respect to anybody. Their attitude reflected (at least in their own eyes and those of some social commentators) the breakthrough of hip hop culture into the mainstream of America society. With their sagging shorts and in-your-face on-court personality, the Wolverines embraced the bad guy persona.
It was quite a contrast.
In the end, the system won and the upstarts again folded under the pressure of the finals.
The most infamous play came late in the game. Chris Webber, the most talented and vocal of the Fab Five got flustered when double-teamed and called a timeout even though the Wolverines had none left. The resulting technical sealed the 77-71 victory.
Dean Smith would go on to become the first Division I men’s coach to win over 800 games and the 1993 championship would be his last. The Fab Five never won a title and ended up vacating the entire 1992-93 season due to NCAA violations.
2003 – Cupcake
Jim Boeheim of Syracuse is a great coach. He has taken the Orangemen to the post-season every one of his 34 years at the helm except 1993 when the school was ineligible. He has never had a losing season, and has won more games at one school than any other D-I men’s coach. He trails only Coach K of Duke in total wins and may surpass him depending on who holds off retirement the longest.
Still, for much of his early career coaching the Orangemen, Boeheim’s schedules were ridiculed for being soft … filled with easy opponents … cupcakes so to speak. That sentiment seemed to always bear out come NCAA tourney time when the Cuse could never quite get over the hump to win a national title. Trips to the championship game in 1987 (loss to Indiana) and 1996 (loss to Kentucky) only provided more fuel to detractors.
Finally, back in New Orleans at the site of that excruciating 1987 last-second loss to Indiana and Bobby Knight, Boeheim got his championship. Carmelo Anthony, only a freshman, earned outstanding player honors as the Orange overcame a strong Kansas team 81-78 in the finals.
2013 – ???
There are a lot of story lines for the 2013 version of March Madness. Can Syracuse or Louisville claim a title for the Big East in its last year as currently comprised? Will the powerful Big Ten lineup of Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, and the like take a championship back to middle America? Will Coach K further stake his claim as greatest coach since Wooden (and perhaps of all time) by winning a fifth championship at Duke? Can one of the upstart mid-majors like Butler or Gonzaga grab the crown?
Tune in the next three weeks for one of America’s great sporting spectacles.
Thanks for visiting The Campus Game.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Destiny or Dynasty

“Great moments are born of great opportunities …
You were meant to be here. This is your time.
Their time is over … this is your time!”

Herb Brooks to 1980 US Hockey Team (as played by Kurt Russell)
Can the 2012 Georgia Bulldogs become the team of destiny their fans have dreamed of for three decades?
Can the Red and Black, last champions of the college football world in 1980, conjure up an inspired effort like the gold-medal winning Red, White, and Blue U.S. Hockey team from that same year?
Can this team, this underdog, take down its very own crimson menace, and the sport’s reigning bully?
To win … to become this team of destiny … Georgia has to dethrone a dynasty – the mighty Crimson Tide of Alabama.
When Georgia and Alabama meet in the Southeastern Conference championship game Saturday in Atlanta, the Bulldogs face not only a fearsome opponent, but also the pent up frustration of chronic unmet expectations. Bulldog players, coaches, fans, and followers consider the program elite, but since Georgia last won college football’s grand prize in 1980, five Southeastern Conference programs have captured a combined ten national championships. Imagine a grating drum roll for Georgia fans as you read the list.
1992 – Alabama
1996 – Florida
1998 – Tennessee
2003 – LSU
2006 – Florida
2007 – LSU
2008 – Florida
2009 – Alabama
2010 – Auburn
2011 – Alabama
Think that championship roster doesn’t gnaw at Dog fans? The perception of Georgia nationally is at odds with the Red and Black base. Fans in Tuscaloosa, Gainesville, and Baton Rouge … talk radio hosts in Birmingham, Nashville, and Atlanta … the pretty boys and girls talking on ESPN and Fox … all of them consider Georgia underachievers.
These five keys should decide whether Georgia can overcome the doubters and become a team of destiny Saturday afternoon.
1. Aaron Murray must outplay A.J. McCarron. If Murray comes back for his senior season, he will become the most prolific passer in SEC history. While the Dog QB has been maligned for coming up short in big games, those criticisms are perhaps off base. In losses to South Carolina this season, LSU (last year’s SEC title game), Boise State (last year’s season opener), and others, Murray faced defensive fronts that shut down Georgia’s running game and nullified any play action passing with a fierce pass rush. A.J. McCarron heard similar questions about whether he could handle the big stage until he proved himself in last year’s national championship game. That title game success muted criticism of McCarron’s less-than-stellar play in the Tide’s loss to Texas A&M. Murray should be the equal of McCarron (or better) and can prove it Saturday. But, he will need help … which takes us to a second key.
2. Georgia’s offensive line must play Alabama’s defensive front to a near-stalemate. The Dogs will not dominate Alabama up front. The Tide is too well-coached, seasoned, and disciplined on defense to get pushed around. But, they are not that big and they do not generate much of a pass rush from their front three. Nick Saban has a history of trying to completely take away at least one aspect of an opponent’s attack. I expect Saban and Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart to do whatever it takes to stop Georgia’s rushing attack. As a counter, watch for Georgia to throw the ball a lot early … instead of running to set up the pass, Georgia should pass to open up some running lanes for Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. Gurley doesn’t need much space to keep the chains moving. If the Georgia offensive line can at least hold its own, that would be a net plus for the Bulldogs. While much attention has been paid to the pairing of Alabama’s great offensive front taking on Jarvis Jones and the Georgia defense, I think this is the more important matchup.
3. Alabama may be able to advantage of the aggressive Georgia secondary. Georgia has more talent on defense than anybody – including Alabama. Period. The Dogs are bigger and faster, and their edge in the secondary (even considering the Tide’s terrific Dee Milliner) is the most pronounced of the defensive position units on either side. The Bulldog defensive backs, especially safeties Shawn Williams and Bacarri Rambo will support the run defense aggressively and deliver a strike. Still, they are at times too aggressive (a trait sure to be amplified in the heat of such a big game), prone to penalties and to biting on play fakes. Watch for Alabama to bait the Dog DBs with pump and go action, or simply with play action passes, and try to hit some deep balls. The Dogs secondary boasts great athletes, but they must play with controlled aggression.
4. Which team will deliver the big plays? Will Eddie Lacy rumble through tacklers for the Tide? Will T.J. Yeldon take a McCarron screen pass to the land of milk and honey like he did in the showdown with LSU? Will Milliner pick off Murray? Or, will the sublime Dog duo of insider linebacker Alec Ogletree (the best athlete on the field) and Jarvis Jones control the action, with Ogletree chasing down Tide runners sideline to sideline and Jones wreaking havoc in the Alabama backfield? Will Gurshall (the nickname for Gurley and Marshall in homage to the great Herschel Walker) provide the Dogs with a little thunder and lightning at the running back position. Will either team break a punt or kickoff return? Remember that the Honey Badger – Tyrann Mathieu of LSU – undid the Dogs in last year’s title game with punt and interception returns. Somebody is likely to make a big play … who?
5. Does Alabama realize the intensity they will face Saturday? Few of these Tide starters have played significant roles in an SEC championship game, many of the Dogs have. This is a hungry Bulldog team with unfinished business in the Georgia Dome. Last year they soundly outplayed LSU for a half, but crumbled under the pressure in the third and fourth quarters and got humiliated. Alabama took the backdoor into the national title game and missed the SEC championship. The Tide hasn’t been here since 2009 and it is an intense setting (the teams do not have five weeks to rest and prepare as they would in the national championship game). Beyond the players and staffs though … there is something deeper that I’m not sure many people have calculated. The Bulldog crowd, disappointed and mostly dormant for three decades, will absolutely dominate the Dome on Saturday afternoon – in numbers and intensity. If Georgia gets off to a quick start, it will ignite a passion – even fury – from Georgia fans that has not been seen since Munson was at the mike, since big #34 was stalking the end zone, since … since the Dogs were national champions. It would surprise me if Alabama realizes that potential factor.
Destiny … or dynasty.
This is Georgia’s game. This is Georgia’s season. This is their time.
Georgia 24 Alabama 20

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Flea Flickers and Fixes

Flea Flickers and Fixes: A Brief History of the Alabama-Georgia Rivalry

Much of the history of the Alabama-Georgia series is strange.

The schools sit just 275 miles apart, and often have represented the class of the Southeastern Conference, but Saturday's SEC Championship Game will only be the 15th meeting between the Dogs and the Tide in the past 47 years, and their 66th overall meeting.

The schools played football against one another for the first time in 1895, with the immortal Pop Warner leading the Dogs to one of his 319 career victories - a 30-6 conquest played in the border town of Columbus, Georgia (one of six cities to host the game over the years). A six-year hiatus followed as the fledgling sport found its footing on both campuses, then varsity squads met every season from 1901 to 1965 excepting a couple of years during World War I and a five-year drought during the depression-era 1930s.

Alabama leads the overall series 36-25 with 4 ties. The game has been played on Alabama soil 39 times, with the Peach State welcoming the matchup 26 times. For a couple of decades in the 1920s and 1930s, Birmingham was the host city - much like Jacksonville is home to the annual Georgia-Florida game.

A sensational accusation of game-fixing influenced the decision to put the series on hold after 1965.

The Fix

"Well, what the heck could Wally Butts do for you?"
Robert F. "Bobby" Kennedy to Paul W. "Bear" Bryant, March 1963

Just months before his brother's fateful trip to Dallas, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy met with Alabama's Bear Bryant in Washington (at the behest of mutual friend Bud Wilkinson, the Oklahoma football coach already considering a move into politics ... he encouraged Bryant to do the same and suggested he meet with RFK). During their discussion, Bryant mentioned a pending Saturday Evening Post article (March 23, 1963) that would accuse the Alabama icon, and Georgia Athletics Director Wally Butts, of conspiring to fix the 1962 Alabama-Georgia game. Kennedy's sardonic reply to the charge reflected the ease with which the Tide had rolled to a 35-0 victory (in a game remembered mostly as the college debut of Joe Namath).

Butts sued the Post for $10 million and was awarded a judgment of $3,060,000 (the amount was eventually lowered and Butts received around $136,000 after taxes). Bryant also sued and ended up settling out of court for $300,000 - tax free.

While cleared in court, the ugly episode played a role in moving Georgia and Alabama to the back of the rotation when the SEC implemented a new scheduling format after the 1965 season. The teams would play only ten more times over the next thirty-five years ... four times in the 1970s, twice in the 1980s, and four more times in the 1990s.

The 1965 game was a memorable way to conclude that historical era of the series.

The Flea Flicker

"The most exciting play I've ever seen ..."
Bud Wilkinson on NBC telecast of Georgia-Alabama 1965

Vince Dooley opened his second season in Athens with the unenviable task of facing Bear Bryant and the Crimson Tide. Bryant and Alabama were in the midst of a remarkable 45-4-1 regular season mark over the past five years, and were the defending wire service national champions. The Bear had welcomed the Dog's young leader to big-time college football the year before with a 31-3 pasting in Dooley's first game.

The 34-year old upstart upstaged the master in Sanford Stadium on September 18, 1965.

The Dogs jumped to a quick lead on a Bobby Etter field goal, and soon pushed it to 10-0 in the first quarter when left defensive tackle Jiggy Smaha deflected a Steve Sloan pass and right defensive tackle (and eventual two-time All-American) George Patton grabbed the interception and scored on a 55-yard return.  The Tide fought back all afternoon and finally overtook the Dogs by a 17-10 advantage late in the fourth quarter.

Enter a trio and a play etched in Georgia lore.

Backup quarterback Kirby Moore (playing in place of injured Preston Ridlehuber) threw a short pass to end Pat Hodgson in the right flat. An instant later Hodgson tossed a lateral to sweeping Bob Taylor and the halfback raced down the right sideline for a 73-yard touchdown.

Dooley then refused to settle for a tie (no overtime back when football was played like it should be!) and went for the two-point conversion, which Moore successfully completed with another pass to Hodgson.

Alabama would recover to win the 1965 national title (jumping from 5th to 1st after the bowls), but it was the Dogs who sent the soon-to-be-dormant series out in style with that classic 18-17 victory.

What Might Have Been

Over the next 35 years college football fans missed out on what could have been memorable match-ups between the two premier programs in the SEC.

In the dozen seasons between 1971 and 1982, Alabama and Georgia won every SEC title. From 1978 to 1980, the two schools won or shared all three national championships. Alabama won the SEC in 1977, 1978, and 1979. Georgia won the SEC in 1980, 1981, and 1982. They rarely met on the field during those halcyon days of dominance (playing twice in the mid-1970s).

Nick Saban gets to face Gur-Shall on Saturday (the moniker given to Georgia’s freshmen tailback tandem of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall), but the Bear never had to defend against Herschel.

From Pop Warner to Flea Flickers, Fixes, and what might have been … the strange story of the Alabama-Georgia series.

Visit The Campus Game again this week for the SEC Championship Game preview and Professor's Prediction.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Old America - New America

Will Oregon win a BCS championship and signal the ascendance of "New America" even on the football field?

Or will Kansas State, Notre Dame, or one from a horde of SEC challengers slow the fade of "Old America" by shooting down the Ducks?

We will not know for another several weeks, but the battle lines drawn during this year's political contests seem to be spilling over to the gridiron.


"New America" supposedly represents an ever-changing, fast-paced society ... is anything faster-paced than Oregon's offense (which leads the nation in scoring)? Forget about going to the fridge when the Ducks have the ball, odds are you'll miss four plays and a touchdown before you pour the Coca-Cola.

"New America" supposedly represents a sprawling, teeming mishmash of a multi-cultural populace ... Oregon features a star quarterback from Hawaii in Marcus Mariota (and seven other islanders), a slithering, slippery Black Mamba from South Central Los Angeles (De'Anthony Thomas), a Dane from the North Pole (WR Dane Ebanez from North Pole, Alaska), an exotic-sounding Canadian (LB Boseko Lokombo from British Columbia), and other players hailing from Florida to the great Northwest.

"New America" supposedly represents the need for Uncle Sam to act as a sugar daddy, giving out treats galore to citizens eager for the freebies ... the Ducks feature Phil Knight, founder of Nike and the biggest athletic booster of them all, his largesse resulting in palatial football facilities, and more uniform combinations than a mathematics professor could calculate.

So, is "Old America" resigned to the slag heap of history, destined to go the way of the wing-T, leather helmets, and quick kicks?

Maybe not. Consider:

"Old America" treasures conservative values like a strong defense. The five closest pursuers to Oregon - Kansas State, Notre Dame, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida - all rank in the top 25 nationally in scoring defense, with the Tide, Irish, and Florida making up the top three (Bama and ND are tied at #1 this week). The Ducks rank 30th - tied with Minnesota.

"Old America" honors tradition and experience. Does any team have the tradition of Notre Dame? The pedigree of Alabama? The stolid leadership and experience of Bill Snyder at K-State? The Tide and Irish have combined for more football national titles than any other two schools. Bill Snyder could have been the model for the farmer in American Gothic.

"Old America" supposedly believes in doing things the old-fashioned way. Bill Snyder played defensive back in college, earned his stripes as an assistant coach with John McKay and Hayden Fry, and built K-State from arguably the worst program in America to a team that would be in the championship game if the season ended today. Notre Dame's Brian Kelly played linebacker in college, and worked his way up through head coaching stops at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, and Cincinnati before landing the Irish gig in 2010. Nick Saban played defensive back in college, worked under Bill Belichick, has led programs at Toledo, Michigan State, LSU, and the Miami Dolphins in the NFL. Oh, he has also won three BCS championships. Mark Richt of Georgia played QB under Howard Schnellenberger at Miami, and spent two decades with Bobby Bowden at Florida State. Will Muschamp of Florida played defensive back at Georgia and coached under Saban, Tommy Tuberville, and Mack Brown. By contrast, Chip Kelly never played college football and worked his way up through non-traditional programs at Columbia, Johns Hopkins, and New Hampshire.

New America won a presidential election last week, and (as represented by Oregon) looks favored to win another championship in early January.

Old America took a kick to the stomach in the 2012 election, but Kansas State, Notre Dame, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida are anxious for an opportunity to show the old ways still work pretty well.

New America.

Old America.

College football 2012.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

ND-Bama: Memory Lane Up in the Headlights

"Memory Lane up in the headlights,
It's got me reminiscin' on them good times."
Dirt Road Anthem
(Jason Aldean 2011)

Could Notre Dame and Alabama play for a national title this season?

It's still doubtful (mainly because ND probably will not win out), but the Irish and Tide have me reminiscing on them good times - of December 1973.

That New Year's Eve, those two teams played what was - and remains - my favorite college football game (just edging out the great Nebraska-Oklahoma 1971 Thanksgiving Day classic). A crowd of over 85,000 filled old Tulane Stadium in New Orleans and saw two unbeaten teams battle to the final whistle with Notre Dame pulling out a 24-23 victory and laying claim to the National Championship. (A note on rankings in 1973: the UPI or "Coaches poll" still announced its champion at the end of the regular season - and ranked Bama #1 with the Irish #4; the more popular Associated Press (AP) or "Writers poll" waited until after the bowls and named ND champion). The UPI started holding its final ballot after the bowls the very next season.

Even though I was a Georgia boy, not a Catholic, and had never been north of Kentucky best I can remember (other than being born in Dover, Delaware, and living there a few weeks courtesy of the US Air Force), the Irish held a special place in my sporting soul (still do). Thank the great Lindsey Nelson for that affection. Like scores of thousands of others, I watched and loved the old Notre Dame football replays on Sunday mornings featuring the plaid-clad Nelson and the Golden Boy Paul Hornung. Those of you who don't remember pre-ESPN days should realize most Saturdays offered only one college football telecast, with the occasional national-regional double feature. So, the team I got to see the most on that old Zenith was Notre Dame ... and the Irish always seemed to be ahead by forty points as Nelson switched to further action, his signature line. (An aside - years later I would date a pretty girl at Georgia a couple of times - named Lindsey Nelson! A few years after that, in grad school at Tennessee, I got to meet the real deal when Mr. Nelson spoke to a sport history class - he lived on a bluff over the Tennessee River - what a man).

The fact that a whole slew of my cousins and an uncle or two ate, drank, and slept Alabama football also had my adrenaline flowing for the '73 Sugar Bowl. If my (admittedly fading) memory serves me, I made a long-distance call to the Heart of Dixie to gloat just minutes after Irish QB Tom Clements calmly hit TE Robin Weber with a long-pass from the ND end zone to ice the game. Long-distance calls were nothing to take lightly in those days, but my mother let me have my fun. I don't think any other football score has ever been so much fun since.

Aside from personal interests, the game held broad national implications too. The two schools had never met on the football field. Many southern football fans, and Alabama fans in particular, chafed at what they saw as preferential treatment in the polls for Notre Dame. More people in northern cities, more television and newspaper exposure, more northern sportswriters with big-city biases, all those factors rubbed Bama and other southern fans raw. And there was 1966 of course. That season the Irish were voted national champs after finishing the season with a 9-0-1 record that included a tie at #2 Michigan State in the next to last game of the year. Alabama finished 10-0 (and then won the Sugar Bowl over Nebraska), but still finished #3 in both polls. Want to start a fight in Alabama? Bring up that vote.

While the ND-State tie is long-remembered, the fact that the Irish won at Oklahoma and then crushed USC 51-0 in the season finale is often overlooked. Guess where Notre Dame plays this weekend? Guess where the Irish finish the season? Yes and yes ... Oklahoma and USC.

I don't think it will happen. I doubt the Irish can handle the Sooners on the road this weekend. I question whether ND will be able to stave off the future NFL squad at the LA Coliseum. They are too young, too fragile, too accustomed to losing big games the past decade or so.

But, oh just savoring the possibility for one more week ... the Irish got me reminiscing on them good times.