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.