As the hours wind down before kickoff of what’s being billed as a monumental tilt in AthensTown this Saturday between my beloved Georgia BullDawgs (4-0, ranked #8 in the latest Coaches Poll) and the oft-crowned Alabama Crimson Tide (3-1, inexplicably ranked too low at #13, IMHO), I can’t help but look back at one of my two most memorable UGA-Bama experiences.
A few of the details are a bit hazy 38 years later and I hope I haven’t embellished the story as the years have passed but enough details are still razor-sharp to make me believe this account is pretty darn close to 100% accurate.
Here ya go …
BUILD-UP TO BAMA
It was the fall of 1977 and I’d been tapped to be Sports Editor of UGA’s 4-day-a-week student paper, The Red & Black. As such, I had the distinct honor of traveling with the football team, whether by bus or aboard the 1950s-era Southern Airways team plane that flew out of tiny Ben Epps Field in Athens, GA.
We were in the fourth week of the season — standing 2-1 with mediocre wins against then-feeble teams Oregon and South Carolina – en route to a crummy 5-6 season (fumble-mania and quarterback injuries killed us that year) and what would prove to be Coach Vince Dooley’s only losing season in 25 years as Top Dawg. Bama, under the tutelage of legendary Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, was also 2-1 with mediocre wins over Ole Miss and Vandy and a heartbreaking 31-24 loss at Nebraska (quarterback Jeff Rutledge tossed five interceptions in the game) that had dropped the Tide from #4 to #10 two weeks earlier.
I’d managed to score a 10-minute phone interview with Bear Bryant earlier in the week as I prepared my game advance stories. I distinctly remember Coach Bryant putting me on speaker phone and letting me know, seated across the desk from him in his Tuscaloosa office, was Jessie Outlar, the long-time sports columnist for The Atlanta Constitution (who was once robbed and shot outside old Atlanta Stadium after a Braves game but I digress). The presence of both Coach Bryant AND Jessie Outlar, a columnist I read regularly and admired, on the other end of the land line had me doubly-nervous. I don’t remember specifics about the interview except that it was quick, Coach Bryant really did have a gravelly, growly voice but was very polite, and I got what I needed in terms of quotes.
For a 20-year-old, aspiring sportswriter, these were exciting times.
ON THE ROAD AGAIN
Friday, September 30th rolled around and the Dawgs headed for Tuscaloosa. Team busses met us at the airport and, escorted by Alabama State Troopers, we blasted through red lights and stop signs en route to old Denny Stadium that had added “Bryant” to the name two years earlier in honor of the Coach who would be across the field from us the following day. There was the customary visitor’s walk-through at the stadium which simply meant the UGA players and coaches would mill about the field in street clothes for about 45 minutes or so to get a feel for the battlefield before heading for the team hotel. Turns out, it was a missed opportunity for the BullDawgs to mark their territory.
I don’t recall the circumstances of the team meal that night but I do remember it was served fairly early to allow everybody’s digestive system to perform its duties in time for all to get a good night’s sleep – that is, as good a night’s sleep as you can get when you know you’re the underdog and you know that you absolutely gut-punched Bama, 21-0, the previous season in Athens; holding their vaunted offense to a mere 86 yards. (To this day, that whole weekend in ’76 remains my favorite UGA-Bama but that’s another Dawg Blawg for another day).
No one dared say it aloud but we knew revenge was in the air … you could feel it all across Tuscaloosa County.
WHITE BUFFALO AND CRIMSON TIDE
Following dinner, a couple of busses picked us up at the hotel and took us to a Tuscaloosa movie theater which had that old-timey “picture show” feel. The facility had been bought out for the evening by the Georgia Athletic Department to ensure coaches and staff could keep an eye on players and account for everyone. No room for foolishness the night before Bama. The movie playing on the theater’s single screen that night was White Buffalo, starring Charles Bronson as Wild Bill Hickock who, along with Crazy Horse, wanted to hunt down and kill a murderous albino buffalo. It was a weird movie.
About 20 minutes into the film, light suddenly streamed in from the two entry/exit doors at the top of the theater and a group of large (LARGE!) suit-and-tied males silently streamed down the steps and settled into the three or four rows immediately behind us.
Yep, the Bama football team.
Coach Bryant sat alone in the middle of the last row, silently ruling over the setting. Not a word was spoken and the Bama players stared straight ahead at the screen. Our guys knew Bama was already, literally, breathing down their necks. No one knew where this would lead.
After a restless few minutes of tense silence, a Georgia player whispered “Ozzie!” to Bama tight end Ozzie Newsome, a friend from high school days. I want to say Newsome responded with “Geno, my man!” when he recognized his buddy – but that would indicate it was UGA wide receiver Gene Washington and he’d already left Athens after being drafted by the San Diego Chargers. In any event, Ozzie responded with “(Insert name), my man!” A minute or two later – just as quickly and quietly as they’d entered the theater – the Tide Players, and their exalted leader, exited.
To this day, the experience in that movie house that night remains the most extraordinary example of gamesmanship I’ve ever witnessed. Coach Bryant clearly sent a message that tomorrow would be all-business and it likely wouldn’t be pretty for those in red and black. (Even if we’d had Charles Bronson and Crazy Horse on our side.)
He was right. We got white buffaloed.
Bama spanked the Dawgs 18-10, exacting payback for the stunner in A-Town exactly 364 days earlier. Dawgs, tails tucked, made their way back to Athens to complete what would turn out to be a lousy season. Bama would go on to beat Southern Cal on the road, win the ’77 Southeastern Conference with a spotless 7-0 record, and finish 11-1 overall and ranked #3 in the AP Poll after a convincing Sugar Bowl victory over Ohio State.
This upcoming Saturday afternoon showdown in Athens – one that will be beamed across the country via CBS — has all the vibe and potential to be another UGA-Bama classic. Let’s hope it goes to the good guys from The Classic City.