Alerted to the possibility of a South-eastern Conference football scandal (SI, March 18), people all over the South last week seemed to be claiming inside knowledge. A professional football scout passing through Athens, Ga. got much of the story from a man in a restaurant. When the scout got to Atlanta, a soda jerk filled in the gaps. A taxi driver in Birmingham, Ala. had heard just about the same tale. And a lawyer from Atlanta heard it on a golf course in Washington, D. C.
Nearly everyone involved in or interested in southeastern football had heard at least something, but the first purportedly detailed account did not come until late in the week when The Saturday Evening Post confirmed that it would publish in its March 23 issue what it called "a shocking report of how Wally Butts and 'Bear' Bryant rigged a game last fall." The report was shocking indeed, for it accused Butts of selling out the University of Georgia, where he had been a most successful head football coach for 22 years. The report said that a week before the 1962 season's opening game between the two schools Butts had given to Bryant, head coach at the University of Alabama, an outline of Georgia plays and defensive patterns. Alabama, a 14-to-17-point favorite, thereupon won by a score of 35-0—double the expected spread. At the time of the alleged sellout, Butts was director of athletics at Georgia, having been supplanted'as coach by Johnny Griffith. Butts has since resigned as director, saying that the move was for "purely personal and business reasons." His resignation came after he was questioned about the report.
Before the Post could reach the newsstands, or even release its story to the wire services, the charges crashed through TV tubes in Atlanta, where Butts and his attorney, William H. Schroder Jr., freshly returned from a Birmingham meeting with Bryant and his attorneys, publicly presented denials. They also declared Butts will sue the Post for as much as $10 million. Hours later the FBI, the governor of Georgia, Senator McClellan and the Southeastern Conference belatedly announced they were investigating.
The trail started with an Atlanta insurance salesman, George Burnett, who told a story almost as queer as some bad checks he has passed. He declared that, eight days before the Alabama-Georgia game, he tried to dial the number of Communications International, an Atlanta public relations firm headed by one Milton Flack and no longer extant. After some busy signals, he says, he was inexplicably hooked in on a long distance call Wally Butts was making from the Communications International office to Bear Bryant in Tuscaloosa. (Butts concedes that he made the call, but denies its content as reported by Burnett.) So beguiled was Burnett by what he overheard that he took, as they say, copious notes. In substance, what he listened in on, according to the Post, was a report to Bryant on the plays and formations Georgia would use (giving plays and players by name), the inability of the Georgia team to quick-kick, and the word that Georgia Quarterback Larry Rakestraw tipped off a pass by drawing back one of his feet.
March 25, 1963
Eavesdropper Burnett at first told what he had learned only to the happily named Flack, then tucked his notes in a bureau drawer. He let them lie there or elsewhere until he mentioned them one day in January to a friend of Georgia Coach Griffith. The friend hastened to talk with Griffith, and Griffith hastened to university officials to demand Butts's resignation. And Butts did resign a few weeks later.
A prominent attorney, M. Cook Barwick, a member of the athletic board of the University of Georgia and a former FBI man, was given the responsibility of conducting the university's investigations of both Burnett and his accusations.
"I told Burnett I was going to check him out from hell to breakfast," says Barwick. "Our responsibility was to get to the truth no matter how it affected the University of Georgia, and the chips could fall where they might."
When Barwick's probe ended last week, there was nothing conclusive for the university to announce. It had not been proved that Butts or Bryant had done anything wrong, but neither had Barwick's efforts dispelled the university's suspicions. When Burnett agreed to take a lie detector test and the test indicated that he did actually hear everything he said he heard (though lie detector tests usually are not admissible in court as evidence and are generally held to be only 80% to 85% efficient) and when Butts refused to take such a test, university officials were understandably upset. (Possibly they are less upset now—Bear Bryant later also denied everything in an equally successful lie detector test.)
Barwick's further checking produced a record of other telephone calls from Butts to other schools within the SEC, one of them—to a head coach—that lasted 52 minutes. Conversations between coaches and athletic directors are commonplace, however, and 52 minutes would be no NCAA record. "If I'm troubled about something the week of a game," says Arkansas' Frank Broyles, "I'm liable to call every coach in the country and talk all day, just to put my mind at ease."
In his coaching days Wally Butts was known as "Weepin' Wally" because he talked incessantly about his team's deficiencies and problems. As athletic director he remained in character and talked incessantly, bluntly, publicly and profanely, about the deficiencies and problems of the Georgia team under Griffith. The latter was not amused.
"I've never wanted anything but the best for Georgia," says Butts, with the characteristic emotion of a man Who has served a school for 25 years. "And I've never done anything to hurt 'em."
The last two days before the headlines screeched found Butts a badly shaken man. His voice quaked as he spoke softly in the den of his big, red brick, Georgian home, which sits on the corner of a pretty, wooded street. From time to time he lifted his right arm and swore to God that he was telling the truth. There were the usual sporting plaques in the den, and a red leather chair with a black leather cushion and a red telephone receiver on a black dial box. Red and black are Georgia's colors.
"First of this I heard was in Philadelphia, when a friend called and said I might be in trouble when I got home," he said. "I laughed at the stories he said he'd heard. Then the school asked me to go to this meetin'. I drove over to Atlanta with our president, Dr. [Omer C.] Aderhold. They told me what this Burnett said. Not all of it, but some things. Then they asked me to take a lie test and I didn't think that was right. I figured I'd just resign now instead of June."
Last Thursday I drove Butts to Atlanta and asked him about the things he was supposed to have told Bryant to harm Georgia.
"I haven't never known their game plans or anything," he said. "I've had a lot of speaking engagements and I bet I didn't see 12 workouts all season. Paul [Bryant] don't need no help that I can tell. We talk football all the time and if I say something like Georgia ain't got a quick kicker, that ain't gonna be news to Bryant. He knows more about 'em than I do."
He chewed on an apple for a while and then said:
"When Bryant was at Kentucky, we'd go over to play 'em and I'd spend the day at his house visitin' and then we'd get in the ring." Butts said he did not attend a Georgia workout during the week before the Alabama game.
"If you want to know what hurt Georgia," he said, "one of the assistants told me they scrimmaged on Thursday before the game. Kids gotta get their legs back after two-a-days. That's bad."
It all gets back, in due course, to Burnett and what weight may be given to his story. In a series of events filled with coincidences, not the least of which is the intercepted phone call, it may be deemed curious that the day Burnett decided to reveal his secret and the day Bear Bryant filed a $500,000 libel suit against the Post, for a previous article which accused Bryant of teaching brutal football, were one and the same. During the university's grilling of Burnett he decided that, in the light of what had been turned up about his check-passing past, he needed a lawyer. He sought one out. When he was through with his explanation to the lawyer, the latter introduced him to Furman Bisher, sports editor of The Atlanta Journal, and an attorney for the Post who just happened to be in the newly retained lawyer's office. Bisher was author of the Post article published last fall that moved Bryant to sue. In the end, according to one report, Burnett was offered, and accepted, $6,000 for his story. Another coincidence: Butts is both a director of the insurance company for which Burnett works and an acquaintance of Burnett's friend, the promoter Flack, but Butts says he never heard of Burnett until the rumors began to pop all around him.
According to Jimmy Sharpe, Alabama guard, nothing strange took place before the Georgia game. Bryant's normal preparation for any game, he pointed out, involves hundreds of man-hours of scouting, studying and planning.
"We worked harder than usual those first two or three weeks to get down our game plans," he said. "But all our game plans and preparations were based on what they had done in their spring game, plus all the games of the previous season.
"I noticed that some of the Georgia boys were saying that we kept calling their plays. That isn't unusual, either. The same thing happens to us a lot of times. People often have similar plays and numbering systems, and that might run all the way from high school to pro football. I know that when we came out in our spread formation against Georgia Tech [Tech won 7-6] they were calling our formation with the same numbers we used. And when we played Mississippi State they called our formation and play as we broke huddle."
From Lee Roy Jordan, All-America linebacker of the Alabama team, came straight disbelief. "If the coaches had some kind of advance information on Georgia," he said, "they didn't tell the team about it. In fact we made our game plans for Georgia last spring. We had decided we were going to throw the ball a lot since our fullback was out for the season, and that's exactly the way we played the game, just like we had planned in the spring."
The situation as it stands is full of puzzles. Which lie detector test, Bryant's or Burnett's, is the reliable one? Why did not Burnett, who last weekend kept himself spectacularly unavailable, tell Griffith what he had heard eight days before the game—in plenty of time for Griffith to make changes in his offense and defense? Is Burnett certain that he heard discussions of defense? Most college teams don't set serious defenses until the final week before a game. And what improbable relationship existed between Butts and Milton Flack that would permit Butts to feel free to use the Flack telephone for long distance calls?
Finally, how long could the Butts-Bryant telephone conversation have lasted? Burnett said that when he so fortuitously tuned in on the call Butts was told by the college operator that Bryant was out at the distant athletic field and had to be summoned. The entire telephone conversation, including the wait until Bryant appeared, took 15 or 16 minutes, according to the telephone company and Burnett. That does not leave much time to take down pages and pages of notes, as Burnett says he did.
However these puzzles may eventually be resolved, and regardless of whose honor may be scorched, it is clearly the obligation of college football authorities—even before the FBI or any other law enforcement body—to resolve them. College football cannot afford to take on the sooty face that college basketball has too often worn.