Not since the steaming summer of 1925, when two irascible orators, Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, voluntarily argued the theory of man's ascent from the ape on the courthouse lawn at Dayton, Tenn., has the South been as emotionally aroused over a trial as it is by the one that is scheduled to begin in Atlanta next Monday. This time the issue is not as academic as evolution, although it will deal with another kind of monkey business. Did Wally Butts or didn't he? The question has hung heavily over the conscience of college football for 4½ months, or since The Saturday Evening Post charged that Butts, ex-coach and athletic director of the University of Georgia, furnished game secrets to the University of Alabama before the 1962 meeting of the teams, which Alabama won 35-0. For Wally Butts, once so firmly seated in the front row of the coaching profession, for Alabama Coach Paul (Bear) Bryant, who occupies an even more exalted chair today, and indeed for college football itself, there have been few more serious interludes. The weeks have been filled with rumors, counterrumors, accusations, boasts, speculations and seeping innuendos. Now, providing there is no eleventh-hour postponement, the matter should at last be disposed of properly by a jury and judge in the $10 million libel suit of Wally Butts vs. the Curtis Publishing Company.
The whole bizarre scandal began on March 15 when Butts appeared on a television news program in Atlanta to deny the charge contained in the magazine article, to be released the following day, titled The Story of a College Football Fix. The article said Butts had telephoned Bryant, giving away Georgia's strategy. The basis for the charge was a strange story told by an Atlanta insurance man named George P. Burnett. Burnett claimed that he had been connected accidentally into a long-distance conversation between Butts and Bryant nine days prior to the Georgia-Alabama game and had overheard a discussion about football so unusual that he was compelled to eavesdrop and even take notes. The article attempted to substantiate the charge by presenting fragments of the notes with quotes directly attributed to Georgia Head Coach Johnny Griffith. It was explained that Burnett had struggled with his conscience until early January and was finally persuaded by a friend to tell Griffith the story. Burnett did so. He was then led to the University of Georgia officials. They investigated his character as well as his tale, were satisfied with a lie detector test that Burnett took and passed, and subsequently confronted Butts with the information. Butts then resigned as athletic director. The article did not establish what if any motive Butts had in selling out his school to Bryant, but it made obvious references to gambling.
In the days and weeks that followed, investigations were initiated by everyone from the McClellan Committee to Hawaiian Eye. (The world is still waiting for the findings of Southeastern Conference Commissioner Bernie Moore and those of NCAA Executive Director Walter Byers.) Bear Bryant appeared on television in Birmingham and coupled his forceful denials of the alleged conspiracy with a recruiting speech. "The Alabama football team won that game," said Bryant. Bryant then passed his own lie detector test. Wally Butts passed his lie test. But George Burnett rounded the far turn still leading by one lie test. He passed another one. Arguments raged through the newspapers as to which of the three men had taken the best test.
Meanwhile, at an investigation conducted by the attorney general of Georgia, Eugene Cook, Burnett admitted receiving a $5,000 payment for the story. Milton Flack, a friend of Burnett's, admitted receiving a $500 payment for promising not to spread the story around before publication. John C. Carmichael, another Burnett friend and, oddly enough, a friend of Butts too, testified that Burnett did not know what he had overheard because he (Carmichael) had convinced Burnett that nothing Burnett said he heard was valuable enough to persuade them at that time to place a bet on the game, one way or another.
August 4, 1963
At this point, the contents of two letters were made public through the Georgia investigations. One was from Dr. Frank Rose, the president of Alabama, to the president of Georgia, Dr. O. C. Aderhold. In the letter Rose told Aderhold: "Coach Butts has been serving on the football rules committee, and at a meeting held last summer...the defenses used by Coach Bryant, LSU and Tennessee were discussed...and new rules were drawn up that would severely penalize these...teams unless the defenses were changed, particularly on certain plays." Rose's letter went on to say that Butts had told Bryant that Georgia had plays which, under the new rules interpretations, would penalize Alabama, conceivably might result in injury to a Georgia player and might get Alabama's linebacker, Lee Roy Jordan, expelled from the game. "Coach Bryant," wrote Rose, "asked Coach Butts to let him know what the plays were, and on September 14 he called Coach Bryant and told him....Coach Bryant changed his defenses and invited Mr. George Gardner, Head of the Officials of the Southeastern Conference, to come to Tuscaloosa and interpret for him the legality of his defenses. This Mr. Gardner did the following week.... Coach Bryant informs me that calling this to his attention may have favored the Alabama team, but that he doubts it seriously."
Both sides seized Dr. Rose's letter as a major breakthrough in the scandal. It did substantiate the fact that Butts and Bryant had discussed technical football on the telephone before the game, and thus supported Burnett's notes to a degree. Others said it was all clear now: merely a harmless rules discussion between the only man in the Southeastern Conference qualified to talk about them, Butts, and a thoroughgoing defensive genius, Bryant, who never wants his teams caught unwittingly at the slightest disadvantage. A close examination of Burnett's notes, however (SI, April 8), revealed no talk of rules changes but also disclosed nothing patently treasonable on Butts's part.
By now the State of Alabama was conducting its own investigation into the "circumstances surrounding the publication of the [Saturday Evening Post] article," and for numerous reasons. One was the fact that Bryant already had a libel suit pending against Curtis for a previous article. Another important reason was the growing skepticism about the factual contents of the "fix" story itself. This skepticism was helped along by the second letter to be revealed. It was written by Georgia Coach Johnny Griffith to Dr. Aderhold, and it said in part, "It is true that Mr. George Burnett came to me and gave me information which I felt it was my duty to turn over to the proper authorities. However, there are three statements [in the article] attributed to me...as direct or indirect quotations which, in fact, I have never made. I am quoted...as saying—'We knew somebody had given our plays to Alabama and maybe to a couple of other teams...but we had no idea it was Wally Butts.' What I did say was—'We figured that somebody had been giving Alabama information.' I made no reference to Coach Butts...or to other teams. The story relates that Griffith went to University officials, told them what he knew and said that he would resign if Butts were permitted to remain on his job. As you know, I made no such statement to you nor have I made it to anyone else. At the conclusion of the article I am quoted...as saying to a friend—'I never had a chance, did I?' I have never made such a statement to anyone."
In Alabama the investigation ended with the predictable conclusion that no one had uncovered proof that Bear Bryant was guilty of anything more than producing good football teams. In Georgia, a far less predictable place, Attorney General Eugene Cook's finding—that Butts, at the least, had acted unethically—staggered Butts as well as the whole college football fraternity and encouraged Butts's friends to cry "politics" and "trial without jury."
Although Cook said there was no proof of a gambling involvement, the attorney general undoubtedly was influenced by Butts's acquaintance with individuals who had a background of wagering, and by Butts's financial statement, which showed assets of $200,000. Cook may have been influenced further by George Burnett's success in passing the second lie test, this one administered by Barney G. Ragsdale of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, and by Butts's refusal to submit to a similarly searching test. Cook also was armed with the sworn statements of six Georgia assistant coaches which said, in effect, that if Butts had told Bryant what Burnett scribbled on the note pad, the conveying of that information before an opening game was vital and could have affected the outcome. Cook then left it for the courts to decide whether it was a moral issue involving the indiscretion of an American coach or the sordid conspiracy of two eminences of football to corrupt the game to which they have made so many contributions.
While the scandal has remained out of the newspapers for three months since the investigations, it has continued to be a major source of gossip and debate in the South, where almost anything remotely associated with football is held dearer than the 47 days that Vicksburg staved off Grant.
At first there was more than a slight trace of resentment about the whole affair because a "Yankee magazine" had started it. This gradually was erased, in part, when it became known that a Georgian—Atlanta Journal Sports Editor Furman Bisher—was not just casually involved. The by-line on the story was that of Frank Graham, Jr., at the time a New York free-lance writer, but Bisher eventually admitted receiving payment for helping with it. Bisher's participation may have lent credence to the accusation in parts of Georgia, but in Alabama it only compounded the confusion because Bisher already was being sued by Bryant for an earlier article.
If Burnett was a worried, conscience-stricken, financially embarrassed fellow when his story appeared, things are quite different with him now. At his company, Foundation Life Insurance, he has been promoted to district sales manager in charge of an eight-man force, and his attorney estimates that his income has doubled to $18,000 a year. Says Burnett: "People have accepted my story. I didn't accuse anyone. I merely related what I overheard. I have received only one crank phone call—a drunk from Baltimore. Things have been great."
Things have not been so great for Butts, who went through a period of seclusion. Describing his post-Burnett days, Butts says, "Things have been hell and the only thing that has sustained me is the support of my true friends." He managed to sell his handsome, red-brick home in Athens, Ga. for $41,000 and move into an apartment with his wife, Winnie. Butts has appeared at Atlanta Cracker baseball games, and he was an honored guest at the ball park on July 14 for Earl Mann Day. He has made a few banquet speeches. On one occasion in Alabama, a flicker of the humor that made him a popular speaker came out. "I had some hot information for Auburn," Butts said wryly, "but they wouldn't accept my call. Word's out that I'm calling collect now." Butts has enjoyed some small encouragements—many of his former players have rallied around him, and recently automobile bumpers have blossomed with "I'm for Wally" stickers.
Another thing that may have given Butts a pang of pleasure is the common knowledge in Athens that Johnny Griffith is undergoing his own share of suffering. Griffith's job is insecure as a result of the scandal, and the athletic director's job he wants may be farther out of reach than ever. Griffith's situation was not helped when Charley Trippi, Georgia's superb player of the past, and clearly a friend of Butts, quit the coaching staff and joined the professional St. Louis Cardinals of the National Football League.
The courtroom in which all these skeins will be untangled is up two flights of marble stairs in Room 318 of Atlanta's U.S. Post Office and Court Building. The presiding judge will be Lewis (Pete) Morgan, a graduate of the University of Georgia law school, a stern man who is unlikely to allow any foolishness and who will admit spectators to the 225-capacity room on a first-come-first-served basis. Like Judge Morgan, the opposing trial lawyers are graduates of Georgia's law school. William Schroder Jr., who will represent Wally Butts, and Wellburn Cody of the defense are from prominent Atlanta families and broadly respected firms. They are old friends and golfing companions. "We'll still be friends when it's over," says Schroder, "but it won't make any difference in the courtroom."
While Wellburn Cody, a good varsity baseball player as an undergraduate at Georgia, has steadfastly refused to make any pretrial comment. Schroder, a former Notre Dame end and Georgia freshman coach during the '30s, has spoken freely. "Both sides are confident," he says. "I've heard they've said that we couldn't win any damages with a winnin' machine, but I could tell 'em they don't have a chance either. I talked with Louis Nizer before I took this case, and I've consulted him since, and I'm going for a record settlement that would top the $3.5 million he got for John Henry Faulk in the blacklist case." Schroder is of the opinion that from 20 to 30 witnesses will appear and that the duration of the trial will be about two weeks.
In any libel action it is the burden of the defendant to prove truth. It shall therefore be the privilege of Wellburn Cody to make the opening and closing pleas to the jury in behalf of the publishers. In the meantime, Schroder may have the burden of rebutting charges that Wally Butts's character was such that it could not be damaged by the article.
This could jolt open the trial door for some embarrassing testimony about Butts's not-so-private life. By citing some of Butts's associations and habits, the defense may attempt to show that he did not derive all of his pleasure from winning football games for Georgia. At the same time, Butts's attorney can almost certainly be counted upon to attack the character of his client's accusers. George Burnett has a record for writing bad checks. And some of Burnett's friends will be cast in a less than angelic light. Milton Flack, for example, can be painted as a scrambling down-and-up-but-mostly-down promoter who tried to peddle the story at least three different places. Interestingly enough, Flack once roomed with a man who had served eight years in a federal penitentiary for staging one of the last train robberies in America.
William Schroder's attack, however, will largely be directed at the publishers and at the article itself. He will attempt to show that The Saturday Evening Post has changed its character and become "sensational," and in consequence the article concerning Butts was irresponsible. As for the article, Schroder will claim that it contained many factual errors. Moreover, he will contend that excessive and damaging liberties were taken with quotations from more people than Johnny Griffith. Butts's character as a football coach will then be strongly supported by the many ex-Georgia players who have come forward in his behalf, and his loyalty to the university will be claimed on the basis of his coaching record and the fact that during his tenure at Georgia he turned down numerous attractive opportunities for jobs elsewhere.
Butts will not, of course, deny the evidence of many phone calls to Bryant (10 from August 8 to November 15) or calls to other coaches—to Florida State Head Coach Bill Peterson two days before Georgia lost an 18-0 upset to that team, to Kentucky Assistant Coach Bob Ford and to Minnesota Assistant Coach Bob Bossons. However, Schroder will attempt to prove that even pregame conversation between opposing coaches is commonplace, as he takes aim on the scandalous notes of Burnett. Butts's position will be that he cannot remember having said any of the things that the magazine says the jumbled notes suggest, but that if he did, it was harmless "football talk" and not even unethical, much less indicative of a rigged game. Butts's strongest support of all should come from Bear Bryant, Frank Rose, Charley Trippi and John C. Carmichael.
The quiet Wellburn Cody, who has given no indication of his defense, has an equally imposing list of witnesses to call upon, among them President Aderhold, Comptroller J. D. Bolton (a friend of Griffith's), Athletic Board Member Cook Barwick and Coach Griffith, plus George Burnett with his notes and Attorney George Eugene Cook with his report. And there is the possibility of new evidence in the form of sealed depositions and surprise witnesses.
For the jury that will be selected on the first day of proceedings from more than 100 people, the task could be doubly hard. If the panel finds that libel has been committed, it must then establish the degree of damage. The key to the whole drama may well be what Judge Morgan deems admissible evidence. As one Atlanta attorney says, "They'll be plowing new ground." New ground was plowed in Tennessee 38 years ago as a liberal and a fundamentalist interpreted the Bible for all the world to judge. Now the debate on another sacred institution of the South—college football—is primed for its legal climax.