A NAIL-BITING DAY IN ATHENS
There is a limp in the walk of Johnny Griffith, coach of the University of Georgia football team, and his daughter, Susan, has taken to calling him "Chester" to give the limp some class. In facial conformation, however, Griffith is more a lumpy-nosed Richard Burton type. The lump is permanent. The limp is temporary. An earnest Bulldog guard pulled out of the line to lead a sweep during fall practice at Tallulah Falls two weeks ago and ran down the first man in his way. The man was Coach Griffith. "I jumped up quick and told him Good Job and not to let anybody stand in his way again," said Griffith. "I didn't want him to think I was hurt." Griffith's knee will be operated on when the season is over.
The season began for Griffith in Athens Ga. last week. Some quick thinkers in Athens, known around Publicist Dan Magill's office as the "Op'puhsition Pahty," would have you believe it also ended then for Griffith, because he has started each of his three seasons as Georgia head coach in an equivalent manner: losing to Alabama by wide margins. This time it was 32-7. The hurt for Johnny was on the scoreboard, which he could not jump up to hide. But the persistence of his Bulldogs—they led once and were not out of the running until the fourth quarter—would have been gratifying had it not been that the game had taken on all the wholesome, festive, collegiate qualities of a day at divorce court.
Not fully knowing what to expect, except that whatever it was it had to be dramatic, since this is the game that started the trouble a year ago, 44,000 people jammed Sanford Stadium, unanimous in their conviction that if one found it impossible to say anything good about Johnny Griffith, then by all means say something bad. Not necessarily in order of importance, one could also say something bad about Bear Bryant, the Alabama coach, or Wally Butts, or Dr. O.C. Aderhold, the Georgia president, or the Georgia athletic board, the State Board of Regents or the governor of the state.
September 29, 1963
Trying to separate the facts from the factions in Athens is like trying to fish the walnuts from the Waldorf salad; but among those who are trying to bring reason and harmony back to the campus, the libel trial of ex-Coach and ex-Athletic Director Wally Butts vs. The Saturday Evening Post is something to be talked about—but not much. Those in town who are stout Butts defenders and who feel he was treated shoddily by the athletic board and the university president, and without due loyalty by Griffith, speak out openly, asking, please, that they not be quoted. The ardor of the "Op'puhsition Pahty," convinced that The Post was no more irresponsible than some of the home folks, has nevertheless diminished since the first days after the trial and Butts's $3,060,000 victory.
At that time, Cliff Kimsey Jr., a Cornelia, Ga. banker and former Georgia quarterback, asked for the resignation of athletic board members who testified against Butts. Dr. Aderhold's resignation was demanded by an influential alumnus from Columbus, Ga., and one former student threw prestige to the winds and sent back his diploma. But within days the tide of opinion-by-mail turned sharply in the university's favor. "It takes a mind with a lot of narrow in it to fault Dr. Aderhold," said one graduate, "when enrollment is at an alltime high and all round the campus great new buildings are going up, including a $4½ million Coliseum for the Georgia basketball team that hasn't had a winning season in 12 years."
Most typical of the sympathetic middle is Bob Poss, ex-Bulldog lineman, who is the spitting image of the young Orson Welles and thanks you kindly when you recognize it. Poss owns a thriving barbecue stand on the edge of Athens and wholesales Georgia hash and Brunswick stew around the South. "He's also in charge of our obsessions," said a friend. "He sells the Cokes and hot dogs at the stadium."
Poss says the only thing he is obsessed with is the good of the University of Georgia. "People don't understand how I can be for both sides," he says, "but I'm for Johnny, and I'm for Wally, no matter who eats my stew—both sides do anyway. I think Johnny made a big mistake when he didn't throw those notes away the minute he saw 'em [the notes George Burnett took on an alleged telephone conversation between Butts and Bryant before the 1962 game, which was won by Alabama, 35-0], but it's all over now. I'm for forgetting it and beating Alabama; I'm for Wally; I'm for Johnny; I'm for the Red and Black."
Almost the entire legal cast was at the game. Butts arrived in Athens from Miami, where he said he and his wife, Winnie, had been "hiding out" for a week on Lindsey Hopkins' yacht. (While a Post appeal is pending, Butts's interest on the $3,060,000 accrues at $587 a day.) He had caught two bonefish, but had been unsuccessful at acquiring a tan. "I got pretty red is all," he said. Harry Mehre, a former Georgia coach who is now a columnist for The Atlanta Journal, spent two hours with Butts on Friday and was chagrined that "he just wasn't the old Wally I knew. The strain of this thing shows heavily on him."
Butts's arrival caused no great commotion at the game. He sat on the south side in seats donated by the university. "Very nice of them," he said. He pulled for Georgia, he said, but tried to be reasonably quiet about it, being in dignified company. "I still caught myself cheering and whoopin' every now and then." He said he was impressed with Georgia's effort, that it was a "team that will improve and win a few—but you understand I'm not trying to put anybody on the spot."
Already on the spot, and knowing it and used to it after three years as Butts's unsuccessful successor, is Griffith. He is a likable man, is eager to please and has enjoyed the support of people who count; but he will be the sacrifice if Georgia has its third straight losing season. Most of the residual bitterness from the Butts faction is directed at him, unfairly but unceasingly. Clegg Stark, the 65-year-old Negro equipment man who has been at Georgia for 50 years, came to him and shook his hand the day before the game and said, "Coach, you've got the toughest job in America. Tougher even than the President."
That afternoon Griffith drove a visitor across the campus, pointing out the building projects and the landmarks with the pride of a man who owned it all. "I love it here," he said quietly. "The school is great—the people, the town. It's been home for eight years. We built a Georgian colonial on two acres we pumped out of the swamp, and the family is really crazy about it. But if things don't work out I'll know it, and I'll be ready for whatever happens. That's coaching. I thought of quitting when all this came up last March, but I said to myself, 'No, that's the easy way.' I'm not going to get used to taking the easy way."
Later, at The Athens Country Club, he ate what he said was his first enjoyable meal in a month. "I may look relaxed on the outside, but inside I'm biting my nails." Did he sleep well? "Yes, sure," he said. He dug in his pocket to produce two red pills. "Thanks to my friends."
It was predicted in a Jacksonville paper that the Georgia players would not even report to practice for Griffith this fall, but they did, in excellent condition to a man, and he took them to a secluded YMCA camp on a lake 72 miles north of Athens in the Blue Ridge Mountains. There, in two weeks, he effected a remarkable change in squad morale. "We didn't talk about the trial or anything—just about football and Alabama, and we worked," said the captain, Billy Knowles, a halfback. "We didn't even go to the movies one night when we had the chance. We were all out to show somebody."
Griffith came back refreshed and was even able to endure five straight days of country-fried steak, English peas and banana pudding at Athens civic club luncheons. But he was pleased because not once had the "incident" been brought up. "They're gonna give him a chance," said one writer, "—his last."
Bear Bryant and the Alabama team arrived in Athens the day before the game. In the news that morning was a story about a bear that had tangled with a speeding sports car on a Michigan highway. "The car," said the story, "was wrecked." Bryant was not responsible for this object lesson, being occupied at the time by an assortment of pills he had carried along to fight a heavy cold and by sportswriters who wanted to talk about things he did not. "Indelicacy." he grumbled. "This game is no different than any other first game to me, except I'm less confident than usual." Someone said that if he got the chance, Bryant would run up the highest score in Southeastern Conference history, his own special kind of vengeance, but he told Mehre "in strict confidence" that he would be delighted if Alabama beat Georgia by one point.
Georgia's head cheerleader, Linda Jo Clements, watched Alabama work out on Friday and whispered to a friend: "They don't look so big to me." She smiled. "I just love to be optimistic." Linda Jo said spirit had been hard to come by at Georgia lately, but that she was helping lead a conspiracy to bring some back. Publicist Magill, who triples as tennis coach and Bulldog Club secretary and grows luscious grapes in his spare time, pursuing the same goal, quickly called for "the biggest welcome the Big Red team has ever had when it comes on the field Saturday."
The welcome was big, all right, and reasonably unanimous. It was especially welcoming—and loud—when Georgia recovered an Alabama fumble on the first series of plays and punched off 26 yards as though it were nothing to get on the scoreboard first. After that, until the fourth quarter, the Bulldogs played defense in the best tradition of bulldogs and just about held their own. But Quarterback Joe Namath caught a Georgia sideback following the wrong man and tied the score with a 47-yard touchdown pass down the middle, and a field goal put Alabama ahead at half time, 10-7. In the third quarter Mike Fracchia, running strong again after a year's absence for knee surgery, powered five yards to score. The rest was easier, and Bryant substituted freely, apparently with no intention of running up points.
Unfortunate dupe of the go-ahead field goal and the clinching touchdown was the Georgia punter, Pete Dunson, described by The Athens Banner-Herald as "a student until he came out for the team at the start of fall practice." Ex-student Dunson fumbled a center snap to give Alabama the opportunity for its field goal and then sliced a punt 14 yards to set up Fracchia's touchdown.
"I suspect Georgia will use a little of the I formation, with a shift, since everybody's trying it now," suspected Bryant before the game. Griffith had planned to use the maneuver, but he was scared off by an SEC official who watched the shift in practice and expressed the fear that it would get Georgia nothing but a motion penalty. It did not when Griffith finally ordered the shift used in the fourth quarter, but by then no surprises could have helped Georgia.
At the end, the difference between 1962 and 1963 showed clear Georgia improvement: 10 points in scoring (from 35-0 to 32-7) and a reduction of 165 yards (Alabama outgained Georgia by 348 yards in 1962, by 183 last week). Bryant could not resist one observation: "Georgia's not as good as I thought." Most thought Georgia better. "This is not," Griffith told his players, "the end of the world. We're going to win our share." There were tears in the Georgia dressing room, and one grim Georgia manager reported that an Alabama player had made off with the game ball. "He said it's traditional, but nuts to tradition," said the manager. "I doubledamntee you I'm gonna send them a bill."