Old Syrup Mouth over at the North Avenue Trade School has his most favorite team ever, and nobody has beaten it, but folks just won't let him up. They say he's retiring; they say he's dodging The Bear; they say he hasn't really played anybody; and they say you wait until he goes over between the hedges in Athens to meet the Dogs—that'll fix Old Syrup Mouth's yard peas. That'll take care of old Bobby Dodd and Georgia Tech.
Well, maybe so, but right now Bobby Dodd, the gentleman coach, is up there with a 9-0 record just as he was back in the glory days of the 1950s, and Georgia Tech is going to a major bowl, and regardless of what happens against the Georgia Bulldogs in two weeks, the season has been a success. Even more important to Dodd is the fact that this team has done it all on pride and guts, seeing as how it is not, he says, entirely broken out with ability.
Last Saturday was a particularly joyful one for the Tech coach because the easy 21-0 victory over Penn State in sunny Atlanta's Grant Field came at a most opportune time. It was the day after his 58th birthday, on Tech homecoming, and it assured him of nine wins for the first time in 11 seasons. It also left him among the five unbeaten major teams in the country and probably put him in the Orange Bowl, which is in Florida, where he has liked to recruit lately. As for Georgia, Dodd would prefer to be 10-0, but 9-1 is a magic figure, too, and that's in the cupboard.
"Now I can say this is my favorite of all teams," said Bobby. "It doesn't have the ability of the 1951 or 1952 teams, or even the 1956 team. Not as many athletes. But it has something special—the big-play quality. We've sure made some big plays when they counted."
Atlanta is populated by two kinds of people, mainly. There are Dogs, which are the University of Georgia folk, and there are the supporters of the North Avenue Trade School, which is not the kindest name for Tech but is one that sure tickles Georgia. It is the Dogs who also call the Tech coach Old Syrup Mouth and Mister Sweet Talk, chiefly because of the protective local press he gets and his unmatched talent for explaining losses soothingly. And it is the Dogs who say that big plays don't matter so much when they come against the kind of opponents Tech has mostly played—Clemson, Duke, Virginia and such heavyweights as that.
But Dodd, after all these years at Tech, is accustomed to criticism from the Bulldogs. Athens is only 70 miles away, as the darts fly. He has heard it all before—that his teams don't work hard; that his offense is as predictable as fried chicken on Sunday: first down, run, second down, pass and third down, quick kick. He is also accustomed to criticism from Alabama, which started the retirement rumor (unfounded) and Auburn—two places that even the Dogs join Tech in hating.
The big rumble in Atlanta last week as Dodd tried to prepare for Penn State was a minor duel of words between Georgia Tech and Alabama about who was trying to avoid whom in the postseason bowls. Since Dodd dropped Bear Bryant and Alabama from his regular-season schedule after 1964, there was reason for a lot of fans to think Tech would avoid the Tide in a bowl game if at all possible.
To clear that up, Dodd mentioned one day last week that Tech would "play anybody." It will meet Notre Dame eight of the next nine years, which is pretty good proof. He also said that if Tech met Alabama, the Tide would have the most prestige to lose since it would be favored and Tech could win, possibly. This was all misinterpreted by newspapermen in two states, and it came out sounding as though Dodd was accusing Alabama of being frightened of Tech, which is silly but nonetheless led Tech's students to paint a sign on the campus that read, "Bear's scared but Dodd's not," and to begin a chant during the Penn State game that went, "We want Bear."
Generally, people who say "We want Bear" do not have to suit up and play him. Bobby Dodd was perfectly honest about this later on.
"I don't know why either team would want to play the other," he said. "You don't really go around looking for folks who might beat you. We're not a No. 1 team. I think probably that Notre Dame, Michigan State, Alabama and Arkansas are all stronger than we are. But I love this team, and they've done quite a job."
It is a crazy patchwork of a team that Georgia Tech has. It is a grand mixture of players from 11 different states, of a host of married guys, of baseball players, of preachers, of a lot of fullbacks playing defense, of a golf champion for a place-kicker, a basketball forward filling in presently at quarterback—and all of them light, quick and prideful.
The most notable Tech player is Tailback Lenny Snow, a junior from Florida who never says a word except when he's making a talk for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He has gained almost 700 yards and scored 12 touchdowns with a lunging, diving style of running, all of which will land him on a top All-America team. This will make of him the second All-America tailback Dodd has had (Leon Hardiman was the first in 1952) and his best runner ever.
"We don't have much up front, and Lenny has certainly hacked out the yardage," said Dodd. Snow hacks, but he also squirts with shifty moves and deceptive speed. Early in the season Snow represented half of Tech's offense.
The other half was taken care of by Quarterback Kim King, a left-handed junior from Atlanta who has become the best combination of runner-passer Dodd ever coached. After a fabulous start, King broke his right hand against Tulane and missed three games. But he will be ready for Georgia and the bowl game thereafter.
Kim King is a thin, handsome blond-haired young man, extremely personable, who looks and acts more like the quarterback's best friend than the quarterback. When he got hurt, Dodd had to fill in with Larry Good, a junior best regarded for his basketball ability. Good runs well enough (he gained 92 yards against Penn State), but his throwing leaves Tech yearning for Kim King to take off his cast. Had Good been able to see the receivers as well as King does, the score would have been much worse against Penn State.
On defense, Tech has ex-fullbacks playing ends and at linebacker on a quick 4-3-4 alignment that keeps the enemy unsure and guessing. It is called the "Wrecker" defense, and it is very different from other teams' defenses. Anyone is likely to rush, even the deep backs, and no one ever can be sure where the Wrecker, a rummaging linebacker named Giles Smith, is likely to be. Against such tactics, slower Penn State almost never crossed midfield.
Where Smith is not, Linebacker W.J. Blane is. Blane has made crucial interceptions and fumble recoveries all season long, and Dodd says, "He's the kind of player who won't make anybody's All-America, but he's a big reason we're where we are."
In the 6-3 squeaker over Tennessee—the one team Tech has played, say the Dogs—Blane intercepted two passes of immense importance. One stopped a Tennessee drive and the other set up Bunky Henry's 41-yard field goal that proved the difference. Bunky Henry is one of the best golfers who ever played football. Henry has kicked 71 of 73 extra points for Tech during his career and 10 of 20 field goals. As a golfer he has won the Canadian Amateur, the Southern Amateur, the Georgia State Amateur and has played in the Masters.
All of these unlikely players add up to the current miracle of Atlanta. And with Old Syrup Mouth back on top, who needs a governor?