On the day of the game, the Florida Times-Union, a Jacksonville newspaper, devoted most of the front page of its sports section to an astrologist's analysis of the two rival coaches, Vince Dooley of Georgia and Florida's Doug Dickey. The astrologist concluded, more or less, that the signs favored Dickey, a Cancer. Something to do with having Virgo on his cusp. Pisces Dooley was pictured as being in a tight spot. Because of the Virgo influence and his moon in Libra, and other key factors, Dooley's only hope seemed to be to "create a great deal of anger." The trouble with that was that "when Dooley becomes excited, the physical manifestations...in the lower portion of his spine and stomach" (i.e., butterflies) make him "a prime candidate for an ulcer."
Well, in the first place, you would have to think that a guy who has been in the thick of Georgia-Florida warfare for a long time would be on his way to something more spectacular than the drugstore for a pack of Rolaids. The game is always do-or-die for one team or the other (usually for Florida, which traditionally has more hangups). It is always down here near the end of the season, where one little foul-up can cause the Southeastern Conference championship to be lost, bowls to fade away and bad feelings. And it is always down there in Jacksonville, which is mad for the game if not made for it since, as a "neutral site," it hardly qualifies as a typical Georgia town. Of course, the money's good.
And always there are close to 70,000 squalling, brawling fans whose passions and thirsts reach such peaks that the game is commonly known as "the world's largest outdoor cocktail party." This year police put up signs prohibiting alcoholic beverages in the Gator Bowl, and offered to give claim checks for the bottles they lifted from bulging jackets. But this exercise in futility had been tried before. Meanwhile, the game itself is always won in the fourth quarter (11 of the previous 13 were, the last four by a total of eight points) on a play drawn and sent in on a napkin.
Into the eye of this storm every year for the last 13 has come Dooley. Creating some anger, all right, but generally keeping his massive cool. Doug Dickey complains that Dooley poor-mouths his Georgia team; Dooley says he just reads the papers, which tell all about Florida's incredible talent. He says he believes what he reads. This year he had read and seen films of "the most explosive Florida team I ever saw—maybe the most explosive the SEC ever had."
November 15, 1976
The morning of the game, Dooley is told he looks a little peaked. He admits that he has not slept well. He had a dream. He dreamed his publicity man came to him on the sidelines during the game "to tell me I had to go to a press conference at halftime. I said, 'What? A press conference at halftime?' He said, 'Yeah, it's the latest thing.' I said, 'I ain't going.' He said, 'You've got to.' So I went, and on my way there Florida scored two quick touchdowns. One of the press guys said, 'What happened on those two touchdowns?' I said, 'How should I know? I had to come to this damn press conference.' "
Eerily, the dream came true, as much as dreams ever do. Leading 14-13 in the second quarter, Florida dealt Dooley's Bulldogs a massive double blow. The Gators drove 80 yards in 2½ minutes to score. Then, just as Georgia was marching toward what might have been the tying touchdown, Florida's Terry LeCount intercepted a pass at his two-yard line and took it all the way back to the Georgia 43. Working with only 21 seconds left in the half, the Gators swept in for another touchdown on two passes by their marvelous wishbone quarterback, Jimmy Fisher, the second a nine-yarder to Wes Chandler, of whom Dooley has a clip somewhere that says "not even God" could cover him one-on-one. Zip-zip, 27-13.
One could see Dickey's excitement. In his seven years as coach of the team he quarterbacked in the '50s, Dickey has been hard at work dispelling various "truths" about the usually talent-rich Gators: that they do not win this or that road game, or this or that Big One. They were now within 30 playing minutes of ending their greatest frustration: 42 years without an SEC championship. Unbeaten in four league games, a game ahead of Georgia and at least two ahead of everybody else, the Gators could clinch the title and a Sugar Bowl trip by doing no more than hold on for a tie.
It will be argued—it was argued at the time and will probably be argued as long as Doug Dickey's name is remembered—that it all slipped away on a bonehead decision he made midway through the third quarter. It is more likely, however, that the Gators lost the game before that.
On its second possession of the third quarter, Georgia drove 81 yards in seven plays to make the score 27-20. The Bulldogs had been able to move the ball in the first half, but now they were doing it with striking ease. When the Florida middle guard—a tackle until this year and thus still new to lateral movement—stood up to become the middle linebacker in a 4-3, Georgia Quarterback Ray Goff ran dives to either side, getting maximum use of his fine tailback, Kevin McLee. When the guard went down into the five-man line, Goff attacked the exposed Florida ends with option plays and got his best yardage there. Goff passed for the touchdown, a six-yarder. He would finish the day having a hand in five of the six Georgia scores—passing for two and running for three.
To that point, Florida, which had been so explosive before intermission, had done nothing in two chances in the second half. Now, once more, the Gators slogged to a fourth down, this time at their 29. With less than a yard to go, and desperate to regain the momentum he knew he had to have, Dickey made his fateful decision. He went for it. Fisher, pressured by Roverback Bill Krugs, had to make his option pitch to the trailing back, Earl Carr, a bit too soon. And suddenly Carr, still in his own backfield, was confronted with Cornerback Johnny Henderson.
Carr, a terror in the first half, put a stiff arm into Henderson's face, but Henderson, with his head snapped back, held firm and spun Carr down by an arm a yard short of the first down.
Henderson said later he thought the play was "stupid," but Dooley, who knows about second-guessing, wondered if maybe Florida fans wouldn't have called Dickey a genius if only the gamble had paid off.
In any case, Georgia slammed in from there in six rushes to tie the game, held again and drove 70 yards to the go-ahead touchdown, held again and drove 80 yards for the clincher. The final score was 41-27. The last Bulldog march consumed seven minutes and 18 seconds of the fourth quarter. All three drives were on the ground—not one pass was thrown. From a 27-13 deficit, the Bulldogs had mounted an astonishing 28-point second-half blitz.
Even more surprising, however, was how totally they shut down the "big play" Florida backfield. "It took us a half just to get attuned to Florida's speed—I think they're faster in person than on film," Dooley said. But once in step, the Junkyard Dogs swarmed, yapping and snarling. Krugs was everywhere. Whenever Fisher tried to get outside to throw, the vastly improved Bulldog ends and linebackers boxed him in; and when he did throw, Georgia consistently guessed right on coverage—the marvelous Chandler was almost always doubled. Intercepted once in seven previous games, Fisher was picked off twice in the second half. Florida made only three first downs.
Nonetheless, Florida can still tie for the SEC championship by beating Kentucky this week—and can win it outright if Georgia should stumble at Auburn. There would seem to be some question, however, as to how much the Gators were demoralized by the crushing turn of events. The likelihood is that Florida and Georgia will share the title, and that Georgia will get the Sugar Bowl bid.
Dickey said later he was "out-coached," that the Gators were "not outplayed"—though it was undoubtedly a little of both. It isn't Dickey who faces a crisis, however, it's his team. He has a plaque on the wall of his office in Gainesville: "There are three groups of people: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen and those who wonder what happened." His team went from the former to the latter in 30 minutes, and as any Cancer child would agree, that is cause for meditation.
As for Vince Dooley, the astrologist suggested he see his doctor about those butterflies ("physical manifestations"). He suggested a meat-free diet.