Pepper Rodgers didn't just attend the Georgia Tech pep rally last Friday night on the eve of the Notre Dame game, he was the head cheerleader. That helped explain the bedlam in Atlanta, for wherever the Georgia Tech coach goes, good and raucous times are not far behind. First, Pepper led the revelers in repeated renditions of I'm a Ramblin Wreck from Georgia Tech, then he shook a yellow and white pompon, grabbed a box of Lucky Charms cereal and screamed, "I love the Yellow Jackets. How 'bout yewwwww?" Rolls of toilet paper flew through the air, banners were raised and cheerleaders urged the students to relive Animal House. Pepper was in his element. "I love the Yellow Jackets. How 'bout yewwwww?"
Why all the commotion?
As every Tech follower well remembered, Notre Dame had demolished the Ramblin Wreck 69-14 last year at South Bend. Worse, it seemed that Notre Dame Coach Dan Devine, trying to impress the pollsters, had unmercifully rolled up the score. With the Irish clinging to a 62-7 fourth-quarter lead, they ran for a first down on fourth-and-one at midfield—and made it. It's one thing to end up in the ditch, Tech fans felt; it's quite another to have your hub caps stolen while you're waiting for a tow.
November 27, 1978
For an entire year Georgia Tech had lived with the bitter taste of that awful afternoon and for weeks before last Saturday's game, "69-14" signs had been draped over the Tech campus. Fumed Rodgers, "People who say it doesn't make any difference whether you lose 35-7 or 55-7 haven't played the game." Countered Devine, "I got beat once 35-0 by Nebraska. I've been on both sides of the field. I didn't run up the score."
Behind the scenes was a background of less than warm feeling between the two coaches, going back to the days when Devine was at Missouri and Rodgers at Kansas. Rodgers was once quoted as saying that Devine couldn't win the big games; Pepper, of course, says he was misquoted. And in banquet appearances, Rodgers likes to tell a story that in a game in which Devine was beating him badly, "I flashed him the peace sign and he gave half of it back to me."
Not since playing Alabama when Tech upset the undefeated Crimson Tide, in 1962, had the Tech campus been in such an uproar over a football game. And everyone was loading up with fish, these being the favored missiles in Atlanta when Notre Dame comes to town.
Rodgers had to love it. His free-wheeling gregariousness has rubbed some Tech alums the wrong way. Many of them find Rodgers to be lacking in dignity, citing, as one example, the time he did his television show without wearing socks. Rodgers sniffs, "Alums don't get you fired. They just drive you crazy. The players get you fired."
In almost five years at Tech (he previously coached UCLA as well as Kansas), Rodgers' record is 30-23-1. "I proved a long time ago I wasn't a great coach," he says, "but I always seem to be better where I was than where I am." He says that he tried, but failed, to get his official press guide biography to read only, "Pepper Rodgers has proved everything there is to prove in football. He can coach good players, and he can't coach bad ones."
This season Rodgers seems to have more good players than bad ones. Tech went into the Notre Dame game with seven straight wins after losses to Duke and California, the first time since 1966 that it had won more than four straight. Notre Dame also went into the game with seven successive victories (and two losses), but seven straight for the Irish is just another day at the office. Tech seemed ready. As they got dressed, the players kept shouting "69-14." Running Back Eddie Lee Ivery, who set an NCAA rushing record of 356 yards the previous week against Air Force, promised, "We're going to play mad rather than being mad." And Tech fans were decked out in shirts that read HELL, NO, I AIN'T FORGOT.
Once the first lick was made, though, it was clear that Notre Dame—even without Running Back Jerome Heavens, who has a bad knee—was in for a glorious day. In one stretch, Joe Montana completed 10 passes in a row, tying the school record that Angelo Bertelli set in 1942. Vagas Ferguson rushed for 255 yards, breaking the Notre Dame single-game record he set three weeks ago by 36 yards. Final score: not 69-14, just 38-21.
As Tech discovered, emotion doesn't beat Notre Dame. The Yellow Jackets' offensive line was overmatched, and so was its defensive line. Notre Dame got an early field goal by Chuck Male and added second-quarter touchdowns on a 26-yard Montana-to-Pete Pallas pass and a 20-yard run by Ferguson for a 17-0 lead.
Late in the first half, Ivery, who was to rush for 102 yards for the day, threw a scoring pass to Wingback Bucky Sham-burger, reducing the margin to 10 points. Rodgers, though, was downcast in the locker room. "They are too big and too physical, which is no surprise," he said. "They've only been that way since Rockne." Student-trainer Allen Lawrence had a different assessment. "We peaked too early with all that rah rah, pep rally stuff," he said.
And the Irish rolled on. Linebacker Bob Golic intercepted a pass early in the third quarter to kill a minor Tech threat. Then Montana took over, scoring one touchdown on a plunge and passing five yards to Kris Haines for another. Notre Dame's final score came on Jim Stone's five-yard run. And the Irish were going to the Cotton Bowl once again.
With 2:24 to play, Tech fans began hurling debris at Notre Dame. Not helping matters was Grant Field's seating arrangement, with the Tech student section behind the visitors' bench. Fish, ice cubes and, ultimately, liquor bottles were tossed out of the stands. When a pint rum bottle landed nearby, Devine picked it up and ran onto the field to show it to an official. Then he circled his players at midfield and warned them—indeed, threatened them—not to lose their tempers. "Act like Notre Dame," he said. "You have more class than that." The Irish did.
Devine later downplayed the bad scene, saying, "The fish smelled like hell, the eggs were interesting and the ice sort of stings when it hits your face. Let's talk about the game."
Rodgers didn't want to do that. "Life's not fair." he sighed. Maybe not, but Rodgers and Tech later received an invitation to play Purdue in the Peach Bowl at Atlanta on Christmas Day—and promptly accepted.