On Wednesday, Feb. 1, the national signing day for college football prospects, the sense of keen anticipation in Lincoln, Neb., wasn't much different from that in, say, South Bend. As always, diehard fans spent the day twisting radio dials or jamming telephone hot lines, trying to get recruiting news. But in Athens, Ga., the interest was even fiercer than usual because University of Georgia coach Ray Goff's future was squarely on the line—the dotted line, in a manner of speaking.
Last fall, in Goff's sixth season as successor to the sainted Vince Dooley, the Bulldogs finished 6-4-1. In their last two games they tied Auburn and beat archrival Georgia Tech 48-10. But even those performances weren't enough to make demanding Georgia fans forgive Goff for losses to Tennessee, Alabama, Florida and—gasp!—lowly Vanderbilt in, of all things, the Dawgs' homecoming game.
Dooley, now the Georgia athletic director, said he expected to see "significant improvement" in 1995. To most observers that meant Goff must advance to a major bowl next season or look for a new job.
It hardly helped Goff that on Monday, Jan. 30, the news broke that James Jackson, a prized tailback from Belle Glade, Fla., had reneged on his verbal commitment to Georgia and switched to Notre Dame. Earlier, linebacker Takeo Spikes, considered the top prospect in Georgia, had committed to Auburn. Across the state there was anxiety amid the pines.
As the 7 a.m. sunlight poured through the blinds of Georgia's opulent athletic department building on signing day, the war room outside sports information director Claude Felton's office was ready. A large chart displayed the names and vital statistics of 26 prospects the Bulldogs expected would sign a letter of intent. As each one faxed in the one-page form letter accepting Georgia's athletic grant-in-aid offer, a Georgia helmet decal would be placed next to his line on the chart.
The fax machine started whirring into action an hour later as Jeff Stephens, a 6'3", 278-pound defensive lineman from Chattanooga, became the Bulldogs' first official signee. But in the lobby of the athletic department building, where another recruiting board was set up, a small knot of Dawg fans, mostly middle-aged men wearing various red-and-black Georgia ensembles, was more concerned that the name of Corey Simon, a USA Today first-team prep All-USA defensive lineman from Pompano Beach, Fla. (and, by some accounts, one of the best defensive prospects in the country), wasn't on the chart. Hadn't Simon committed to Georgia?
One fan, Buster Ogletree, 62, entered the S.I.D.'s office and asked about Simon. "We didn't see his name on the board," said Ogletree, "so some of the folks out here started panicking. After James Jackson, everybody is kinda shook up."
"As of last night," said Felton, "he was fine. We just didn't put him up, because we want to be sure."
"O.K.," said Ogletree. "Got any Bulldog calendars?"
Shortly afterward, Goff blew into the sports information office looking for news. Unable to sleep the previous night, he had gotten up early and driven his gray pickup to the office, arriving at 5:45 a.m.
The fax machine started humming again at 9:05 a.m., and Karlene Lawrence, one of Felton's assistants, shouted, "Here they come!" "They" are the Luckie brothers of Stone Mountain, Ga., believed to be the first triplets to commit to a Division I program. Goff says the only way to tell them apart is that Miles Luckie, a 6'2", 270-pound defensive lineman, outweighs Mike and Dustin by 45 pounds.
"They can eat, too," Georgia assistant David Kelly says. "I know their mama is going to be happy to turn them over to the University of Georgia."
The conversation changed abruptly when Lawrence pulled another fax off and said, "O.K., this is going to be the surprise of the day. This is big, very big."
Seems that Torin Kirtsey, a running back from Jacksonville, had reneged on his verbal commitment to South Carolina and opted for the Dawgs. He wasn't on the board originally, but Felton's minions had saved room for him, just in case. Kirtsey had called Georgia the previous Friday and was told that the Bulldogs didn't have any scholarships left. But when Jackson bolted for Notre Dame, Goff called Kirtsey on Monday and told him he could have the scholarship reserved for Jackson.
It was almost 11 a.m. when Chip Towers, the beat man from the Athens newspaper, announced that he had just phoned Simon's mother. "She said she was on the way to the school for the press conference, and it's still Georgia," Towers said.
"We might want to wait until the ink's dry," said Mac McWhorter, who coaches Georgia's offensive line and tight ends.
"We might take this one with the ink still wet," said Felton.
Nearly three hours passed, and Simon still wasn't official. That did little to calm the nerves of the Dog Catchers, a group of Bulldog recruiting nuts holding a signing-day vigil at the Frog Pond Lounge at the Ramada Inn. "These guys are like expectant fathers," said Larry Wages, who cofounded the Dog Catchers in 1983. "I know it looks crazy for a bunch of middle-aged men to be so interested in a bunch of 17-year-old boys, but let's face it: Recruiting is the lifeblood of the sport."
At 1:47 p.m. Wages took a phone call from the S.I.D.'s office. "We got him!" Wages shouted.
"Simon?" someone at the bar yelled.
"Yeah," Wages said.
"All right! Put him up!"
And amid much shouting, an index card listing Simon's statistics was slapped onto a bulletin board on the lounge's dance floor.
Quiet for more than an hour, the fax machine in the S.I.D.'s office came to life again at 2:50 p.m. with three commitments, which brought the total to 23. One of them was Matt Stinchcomb, a 6'7", 300-pound offensive lineman from Lilburn, Ga. Like Simon, he was named to USA Today's all-prep national first team.
After doing four TV interviews on the deck outside his office, Goff entered the team meeting room at 4 p.m. to face the print media. Before speaking, he was informed that three junior college recruits had faxed in their signed letters. A little later Georgia's last signee of the day became Alex Vega, a 6'8", 373-pound offensive lineman from Bayonne, N.J., out of Merced (Calif.) Junior College. "Absolutely the biggest human being I've ever seen," said Goff, adding that he was especially pleased to have signed 13 linemen on both sides of the ball.
But are they good enough to help him save his job?
"Until the last two weeks of recruiting, I didn't have one person ask me that question. I just told them that I've been at Georgia longer than any other coach has been at any other school in the SEC. I've coached against two coaches at Florida, two at Auburn, two at South Carolina, two at Georgia Tech...." He shrugged. "Change can happen anywhere."
The next day's newspapers reported that—surprise!—Notre Dame had harvested the nation's best recruiting class, followed by Florida State and Auburn. But it was duly noted that Georgia had done itself proud. "The most important recruiting class of the Goff era," reported The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
In Athens the Frog Pond Lounge was quiet, the Dog Catchers having returned to their lives and jobs. But before they left, they pored over lists of next year's most promising high school seniors. "We can't help ourselves," said one of them with a shrug and a smile. "We're sick. You think we should start a chapter of Recruiting Anonymous?"