"If you lead a good life, go to Sunday school and church, and say
your prayers every night, when you die, you'll go to Athens."
--GEORGIA FOLK WISDOM
The weather in Monroe, Ga., took a chilly turn last week, so
Herschel Scott played his favorite trivia game in the McDonald's
at the junction of routes 78 and 138. Scott approached kids
mid-burger and, in his Southern drawl, asked, "What's the
greatest football team in the world?" When the respondent
answered, "The Georgia Bulldogs," as each did, Scott smiled,
dipped into his pocket and dispensed a quarter. "Reckon I've
given away a million dollars through the years," says Scott.
"Answer never changes."
Better known as Mr. Bulldog, Scott attended his first Georgia
football game, in Athens, in 1929. He missed a few games during
the Depression and during his service in World War II but made up
for it later in life. Since 1962 he has been to every Georgia
game, home and away, traveling as far as Hawaii. It's a streak of
464 straight games, and if you don't believe him, he'll hand you
one of the 1,000 business cards he prints up before each season
to commemorate his streak.
Three or so miles up the road from McDonald's, Scott's wife,
Joan, is buried in Rest Haven Cemetery. Her epitaph, inspired by
Edgar Allan Poe's Annabel Lee, reads: SHE WAS LOVED WITH A LOVE
THAT WAS MORE THAN LOVE. A few years after Joan died, Herschel
had his half of the headstone made to his liking. Engraved under
two black-and-red images of Uga, Georgia's snarling canine
mascot, is this bit of bull-doggerel: BULLDOG BORN/BULLDOG
BRED/HERE I LIE/A BULLDOG DEAD.
At 81 Herschel is still full of vigor, but he admits that there
might be no better time to go to that great football field in the
sky. Georgia, you understand, is headed to the Sugar Bowl on Jan.
1, having won the SEC for the first time in 20 years. "How," he
asks, "can it get much better than this?"
It wasn't that the teams were bad. But ever since Heisman Trophy
winner Herschel Walker left Athens in 1982, the Georgia football
program had lacked that "certain sump'n." A key player didn't
make his grades. An injury rendered one position glaringly weak.
If it wasn't an official's bum call, it was a fumble or a
coaching blunder that invariably cost the Bulldogs. True, the
team routinely won eight or nine or even 10 games a season and
through the years furnished the NFL with dozens of players. But
when the despised conference rivals to the north (Tennessee),
west (Alabama) and south (Florida) were winning national
championships, an appearance in the Outback Bowl or the Jeep Oahu
Bowl was cold comfort in Bulldog Nation.
If football is Georgia's state religion, the Bulldogs are the
main denomination. There are four professional sports franchises
in the state, but no team is followed more closely or more
rabidly than the Dawgs. On fall Saturdays, when the Athens air is
scented thick with barbecue smoke, nearly 90,000 parishioners
converge on Sanford Stadium. At The Varsity--a chain of throwback
drive-ins where $3.05 will get you a burger and a Coke
float--some patrons have been known to forgo mustard lest the
color be mistaken for fealty to Georgia Tech. This is a state
where not long ago a man and woman named their son David
Alexander William Gibbs, enabling him to buy monogrammed apparel
off the rack anywhere from Dahlonega to Valdosta. "Georgia
football is ingrained as a way of life," says Buck Belue, an
Atlanta sports talk radio host who, by dint of quarterbacking the
Bulldogs' 1980 national championship team, is an A-level
celebrity. "You live it, and you don't think twice about it. It's
a part of who you are."
Football has been played in Athens since 1892, more than enough
time for loyalty to ossify into tradition. Some maintain that the
roots go back even further. "If you want to know why football is
king, you have to remember how poor the South was made as a
result of the War Between the States," says Dan Magill, the
school's legendary former tennis coach, who was born in Athens in
1921 and is the athletic department's unofficial historian. "This
was a way we got our pride back. When Georgia's team would go and
beat schools from other states, well, darn if it didn't make you
feel good and proud."
There's something about the sport itself that makes it suited to
Georgia. The state's identity has long been Janus-faced, part
good ol' boy with a gun rack on his truck, part genteel Man in
Full, just back from the quail hunt. Football's mix of
testosterone-driven violence and elegance and dash accommodates
both sensibilities. Magill also suggests that the game is a
barometer of machismo, a referendum on one's masculinity. That
may be so, but Georgia football holds appeal for the womenfolk,
too. "I bet half our fans are ladies," says associate athletic
director Freddy Jones, the poor soul charged with allotting
Georgia's block of 15,000 Sugar Bowl tickets. "These players are
their Rhett Butlers, their knights in shining armor."
For two decades this devotion had gone largely unrequited. Team
after team "could never quite lift the lid," as athletic director
Vince Dooley puts it. At first blush, this year's vintage
appeared likely to provide more of the same. After key losses to
graduation, the team's fabric was tattered. The defense was
undersized. The second-year coach, Mark Richt, was still wet
behind the headset. A platoon system at quarterback had all the
makings of a seasonlong controversy.
Yet the Bulldogs went undefeated through their first eight games,
and by the time Georgia faced Florida on Nov. 2 in
Jacksonville--a game known as the World's Biggest Outdoor
Cocktail Party--fervor for the team had reached fever pitch. Fans
headed down I-95 with rubber Gators tied to their rear bumpers,
and so much of the state was decked out in red and black that it
resembled nothing so much as a 59,441-square-mile checkerboard.
Georgia lost 20--13, but before the bandwagon's ranks thinned too
much, the Bulldogs regrouped to win their remaining three
regular-season games and demolished Arkansas 30--3 in the SEC
championship game. They are headed to New Orleans as the
country's fourth-ranked team. "We won [the SEC title] for every
Georgia player in the last 20 years," says Edwards. "This was a
long time coming."
More than to any player, credit for restoring the glory goes to
Richt. Hired last year after six seasons as Florida State's
offensive coordinator, Richt cuts a confident figure and moves
easily among players, boosters and common fans. In college Richt
played quarterback at Miami behind Jim Kelly--which is to say
that he didn't play much--and led something other than a monastic
existence. "My life was me, me, me," he says. In 1986 he was a
graduate assistant in Tallahassee when a Seminoles player was
fatally shot at a party on campus. The next day Richt devoted
himself to Christianity. "That's when I began to take on the role
of a servant to God," he says.
A man who has a succession of Bible verses for a screen saver on
his office computer, Richt, 42, makes no secret of his faith.
With the outcome of games left to a higher power, he is stoic
enough on the sidelines to make Tyrone Willingham look like
Carrot Top. During two-a-days last summer Darrell Holmes, a
freshman defensive tackle, was on the verge of quitting the team.
Richt approached Holmes and said, "Since I may never see you
again, I want to ask you one question: Where do you want to spend
eternity?" The next day Holmes returned to practice.
Richt and his wife, Katharyn, are the biological parents of two
sons, Jon, 12, and David, 8. Four years ago Mark and Katharyn
were in church in Tallahassee when talk turned to caring for the
sick and afflicted. The Richts were so moved by the discussion
that they decided to visit an orphanage in Ukraine and adopt two
children: Zach, now 6, and Anya, 5. "The people of Georgia have
really responded to Mark's character," says Dooley, who coached
the Bulldogs from 1964 through '88, including that 1980 national
championship team. "And of course the winning doesn't hurt
It's not just that Georgia has won, but how. The Bulldogs beat
Alabama on a field goal with less than a minute left. They
defeated South Carolina without scoring an offensive touchdown,
sealing the victory when the Gamecocks fumbled inside the Georgia
five-yard line with 12 seconds to play. With 1:25 left against
Auburn, the Bulldogs were down 21-17 and facing fourth-and-15
when sophomore quarterback David Greene threw a 19-yard touchdown
pass to backup receiver Michael Johnson--a play that instantly
took a spot in Georgia lore alongside Belue's strike to Lindsay
Scott to beat Florida in 1980. The defense, thought to be
suspect, all but quarantined the Bulldogs' end zone, holding
seven opponents under 14 points. "We may not be as talented as
[past] teams, but we're all about unity," says sophomore
defensive end David Pollack, the SEC player of the year. "That's
Coach Richt's imprint right there."
Richt might be at his best when recruiting. His polished, earnest
style leavened by devout Christianity strikes a perfect pitch in
Southern living rooms. Two months removed from the official
signing date, Georgia has already received oral commitments from
18 prospects--all but one of them from in state.
With his team favored to win its Sugar Bowl matchup against ACC
champ Florida State, and with prospects for next season already
bright, Richt is being hailed as the best thing to hit Georgia
since hot biscuits. He can hardly fill up his car at the pump or
grab a slice of pizza at Angelo's on Clayton Street without
receiving a pat on the back. His desk is adrift in a sea of
autograph requests, fan mail and banquet invitations. "I can't
say I was ready for all this," he says. "But you realize that
Georgia fans are a different animal."
Richt is fast learning what others have known for years. Bulldogs
fans love with a love that is more than love.