Forty years ago this month, I was a freshman student at the University of Georgia sitting in the stands of Sanford Stadium in Athens watching what was probably the best game I had ever seen in person until that time.
Georgia was hosting rival Georgia Tech “between the hedges,” and I was capping off what had been a fun and memorable fall quarter of my freshman year at U.Ga.
I had not only enjoyed a rewarding time getting to play football on the Georgia JV team as a walk-on flanker/slot back, but I had also lived in the McWhorter Hall athletic dorm with the varsity players and other male athletes.
And besides all that, I was enjoying the life of a basic college student who was now getting to go to school with girls after having attended all-boys Baylor School as a shy high school student.
I had enjoyed my three college classes I was taking – even if I did not study as hard as I should, and was already developing some good friendships with athletes and non-athletes, and girls and guys, including future best friend Dave Williams.
I was also simply a big college football fan, and the fall of 1978 in Athens gave me numerous fun memories to last a lifetime!
Although most people associate the Georgia-Georgia Tech rivalry with Thanksgiving weekend, that year it was on the first Saturday in December.
And the reason that game meant so much to Georgia was that the Bulldogs had enjoyed an amazing 8-1-1 record going into that game. Although Georgia had experienced some success under coach Vince Dooley – including SEC championships or co-championships in 1966, ’68 and ’76 – the Dawgs had suffered through a disappointing 5-6 season in 1977.
Prognosticators at the start of the 1978 season had not expected much more that year, either. But the Bulldog players and coaches thought otherwise.
The theme of the season was “Underdogs to Wonder Dogs,” and that would become true from the start.
In the first game in Athens, Georgia’s Rex Robinson kicked three field goals as Georgia upset Baylor, 16-14. Although I said I was a diehard college football fan, I actually went home that weekend simply because our freshmen football camp had ended and I was ready for some rest.
I remember turning on the game on TV and thinking I would not really care who won. But almost from the start I surprisingly found myself cheering quite heartily for Georgia.
And the next week, in another game played in Athens, I watched Georgia upset by a score of 12-0 a very good Clemson team, which would not lose again the rest of the season. The 1978 Tigers would be remembered most for beating Ohio State in the Gator Bowl and seeing Woody Hayes punch Clemson player Charlie Bauman and lose his job the next day.
Suddenly the Dawgs were 2-0 and I was experiencing the excitement that permeated the university community over the football program.
But in this memorable season, I had not seen anything yet. And two of the unforgettable victories would actually occur in road games.
After Georgia lost handily the next week in a night game at favored South Carolina, perhaps after thinking about their surprising 2-0 start to the season too much, they beat Ole Miss, 42-3 at home.
Up next was nationally ranked LSU, a team the Dawgs had not played since the 1953 football season. And the game was to be played at famed Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge before a large homecoming crowd of 77,158.
As expected, LSU and running back Charles Alexander (Alexander the Great!) pulled ahead 14-0 and 17-7 at the half. But the second half would include a comeback to remember a long time for Georgia fans.
It began with an electrifying 99-yard kickoff return at the beginning of the half by fast Georgia freshman wide receiver Lindsay Scott. Georgia would go on to score 17 unanswered points in the second half and would upset the Tigers, 24-17.
I was at the McWhorter Hall dorm listening to that game on the radio, and I have never forgotten hearing legendary announcer Larry Munson excitedly call the last few minutes of the game.
And a short time afterward, I went out on the balcony of McWhorter Hall, which sat on one end of the campus, and I could hear horns of cars honking everywhere off in the distance in celebration.
I realized people cared about Georgia football a lot and there was a special spirit about the program, just as existed at the time at places like Tennessee, Auburn, and, of course, Alabama.
Two weeks later, on Oct. 28 after a 31-10 home victory over Vanderbilt, Georgia would experience an even-more-memorable night road victory.
Georgia was back on the college football radar as they traveled to Lexington to play Kentucky, which had gone 10-1 the year before but was only 2-3-1 in 1978.
Still, the Wildcats, which liked to play night games in those days to have some teams from the Deep South face colder nights, went up 16-0 midway through the third quarter. Georgia’s unforgettable season seemed destined to come crashing down.
However, the Dawgs began a comeback for the ages, and I have never forgotten Larry Munson frantically calling that last drive over the radio when Georgia was trying to get close enough for a game-winning field goal.
It was quite a dramatic moment when Larry shouted into the microphone, “The Dawgs Call Timeout!”
I was sitting in McWhorter Hall again on pins and needles listening to the game when he excitedly announced the fate of Rex Robinson’s field goal attempt: “It looks good, watch it…..YEAH! YEAH! YEAH!”
Somehow, Georgia had come back to win 17-16, and the Cinderella season was continuing. It was just as momentous in Athens that night as horns honked and people gathered on the streets of Milledge Avenue to celebrate, I recall.
The 6-1 Bulldogs, who were still tied with then-mighty Alabama for first in the SEC, then easily beat VMI the next week, 41-3. They had been led by 149 yards rushing by tailback Willie McClendon, who was a main reason Georgia was enjoying such a good season.
That set up the annual showdown in Jacksonville. Georgia and Florida had enjoyed some exciting matchups in the 1960s and 1970s, and this one would be a close one, too.
Georgia actually went ahead 24-10, but Florida under former Tennessee coach Doug Dickey rallied in the fourth quarter. However, Georgia was able to hang on for 24-22 win after stopping a Florida two-point attempt after a TD and then being able to run out the clock.
Although in many seasons, this might have been considered the most dramatic game or two, 1978 was no ordinary season for Georgia fans. A two-point win over the Gators after hanging on late had almost become a yawner, relatively speaking.
Two more exciting games remained for the 8-1 Bulldogs as well. On Nov. 18, Georgia traveled to play the 6-3 Auburn Tigers. Auburn, surprisingly breaking out orange jerseys for the first time in years as motivation, went ahead three different times on Georgia with the help of future NFL standout running backs William Andrews, Joe Cribbs and James Brooks.
But somehow Georgia came back and scored with a little over five minutes left to make the score 22-22, and that would be the way it remained. I was listening to the end of the game with two other freshmen football teammates, and I remember we must not have been able to wait for the end, because we went out to the Varsity restaurant to get something to eat and heard the end of the contest in the parking lot there.
After the game, some criticized coach Dooley for not going for two and the possible win in those pre-overtime days, even though five minutes remained. That decision would come into play a few weeks later in the final game of the regular season.
Although it was at least a tie, in some ways it felt like a loss, as Alabama was now in the driver’s seat to win the SEC.
The next day, at a time when bowl game alignments were brokered for the most part and announced before the end of the regular season, it was announced that Georgia would be playing Stanford in the Bluebonnet Bowl in Houston on New Year’s Eve.
Since Georgia had been focused on possibly going to the Sugar Bowl as the SEC champion, that scenario had not even come up in recent days.
Still excited about the season, though, I enjoyed being home for Thanksgiving weekend after getting to play and catch a pass and make some runs in the Georgia-Georgia Tech freshmen game on Thanksgiving Day at Atlanta’s Grant Field.
I ended up traveling up to Knoxville with former Baylor classmate Steve Smalling and neighborhood friend Don McGonagil to see Tennessee upset Kentucky in Neyland Stadium as Johnny Majors enjoyed a signature rebuilding win.
As we got in the car with Steve’s father and they had a small battery-powered TV, I saw announced for the first time that the Georgia-Georgia Tech game the following Saturday would be nationally televised by ABC. And the announcer would be future legend Al Michaels.
I had not heard before that it was going to be televised. In those days, a team was only on TV about two or three times a year, and Georgia had not been on TV since the Baylor game at the first of the season. Only Larry Munson’s beautiful voice of emotion was available to capture what was one of the more unforgettable seasons by any team in college football history.
And the best game of the season – from a dramatic standpoint – would come on Dec. 2, when the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets under coach Pepper Rodgers came into town for the early afternoon game with a solid 7-3 record.
It had been a somewhat unusual and emotional year for Georgia Tech as well. Tech male cheerleader Dwayne Sanders had been seriously injured in a trampoline accident at Duke at the first of the year, and Georgia Tech running back Eddie Lee Ivory had gained an amazing 356 yards rushing on an icy field at Bill Parcells-coached Air Force on Nov. 11.
My parents had driven down to see the Georgia Tech game, and they were to bring boyhood friend Kurt Schmissrauter, who was still at Notre Dame High as a standout football player.
I was looking forward to showing off the campus – and exciting football program -- to Kurt, and I remember waiting anxiously on the balcony of McWhorter Hall looking for them to arrive in those pre-cell-phone days.
Finally they did only about an hour or so before kickoff, but Kurt was not with them. He had something come up as a busy high school junior.
However, I quickly forgot my disappointment as we began walking the half mile or so to the stadium and I started thinking more about the big game. That continued as I walked into the stadium just before kickoff and sat in the student section, while my parents had tickets elsewhere.
I was hoping for another big win. Unfortunately, that quickly appeared not to be the case on this day. In fact, Georgia Tech looked as though it was going to win easily by going ahead 20-0 midway through the second quarter.
Midnight finally appeared to be coming for Georgia in this storybook season. However, as Georgia fans would fortunately learn, not yet.
With freshman quarterback Buck Belue from Valdosta replacing the mostly capable Jeff Pyburn after performing mop-up or reserve duty most of the season, the Bulldogs began a comeback for the ages.
He led Georgia to a late second quarter touchdown, and suddenly the Dogs felt the game was not completely over as they pulled to 20-7 at the half. Suddenly, hope began permeating Sanford Stadium for the Georgia fans.
In the third quarter, Georgia came out just as determined as the Bulldogs had been on their last drive. Scott Woerner intercepted a pass to set up a Georgia touchdown to make the score 20-14.
And then, after Georgia Tech was forced to punt, returner Woerner would create an even more memorable play. The uncle of current Bulldog Charlie Woerner and future College Football Hall of Fame inductee was about to make a play that would long be remembered in Georgia football annals.
He returned the punt 72 yards for a touchdown and helped put Georgia up 21-20. Needless to say, Sanford Stadium was rocking!
This had become a crazy game, but it was about to get even more so, believe it or not. On the subsequent kickoff, future NFL player Drew Hill of Georgia Tech returned the kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown. And with a successful two-point play, Georgia Tech led 28-21.
However, the drive of all drives for Georgia during that memorable season was about to come. Quarterback Belue again came into the game with just over five minutes left.
Georgia moved the ball down to the Tech 42, but they appeared to stall. However, the Dawgs faced fourth down. Or, as I later heard Larry Munson say on a tape: “Fourth down. What a year!”
He knew it had been a memorable year so far regardless. But during this special season, Georgia was not going to be denied.
Buck Belue took the snap, began scrambling and, just when it appeared he could not find anyone, he suddenly found Anthony “Amp” Arnold, formerly from Athens’ Cedar Shoals High School.
He caught the ball and dashed the rest of the way into the end zone. The Georgia fans went delirious with cheering.
However, the score was still 28-27 in favor of Georgia Tech with just over two minutes remaining. Would coach Dooley end up going for one point and the possible tie, just as he did against Auburn?
Not hardly. Very quickly coach Dooley made the decision. Georgia was going for two points and the win.
Belue took the snap and quickly tried to find a receiver across the middle. Unfortunately, the ball was incomplete and the Georgia fans in the stands were left disappointed.
But just when it seemed the game was over, a yellow flag quickly became apparent. Georgia Tech had been called for pass interference.
Suddenly, Georgia had been given new life. And this time they would not disappoint, as Belue pitched the ball to Arnold on a reverse, and he easily went into the end zone to give Georgia a 29-28 lead amid the excited and cheering Bulldog faithful.
And Georgia was able to get an interception by Dave Archer at about midfield and hang on for the big win to cap an unforgettable 9-1-1 season.
Although Georgia did go on to have disappointing 25-22 Bluebonnet Bowl loss to Stanford and standout passing quarterback Steve Dils after building a big lead, I have still never forgotten that season.
Forty years have passed, and I still think regularly of my freshmen year cheering for a team that surpassed expectations and gave Bulldog fans everywhere memories to cherish for a lifetime.
Herschel Walker would come along in a couple of years to give me and others some obviously great memories during that era as well, but 1978 to me still ranks up there with the best of them.