Vince Dooley: Walking His ‘Dogs to New Orleansby Marty Mulé

The lyrics seemed to fit Vince Dooley: “Those were the days, my friend. We thought they’d never end. We thought they’d last forever and a day.”

Of course, nothing last forever and a day – or even very long. But it seemed like it for the while.

“It was a golden era,” said the former Georgia head coach and athletic director of the early 1980s run in which New Orleans became virtually the winter home of his Bulldogs.

In football terms, three straight seasons is practically an epoch. And from 1981 to 1983, Georgia played in three of the most hellacious Sugar Bowls ever, each one representing a potential No. 1 finish for the Bulldogs. Georgia did land atop the polls after one, let the title slip away in another, and fell dramatically in one of the game’s most memorable endings in the third.

“It took a national champion and a perfect throw, by one of the game’s best throwers, to keep us from chalking up three consecutive Sugar Bowl victories – which would have been quite a feat,” Dooley reflected.

Georgia football at the time was a feat in itself. During that three-year span, the Bulldogs compiled a 33-3-0 record, largely on the running of Herschel Walker – with two of those defeats coming at the hands of opponents that finished No. 1. Eighteen points separated Georgia from three full seasons without a loss.

Georgia was in the midst of a tremendous run, best in school history, and New Orleans forever will be linked to Bulldog lore. But not only because Dawgs fans were enamored to ring in the New Year – seemingly every New Year – in the French Quarter.

That began just five years after a tie-in was created between the Sugar Bowl and the Southeastern Conference, and it took a little getting used to for the formerly free-wheeling league schools, all used to playing in all the major open bowls, that New Orleans was their destination of choice. That if a school won the SEC, the Crescent City was where they were going to be on New Year’s Day.

“I remember fans asking, ‘Are we going to New Orleans again?’ ” Dooley said, chuckling. “I’d say, yes, if you want us to be regarded as SEC champions, that’s where we’re going.”

Florida assistant athletic director Greg McGarity, then at Georgia, pointed out there’s only so much of New Orleans to go around, and by the time the Bulldogs had seen the sights and eaten at its outstanding restaurants two or three times, the thrill had worn down a bit. “People would say, ‘How many times can we eat at Commander’s Palace before it becomes an ordinary event?’ ” McGarity said he would answer, ‘Hey, enjoy this while you can. There’s no telling when we’ll be back.’ ”

Before Georgia played Florida State in the 2003 game, McGarity finished his thought: “Sure enough, it’s 20 years now since we played in a Sugar Bowl.”

Still, in those three games, Georgia left indelible memories of extraordinary Sugar Bowls.

Thursday, January 1, 1981

Dooley built one of college football’s most intriguing teams in 1980, not overly talented – except at running back where Walker, then a freshman, was stamping his name all through the record books – but extremely resourceful.

Georgia outscored 11 opponents with a combination of Walker’s running (1,616 yards – 30 yards better than Tony Dorsett’s NCAA freshman record), Rex Robinson’s place-kicking, and an opportunistic defense, which led the nation in turnover margin (2.09 per game).

Seventh-ranked Notre Dame, who lost its first game in the season-finale against Southern Cal, was paired with the Dawgs in the Sugar Bowl – making for an unusual buildup. The Irish’s mammoth defense outweighed Georgia’s offense by 15 pounds a man, a factor in Notre Dame’s opening as a one-point favorite over the Bulldogs, an undefeated No. 1-ranked team nobody could quite believe.

It was left to Robinson, then the second most prolific field-goal kicker in NCAA history with 59 field goals, to capture just what this Georgia team was and what could be expected in its 12th game.

“I know we’ve been fortunate in many ways,” Robinson said on New Year’s Eve. “What we’ve been, more than anything else, is a team of survivors. Somewhere, someone has been there to pick us up.”

The result of the pairing of the big-bodied Irish and the scrappy and largely unappreciated Bulldogs was absorbing drama.

On Georgia’s second play from scrimmage, Walker found daylight at right end and picked up nine yards before being knocked out of bounds – a play that was called back for holding, and almost cost the Bulldogs their workhorse. Walker suffered a separated shoulder on the play.

“The doctor said I dislocated my shoulder,” Walker said later, “and they told me it was over. I said, ‘You’ve got to be joking me. You’ve got to put it back in place.’ I said to myself, ‘I didn’t come this far to dislocate my shoulder and not play!’ So they put it back in place and I went back on the field.”

While the doctors were putting Walker back together, Notre Dame, already ahead 3-0, was on the verge of kicking another field goal from the 31. Then Terry Hoage, a reserve freshman defensive back who had played five minutes during Georgia’s regular season, came in. During Sugar Bowl preparations the coaches had the backups attempt blocks. Hoage displayed a real knack for it and was put on the travel squad.

Hoage sliced through the line, and flew in front of the ball as it left the kicker’s foot. Georgia then drove close enough for Robinson to kick a tying field goal.

On the kickoff Notre Dame’s deep backs, Jim Stone and Ty Barber, each thinking the other would take it, drifted away from the ball before it hit near the goal line and bounced laterally. A Georgia brother act, Steve and Bob Kelly, closed on the ball. Steve dived at the offering, hit it, and the ball bounced into Bob’s hands at the 1.

The play has come to be remembered in Athens as “the world’s longest on-sides kick.”

Two plays later, Walker launched himself over the Irish line to put Georgia in front 10-3.

Early in the second quarter, the Bulldogs recovered a fumble at the Notre Dame 22. In three plays Walker scored. With two turnovers, Georgia was ahead 17-3.

Just as in the regular season, Georgia was outrushed (190-120), outpassed (138-7), and out first-downed (17-10). Walker had 150 yards, 55 in the second half. He ended up with 30 yards more than his team, partly due to four Irish sacks of quarterback Buck Belue. The Dawgs did win two statistical battles: turnovers (4-0) and points scored, 17-10.

Georgia left the Superdome as an undefeated, untied, and slightly unbelievable national champion.

Friday, January 1, 1982

The Bulldogs’ unbeaten streak came to a sudden end in the third game of the ’81 season when Georgia committed nine turnovers in a 13-3 defeat at Clemson.

Dooley pulled his squad back together, and the Georgia finished the regular season with a 10-1 record and a No. 3 ranking.

The Sugar Bowl matched Georgia with Pittsburgh, led by quarterback Dan Marino. The Panthers had been ranked No. 1 before losing the top spot in a 48-14 loss to Penn State in the last game of the regular season, dropping Pitt to No. 5.

Still, a victory by Georgia in the Sugar coupled with a loss by top-ranked Clemson in the Orange Bowl could lift the Bulldogs to No. 1.

Georgia, much as it did the year before against Notre Dame, scrapped for everything it could get against Pitt. Midway through the fourth quarter, quarterback Buck Belue evaded a fierce rush at the 10 and got rid of a pass just before he was tackled. Tight end Clarence Kay made a leaping catch in the corner of the end zone for a 20-17 Georgia lead.

All the Bulldogs had to do at this point was protect their lead for 8:13. When they held Pitt and forced a punt, Georgia just needed to squeeze out two or three first downs to wipe out most of the 5:29 left on the clock.

Couldn’t do it.

Marino & Co. got the ball back at their 20 with 3:48 remaining and moved upfield, overcoming a series of third and fourth-down situations. When the Panthers reached the Bulldogs’ 33, on a fourth-and-5 with 42 seconds to play, Pitt coach Jackie Sherrill and Marino decided to go for it.

“It comes dowm to this,” Marino said. “It’s a 50-yard field goal, and even if we make it, which is a long shot, it’s still going to be a 20-20 score. If we go for it and make the first down, then we have a shot to win the game. And if we don’t make first down, then we don’t deserve to win the game.”

Dooley made a decision to do what he said he wouldn’t: an all-out blitz against Marino. “It was kind of picking your poison,” Dooley recalled. “We felt we had to do something to disrupt him.”

Marino took the snap. His backs picked up the blitzing linebackers. The other receivers adjusted and went deep against Georgia’s man-to-man coverage. Marino took a deeper drop than usual and singled out John Brown, a former wide receiver turned tight end, who was breaking down the center of the field.

“He looked like he was bending to the outside on a short route to pick up the first down,” said safety Steve Kelly. “I got my shoulders turned around and he broke behind me. When I looked up, there was the ball.”

And a spectacular 24-20 Pitt victory.

“That,” Dooley says now, “was like a dagger to my heart.”

Saturday, January 1, 1983

Eleven straight victories in 1982 had Georgia again ranked No. 1. Penn State lost an early game to Alabama but picked itself up to rise to No. 2 by the end of the regular season.

And that was the pairing in the 49th Sugar Bowl. For the sixth time in history, and the second time in the last five Sugar Bowls, No. 1 and No. 2-ranked opponents would tee it.

The main attractions would be Walker, the Heisman Trophy recipient and now the third-leading rusher in NCAA history with 5,097 yards, and Curt Warner and Todd Blackledge, the legs and the arm on which Penn State’s success hinged.

Georgia led the nation with 35 interceptions. Penn State, a four-point favorite, was more balanced on offense. For the third time in five years a No. 1-ranked team was the underdog in the Sugar Bowl.

The Nittany Lions knew what they had to do defensively: stop Walker. Defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky installed an alignment featuring two down linemen at times, an eight-man front at other times, and varied looks. The idea was to disrupt Georgia’s offensive rhythm and keep Walker from moving from sideline to sideline.

It worked perfectly. Walker was “held” to 107 yards on 28 carries, his lowest output since his freshman season, with the exception of the opening game with Clemson when a broken thumb relegated him mainly to decoy status. For the only time in his career, Walker didn’t break a run of longer than 12 yards.

The only turnover Penn State committed that night, a fumbled punt, made things close. Georgia drove from the Lions’ 43 to the 9 before quarterback John Lastinger had to scramble, then threw back across the field to tight end Clarence Kay for the touchdown that made the score 27-23 with 3:54 to go. Georgia went for two in order to get in position for a winning field goal later. But Walker was again stopped short.

Not a major concern – if the Bulldogs could make a stop and get the ball back again.

Just like the previous year against Pittsburgh, Georgia couldn’t do it.

Blackledge sneaked for 2 on third-and-2 at the 23, and then, on third-and-3 at the 32, he completed a 6-yard pass. Walker said the Georgia offense was confident it would pull the game out. But when Penn State made that first down, he said, “I turned to the guy standing next to me and said, ‘We won’t be going out there again.’ ”

Dooley, thinking back, said, “If we could have just stopped them after the touchdown, we would have had another national championship. We had our chances, but we just couldn’t do it.

“Still, we had quite a ride back in those days in New Orleans.”

Indeed. For the Bulldogs – and the Sugar Bowl – it was a golden age.

Marty Mulé is an award-winning sportswriter who covered national and Southeastern Conference sports, including the Sugar Bowl, in his 33 years at the New Orleans Times-Picayune. He is now a free-lance writer.

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