Home again at UGA

After I graduated in 1975, I couldn’t get far enough away from my alma mater. This fall, I finally came back.
UGA
Photograph by Raymond McCrea Jones

It pays to be friends with Loran Smith, former executive secretary of the Bulldog Club, the fundraising arm of the University of Georgia’s athletic department. Because of his status—not to mention the 547 consecutive games he’s attended—Smith holds the keys to the UGA football kingdom. On the Friday afternoon before this year’s homecoming, he meets me at Tate Plaza in the center of campus in his silver SUV. Sporting a monogrammed Bulldog shirt, khakis, and Sperry topsiders with socks (the weather’s been chilly, other­wise he would never commit such a sartorial faux pas), the 78-year-old Smith whips up one street then down another before pulling into the east gate of Valhalla: Sanford Stadium.

The security guard knows Smith and waves us in. We ease along a concrete path between the south stands and the fabled hedges that embrace the playing field. Smith stops near the west end zone. The green expanse of Alabama-grown sod that will be the focus of 92,000 fans tomorrow when Georgia hosts Vanderbilt is empty except for the grounds crew liming the hash marks. All is silent save for the sound of Smith’s Middle Georgia drawl.

“I hold the record for successive games attended,” he says, adding that if not for a business obligation that caused him to miss the 1971 Gator Bowl, he’d be perfect back to 1964. “A retired state trooper in Griffin thinks he has the record. I don’t say anything, because he’s an older man, and I don’t want to keep him from having his fun. Of course, I’m getting to be an older man myself.”

Sanford Stadium kindles untold memories for Smith, a self-described “barefoot farm boy” from Johnson County who began haunting the place in 1955 while still in high school. He was hooked when he saw Fran Tarkenton toss a touchdown pass to Bill Herron to lead Georgia to a 14–13 victory over Auburn and the 1959 SEC championship. “That was my first big emotional experience here,” he says. After finishing up at UGA and a stint as assistant sports information director, he spent 35 years as a sideline reporter, responding to radio play-by-play announcer Larry Munson’s patented “Whatcha got, Loran?” with scoops on disputed calls and shattering injuries. In 1981 he and Lewis Grizzard authored Glory! Glory!, an account of UGA’s 1980 NCAA championship season. He is now a cohost of the Tailgate Show, a three-hour mélange of news about UGA’s current team and updates from previous ones—this is where ex-players come to relive their greatest moments—airing on game days over the 49-station Bulldog Radio Sports Network. Smith is the one who never got away.

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The author, in dark jacket, being interviewed by Loran Smith.

Photograph by Raymond McCrea Jones

I, on the other hand, went as far away as you can get—in the continental United States, anyway. After completing my studies at Georgia’s Grady School of Journalism in 1975 and spending five years at the Atlanta Journal and Constitution Magazine, I moved to Los Angeles. The last time I was at Sanford Stadium was autumn of 1984, when I wanted to show Athens to the California girl I would marry. She wore what was high fashion in the L.A. punk scene during the Reagan era—a wife beater and leather pants cinched by an M16 cartridge belt—while I settled for pink Bakelite sunglasses and a ton of attitude.

That attitude—a mixture of defiance and irreverence—was a holdover from my undergraduate years. As editor of the Georgia Impression, the student magazine, I was determined to be subversive. In 1974 I devoted an issue to sex on campus (among the headlines: “Getting Laid at Georgia”). A few months later, over the legend “The New South,” I published a cartoon cover of an interracial couple (the man was out of Super Fly, the woman Blanche DuBois on a bad day) set against the blood-red backdrop of the Confederate battle flag.

What was I rebelling against? The conformity and racism that were so prevalent at the university during my era, for starters. From there it was just a step to the dismay I felt at attending Georgia at all. (For an Atlanta boy, UGA was where you went if you weren’t accepted at Emory.) Once I settled into life in Athens, I concluded that unless you were at the law school (getting a head-start on running for governor) or the art school (the incubator for R.E.M.), the curriculum was so irrelevant you might as well stay drunk. It was what Georgia students did best, so much so that Playboy—at least according to urban legend—declared UGA ineligible for its annual survey of the nation’s top party schools. The reason: The Dawgs were pros. A week after my last class, I was on a flight to New York for an internship with Advertising Age. I had to put some distance between myself and UGA, and at least for the first few years after I finally landed in Los Angeles, I kept trying to increase that distance.

UGA
Photograph by Raymond McCrea Jones
UGA
Photograph by Raymond McCrea Jones

Yet as I stand with Loran in the quiet enormity of Sanford Stadium on the eve of the 2016 homecoming confrontation, I am suffused with a surprising feeling: I belong here. I, too, have memories of athletic heroics: I saw Herschel Walker rush for a career record 283 yards on this field in 1980. I also have vivid personal recollections. Pinning a corsage (a mum boasting a “G” crafted from red-and-black pipe cleaners) on the lapel of my date’s velvet blazer prior to homecoming 1972, my freshman year. The whiff of Poss’ barbecue and the hot scent of bourbon sipped from Coca-Cola cups adorned by Jack Davis sketches of Hairy Dawg. Kisses after Bulldog touchdowns and walking with my date arm-in-arm up Baxter Street to Brumby Hall, the then-gleaming new women’s dorm.

Most returning alums conscious of their receding youth—I recently turned 62—are prone to such reveries, but Sanford Stadium has a way of making them more intense, for alone among college football shrines, it is also a graveyard. The brass plaques in the stadium’s southwest corner mark the final resting places of nine English bulldogs named Uga that have served as the University of Georgia mascots for 60 years.

UGA
Photograph by Raymond McCrea Jones

“Sonny Seiler received Uga I as a wedding present in 1956,” Smith observes by way of background, adding that the future Savannah lawyer (later famous as the attorney at the heart of the murder story memorialized in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) offered then Georgia coach Wally Butts the use of the original dog. The latest in the line is Uga X. “Sonny’s son Charles breeds them now.”

At least figuratively, there’s something else buried at Sanford Stadium—a link to a dark tale from Georgia’s past. Soon after setting up a new life as a magazine writer in Los Angeles, I became obsessed with the notorious Leo Frank case, the worst incident of anti-Semitism in American history. The plot that led to the 1915 lynching of Frank in Marietta was a Bulldog production, hatched and executed by UGA alumni from Marietta, in several instances the fathers of people I’d met during college. Steadman Sanford, the former UGA president for whom Sanford Stadium is named, was superintendent of Marietta schools when most of the participants in the crime were growing up, and he knew them. There’s no evidence that Sanford had any idea these young men later carried out Frank’s murder, but the coincidence fascinated me, and in a way began the process of pulling me back to UGA. As an undergraduate, I had failed to appreciate the complexities of the university’s heritage, how that heritage plays a huge part in the South’s history, and what I felt about this. I loved the South, I hated it, but ultimately I loved it more than I hated it. Not until after I plunged into the Frank saga did I wake up. That awakening led me to write my first book, And the Dead Shall Rise. That’s when I began my halting return.

After Smith drops me back at Tate Plaza, I stroll to North Campus and the university arch. Across Broad Street lies downtown Athens and, of course, it’s different. The Varsity, where I bought beers from a refrigerated case and chili dogs from the counter, is gone. So, too, is Barnett’s News Stand, where I purchased newspapers by the armful. But I can still navigate this town blind, and I quickly reach the corner of Pulaski and Hancock, where the homecoming parade is forming.

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Members of the UGA spirit alumni cheer after a Bulldog touchdown.

From a seat behind the plate glass window of Creature Comforts, the craft brewery that occupies the old Snow Tire Company building, I watch as outside the participants fall into order. The usual suspects—the Alpha Gamma Deltas, the Zeta Tau Alphas (ZTAs heart Dawgs), the homecoming court, the ROTC in desert camouflage, the cheerleaders, university president Jere Morehead in a 1931 Ford Model A, and Miss University of Georgia (Annie Jorgensen) in a red Mustang—are all here. But so are many who would not have been in 1975. The LGBT entry—a Mini Cooper draped with rainbow banners—zooms into view, followed by the Filipino Student Association, the Black Affairs Council, a float dedicated to Habitat for Humanity, and—a touch of Athens gonzo—the Spike Squad, zealots in Mad Max regalia who wear red and black war paint. Then comes more of the Georgia I remember—the 4-H Club pickup truck, which reinforces the larger point: In 2016 homecoming for one is homecoming for all. UGA today is more open than in my day and more academically rigorous. U.S. News & World Report just ranked Georgia as the nation’s 18th-best public university, ahead of rivals Tennessee and Alabama. This sure is more impressive than the alleged pro status Playboy accorded Georgia as a party school in the 1970s. The prospect of seeing the Dawgs open a can of whup-ass on Vandy suddenly offers a chance to root for the home team in a whole new way.

A low pedestal beneath a red-and-black canopy at Tate Plaza serves as the set for the Tailgate Show, which features Neil “Hondo” Williamson and former Georgia and NFL great Eric Zeier. But the star is Loran Smith. Despite the different paths our lives have taken, we share a lot: a love of words (Smith is a former sports editor of the Athens Banner-Herald), a fascination with Southern history, and more than a few friends. When he heard I was attending homecoming, he asked me to be a guest on his program. At 9:40 Saturday morning, we’re live. This isn’t hard-hitting journalism. We discuss our previous day’s visit to Sanford Stadium and my life in Los Angeles, which Smith thinks revolves around Hollywood (it doesn’t). But when he asks why I’ve returned, the line just pops out: “You can take the Dawg out of Georgia, but you can’t take Georgia out of the Dawg.”

Few listening could have understood the significance of that remark, and I’m not sure Smith did. But I knew instantaneously that I had articulated something profound. I may not have come home, but I was back.

Although homecoming is allegedly all about the game, it is in truth all about the tailgating. After I finish with Loran—his next guest is former heavyweight champion of the world Evander Holyfield, whose son, Elijah, is a promising young Bulldog running back—I get down to business.

Photograph by Raymond McCrea Jones
Photograph by Raymond McCrea Jones

The Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communications, as it’s now known, bills its spread as the “Tailgate of the Century.” The boast is a nod to the school’s recent celebration of its centennial, and reality bears it out. The lawn facing the dean’s office is packed with students and graduates gathered around tables topped with black cloths and adorned by red-and-black floral arrangements, many spilling out of miniature Bulldog football helmets. A DJ plays rap and country. As I heap pulled pork, coleslaw, mac and cheese, and white rolls atop a plate and then hit the bar, I run into countless people I know: professors, administrators, stragglers. Just as notable is who I don’t see: the big-hitters from the state’s leading newspaper, the Journal-­Constitution. (In my day, Grady was the source of journalistic power in Atlanta.) Instead, I see Chuck Reece, editor of the Bitter Southerner; Rebecca Burns, publisher of the student newspaper, the Red & Black, and former editor of this magazine; and many young alumni bragging about apps they’re developing. The center has shifted. As I’m leaving, I meet Henry Grady; his great-great-grandfather was managing editor of the Atlanta Constitution and coined the label I’d mocked in the Impression: “the New South.” After my years away, I finally shake hands with my alma mater’s namesake.

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The author, left, takes in the game from the press box.

But then there’s the game. No sooner do I get situated in the Sanford Stadium press box than Vanderbilt is on the Georgia four-yard line. Defeat seems preordained. The Bulldogs, under new coach Kirby Smart, are lackadaisical and sloppy: unforced errors, unnecessary penalties, uninspired play calling. As a Georgia graduate from the Vince Dooley years, I expect our guys to meet certain standards. That I do reveals that, whatever remove I once sought from the university as an institution, I never stopped following the football team. (In 2012 I stayed glued to the telecast of the Dawgs’ disastrous SEC title game loss to Alabama, nearly missing a friend’s dinner party; for the rest of that night I was awful company.) I take losing personally, but to lose to perennial doormat Vanderbilt?

The final score is 17–16, but it isn’t that close. By the time the final seconds tick off the clock, many fans have left. Those who remain are silent, and I feel their pain. It’s been 36 years since Georgia won a national championship. At the end of last season, the school fired coach Mark Richt, who’d averaged nine victories a year. Not good enough. His successor will be lucky to win that many.

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It’s been a tough season for Dawgs fans. Vanderbilt was supposed to be a pushover. Instead, the Commodores left with a 17–16 victory. At homecoming, no less.

Photograph by Raymond McCrea Jones

As I linger, I watch Charles Seiler walk Uga X the length of the field. They pass the graves of Uga’s forebears (the plaque for Uga I reads simply: “Damn Good Dog”) then exit through the west gate. It’s a moving sight, for implicit in it are concepts of loyalty and continuity, an unbroken chain between past and present, stronger than winning and losing.

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Charles Seiler with the latest Uga.

Photograph by Raymond McCrea Jones

Equally moving, and for the same reason, is the music the faithful file out to, the Georgia Redcoat Marching Band’s rendition of “Tara’s Theme” from Gone with the Wind. Every game at Sanford Stadium ends this way, and while I’ll never disavow the scamp I was at 20 (and still am), I’m grateful to witness the ritual once more. I’m also happy to know that at Loran Smith’s house, the party—he serves his bourbon in tumblers bearing headlines celebrating the team’s last NCAA crown—will start any minute, and I’m invited.

UGA
Photograph by Raymond McCrea Jones
UGA
Photograph by Raymond McCrea Jones

This article originally appeared in our December 2016 issue.

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