When I put the wrong title at the header of my non-revenue column on Monday morning, it’s because I was caught up in writing this. Only, the Rearview Mirror I was writing then isn’t what you’re hopefully about to read. That’ll likely be out next week, as we take another step towards the modern day. I didn’t plan to totally scrap that column until I wandered into a film screening that was a part of my History, Technology, and Society 3089 class entitled Black in Blue, a documentary detailing the stories of the men who helped integrate Kentucky football, and in the process, the Southeastern Conference. This isn’t so much a retelling of that story - one that undoubtably needs to be spread far and wide thanks to their powerful work - but a reflection on a man who played a key supporting role in that process, former Georgia Tech Athletic Director Homer Rice.
George Griffin, Bobby Dodd, Homer Rice. George Griffin, Bobby Dodd, Homer Rice.
What do those three names have in common?
I’m sitting here late on a dreary Wednesday night looking at my bookshelf. Staring back at me are a couple Shakespeare plays, textbooks and old notes, Settlers of Catan, a history of Chicago or two. A book about the Habsburgs. It’s an eclectic combination. It’s not what sticks out though. The top shelf, least dusty, is also the most full. Engineering the New South rubs up against Dress Her in White and Gold, while a player piano roll of “I’m a Ramblin’ Wreck from Georgia Tech” keeps Brittain’s The Story of Georgia Tech from knocking over my T-Books. I don’t own a player piano.
Sure, I guess I could take the lazy way out and say that the thing those three men wrote distinctive, unique, and compelling memoirs, all of which I seem to have somehow fallen backwards into having signed copies of. But that’s really not the point.
I’m back at my shelf. A biography of Chip Roberts, titled “The Man Who Loved Georgia Tech,” shares space with a biography of John F. Hanson, founder of Georgia Tech. The stories of these great men, Tech men, are so notable they inspire others to write lengthy books about them. Personal testimony, however, reads slightly, but significantly, a bit different.
Homer Rice was born on February 20th, 1927, and grew up in Pineville, Kentucky. He spent several years there as a boy, an eclectic young man, skilled in music, and interested in football through his brother’s team even from a young age. More notably, this interest and attention from the players and the men that coached him inspired him to become a coach himself, as he notes in his book, Leadership Fitness. As he grew older, his family moved, and wound up in Middlesboro. This is where, in the film, we meet Greg Page, one of the subjects of the documentary.
It all seems like such fortunate happenstance, a coincidence of fate, if you will. Rice just happened to know a nurse who happened to be Page’s mother. Rice offered Page, a young black man, the first scholarship to play football in the Southeastern Conference, while he was the offensive coordinator at the University of Kentucky. Though I won’t spoil the rest of the documentary by telling Page’s story, the firmness of Rice’s actions - this being a man who, for a time, played baseball with Jackie Robinson - bely a man who created positive change through his actions and influence as a football coach, and later as an athletic director.
George Griffin and Bobby Dodd didn’t just get statue-ified by happenstance. Griffin was known as the “Best Friend to All Tech Men,” a man who took money out of his own hip pocket to support students of need. He served Tech not only in administration, but in the classroom, on several athletic fields, and literally grew from sub-apprentice class to the most respected man on campus over the course of many decades. His work in employment and personal development were undeniable. His legacy of sport lives on via the track dedicated to him - he was after all, as described by Heisman, a disappointing running back - and his more palpable, and arguably more significant legacy of positively influencing the young men, and later on women, of Georgia Tech to uphold high moral standards and excellent character, while supporting them in any way he could is enshrined in the student services complex - from student center, government, and innumerable supports - that bears his name.
Perhaps even less of you need my assistance in recalling the significance of Bobby Dodd. Six or seven Saturdays a year, 55,000 of us fill the bleachers of the concrete, brick, and steel behemoth for game or two of football. But the way Dodd saw the young men under his guidance was what made him remarkable. He ran his team not as a brutal factory, churning through players deemed unworthy on the practice field or in a class or two. Dodd’s incredible commitment to creating young men of skill, education, and character - you might call them “Total Persons,” to borrow a phrase - is an important reason Georgia Tech is no longer in the Southeastern Conference. Dodd, in a fascinating twist of fate, so sought the best for his players and their well-being that, in addition to being great at football, he shepherded them to one of the most powerful tools for positive change one can have, education, at one of the finest institutions to grace this good Earth that had ironically turned him down as unworthy of admission five years prior. Yet Dodd persisted, not just for the sake of his team as a whole, but for players as individuals, until his death in 1988, and noted that “the record I am most proud of is from all those years of coaching I probably don’t have five former players who are bitter at me or Georgia Tech....means more than the number of games we won,” (UPI).
Rice, as you all likely know, would move on from Kentucky to become head coach of, funnily enough, Rice, as well as Cincinnati, and professionally for the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals. As I learned tonight, he even spent a spell coaching the inmates of the Kentucky prison system. But Rice would ultimately make his biggest impact on Georgia Tech as an athletic director. After several years of experience at North Carolina and Rice, and immediately following his tenure with the Bengals, Rice became the athletic director at Georgia Tech. There are whole books written on the athletic successes of the Institute under his guidance, but his real legacy lies in the “Total Person Program,” a department-wide initiative in the spirit of Dodd to ensure that Tech student-athletes leave the Institute not just with athletic and physical development, but prepared to succeed as individuals as well. This comes through success in the classroom and personal wellbeing, setting up Tech letterwinners for life long after their days on the Flats are done. Now, all the cool kids are doing it - the NCAA has instituted a Life Skills Program largely cribbed from Rice’s exceptional implementation here in Midtown Atlanta.
I got all this from a brief perusal of the man’s book. I am eager to further investigate what other things he has to say not only about Tech, as well as his time in Kentucky, but on leadership and life in general, too. It’s easy to get lost in so-called “great man” history - it’s why I’ve largely strayed away from it in this column. One to two thousand words leaves not much room for investigating the gray areas and it’s inaccurate to portray these men as one-dimensional mythical figures. They’re people, just like you or me.
But there’s a reason their stories deserve to be shared. It is no coincidence that the highest honor an athletic director can achieve is the Homer Rice Award, bestowed annually to a worthy candidate at least one year removed from retirement. Griffin, Dodd, and Rice, among others, are examples of individuals who have done great things for the Institute as a whole, but, critically, have affected people, too.
This all from a humble man who sat in a room full of both important people like Todd Stansbury and Geoff Collins, but also regular ones like my peers and me, along with other key voices of the documentary. It’s one thing to read history from a secondary source, but it’s another thing entirely to get it straight from the ones who lived it.
That’s what sets apart the three men’s works, though. Griffin’s memoirs, Griffin, You Are a Great Disappointment to Me, are the loosely intertwined stories of a man who has done it all, at any time, for anyone who would ask it of him in his years at the Institute, from live animals roaming the stadium to tales of charity and support of the students of Tech. Dodd’s Luck, meanwhile, are curated by Jack Williamson, longtime reporter covering Tech, are the occasionally-digressing thoughts directly from a man who lived with some of Tech’s toughest blows - like rejection from the school itself - and saw it at some of its greatest successes. Rice’s Leadership Fitness is the seminal self-betterment book by a man who was essentially a professional at aiding people to become their very best, through sports and leadership. It means something a little more coming from an authentically successful man with proven success practicing what he preaches.
Griffin and Dodd deserve a more in-depth look into their lives, too, and that will come as this series rolls ever onward. But it’s not often that one sits in the presence of a man who truly is an inspiration. Homer Rice is immortalized through a name on a building, but perhaps a statue of him would look nice over on Callaway Plaza with Dodd and John Heisman. Just saying. We can, however, be grateful for his words in print and his programs at Tech, regardless.
These ties bind us through the past to the ideals we strive for as a community and an institution. Sports, academics, and character are so interwoven into the fabric of what it means to be a Ramblin’ Wreck. It sounds lofty to say that Tech is on its own unique plane, but every place is different. These things that set us apart are what make us special. And these models - a former coach, dean of men, or athletic director - help us become something better:
To learn more about Greg Page and the integration of Kentucky football, click here.
A special thanks to Dress Her in White and Gold, Engineering the New South, and the Georgia Tech Archives for the background information and images used in writing this column.
If you have any events or ideas you would like to see investigated, leave a comment below and I will be sure to look into adding it to the schedule. What is old is new again, or at least liable to be featured in the future. Thank you for reading this latest edition of From the Rumble Seat’s Rearview Mirror.