When I get the chance, I am going to go back and rewrite the Rearview Mirrors from the 1950s, because, well, let’s just say the chance to read some more of Dodd’s Luck has really been insightful. Were I a more deep-pocketed man, I would have shelled out for a Newspapers.com subscription to get my hands on even more primary sources for this column. Alas, I am not, but the long arc of Georgia Tech history has been building to this for quite some time. So, what is the significance of an autumnal Saturday in Birmingham, Alabama? Well, if we take the long view, 1961 is the refraction mirror between old-school Tech and the Institute we know today. And more than any specific incident, the Chick Graning Game will go down in history as its most apparent turning point.
In case you’ve missed the past few weeks, we’ve been building to this moment for quite some time. In a massive shift that began with the 1952 national championship and beginning of co-education (with rumblings starting even earlier with the postwar attendance and funding boom and name change under the leadership of Blake Van Leer), continued through the 1956 Sugar Bowl Controversy that saw Tech play its first integrated football (and literally helped contribute to Van Leer’s untimely demise), and climaxed with the integration of Tech, the introduction of the Ramblin’ Reck, and the unraveling of Tech’s membership in the Southeastern Conference, the entire landscape within 12 years would be unrecognizable to the likes of Marion L. Brittain - a man who literally wrote the book on Tech. So, how did we get to the precipice of history?
I’m not going to pretend that this game had the social impacts of the 1956 Sugar Bowl, let alone the integration of Georgia Tech just two months prior. I’m not going to say that it’s a tradition like the Ramblin’ Reck - though many forget we lost a very storied, traditional rival when we lost the ability to play Alabama annually. And it doesn’t have any physical significance to the landscape of campus and didn’t really cause any personnel changes in athletics or the academic administration. On the morning of November 18th, 1961, everyone woke up as if it was a normal gameday. Sure, it just meant more to be playing the Crimson Tide, sure, and everyone knew of the weight of the legendary chess matches played out on the gridiron between two of the greatest minds of their era, but it was just a football game. Georgia Tech, with six wins and two losses, was coming off a brutal upset by Tennessee on the road in Knoxville, while no. 2 Alabama sat undefeated, with eight wins already to their name. Their home schedule, split between rivalry games at Legion Field and the rest back in Tuscaloosa at Denny Stadium, as was custom of the Alabama teams back in those days, featured not much in the way of competitive football, as all their opponents were unranked, but, nevertheless, their guests on this particular day had spent a fair bit of time in ranked in the top 10 thus far.
Curiously, Tech had decided to freight a yellow-gold Ford 1930 Model A that had been leading them onto the field that season to Birmingham. With the Yellow Jackets undefeated at home since the car had started leading them out onto the field, the Ramblin’ Reck, as it was dubbed by the student body, named in honor of the colloquialism for a Tech engineer, had been absent for Tech’s two road losses. Perhaps the presence of the good luck charm would turn the metaphysical tide in favor of the Yellow Jackets.
That morning, the driver of the Reck brought the car up the hill to the famous Birmingham Vulcan statue, a fitting monument for the city of iron, seeing as it was a characterization of the Roman god of the forge. The ridge overlooks downtown to the northwest, with Legion Field farther west on the horizon. Bobby Dodd, it is said, always played with a little luck on his side. Perhaps, though, that luck came in fits and starts.
Tech wasn’t nearly as much of an underdog as the difference in ranking would imply. The Jackets’ two losses had been closely contested, and their win over no. 7 Rice was more impressive than anything Alabama had to show for them yet that season. But, fact of the matter is, you play the teams on your schedule, and when it came down to it, Alabama had won all their games. A lot were convincing. So it wasn’t unreasonable to see them atop the polls.
It had been noted for quite some time in the popular press, as well as being editorialized in periodicals, that football was a rough, violent sport. This was true in the 1890s, when the state of Georgia nearly banned the sport following a player death in the waning years of the nineteenth century, but for the impassioned testimony of the deceased boy’s mother campaigning on behalf of the game that her son loved so much that he was willing to put his body on the line in a game that was, quite literally, life and death.
Furman Bisher, prolific sports journalist with the Atlanta Journal, had been on Alabama’s campus coincidentally four days before the game. While he was there, he dropped in on Bear and the boys. A player named Darwin Holt was participating in practice in a sweater, while the rest of the team was wearing full pads. By Bryant’s own admission, “He’s so tough we don’t let him scrimmage during the week. He’s liable to hurt somebody.” Paul Bryant would not let Holt hit his own players, his hits were that hard, brutal, and violent.
Ask a lot of his fellow coaches, and attitudes like that don’t seem quite so far out of line. Bisher’s columns note that the game had been trending rougher. In the rough-and-tumble world of big time football, playing hard was seen as an edge - a way to win. Players are encouraged to use their arms as bars and their heads as weapons. Not convinced? Here’s Woody Hayes via Sports Illustrated, declaring “We teach our boys to spear and gore. We want them to plant that helmet right under a guy’s chin. A boy who blocks with his head down gets hurt. I want them to stick that mask right in the opponent’s neck.” Yet, even the go-get-’em Hayes is recalcitrant when it comes to the forearm bar. Bisher’s whole column is a fascinating read, just like a lot of his work, and he interestingly notes that the flying wedge and flying tackle, and other dangerous, high impact plays, have been legislated out of the game in 1905 and 1931, respectively. He puts the impetus on the coaches and officials, though not the mealymouthed SEC and impotent NCAA.
On that day in November, luck had seemingly run out for the amicable All-SEC halfback who had led Tech in both rushing and receiving the previous year, Chick Graning. The game is out of the hands of Dodd, the prototypical “player’s coach,” and Bryant, famous for chewing up soft-hitting recruits and churning out bruising, burly men. It is now, in every sense of the phrase, just a football game.
The two teams played to a scoreless tie in the first quarter. In the second, Alabama was the first on the board thanks to a Mike Fracchia touchdown followed by a successful extra point. Out of the half, Alabama’s lead grew with the addition of a short field goal in the third. With the Crimson Tide leading 10-0, and Tech forced to punt in their own territory, Billy Richardson was back for Alabama. The punt sailed high, and Richardson called for a fair catch.
Holt plowed into the unsuspecting team captain, forearm level with Graning’s chin. Graning slammed backwards into the ground, unconscious. His nose, right sinus, facial bones, and right eye socket were fractured. Five upper front teeth were missing, and most of the rest were chipped or broken. He was concussed, no doubt. The base of his skull was possible fractured, too. And his right sinus was full of blood, with the danger of it getting into the rest of his respiratory system. Holt trotted off the field before looking back.
Tech lost, 10-0. Alabama’s 1961 Wikipedia page notes several times that they would go on to win that season’s national championship. Nowhere does it note the name Chick Graning.
Team physician Dr. Lamont Henry called it the worst facial injury he’d seen in decades of work in sports. No official said anything. Holt wasn’t penalized, let alone ejected. Dodd was furious. Atlanta was furious. And, in the meantime, Bryant did next to nothing. Rather, he insisted that Holt’s conduct was accidental, and rough play wasn’t condoned on his teams. Bisher, perhaps a better source than any other given his massive exposure to the contemporary Southern sporting scene, had the final word in the Saturday Evening Post, stating “This declaration did not, I’m afraid, alter my conviction that the blow was no accident, a conviction unwittingly supported by a statement coach Bryant had already made.” The situation quickly escalated in papers, television, and radio. Still, Bryant did nothing.
Tech doctors revealed they had already treated a Tech player for a bite on the leg courtesy of Holt early in the game. The week before, he had leveled a similar play on a Richmond defender (Dodd’s Luck erroneously notes VPISU). In the heat of the game, Holt, who was reportedly mild mannered off the field, had a track record of ridiculous antics. Bryant is famous for his hard-hitting football, so much so that the rest of the sport was seemingly caught in an arms race to adapt.
Tech president Edwin Harrison, Dodd, Bryant, and Alabama president Frank Rose had a meeting. When the Alabamans decided the hit still didn’t warrant punishment, Dodd decided he had had enough. Tech and Alabama would sever football relations following the conclusion of the contract in 1964. In Dodd’s words, “Bear liked ‘em to play rough. He probably thought that was great. Bear Bryant was probably the toughest man that ever coached college football. That was his style, but it wasn’t my style, at all.”
Dodd, for a long time, considered Bryant one of his best friends. When he condoned that hit, it sent a dagger between the two men. It was a wound that ran deep, and ran personal.
Graning would never again play for Georgia Tech. He would briefly appear in two Canadian Football League seasons after a stint in the military, but his time on the Flats was done. Turns out, the Reck wasn’t a cure all for three quarters of good, old-fashioned getting outplayed, followed by a quarter of pure controversy. From that day forward, sure, there were new things to look forward to on the Flats. Times were changing. A lot of that change was good, be it in diversity of the Institute, expansion of programs, research, and prestige, and the cementing of a lot that we know and love about Tech today, most obviously the gold car that is the school’s mechanical mascot. To the fans that walked through the turnstiles that morning, well, it was a regular day. In the long run, the game had few direct effects outside of football. But it showed that the world was changing. The sport was moving on past Bobby Dodd and past the golden era of Tech football. This would not be the last time Edwin Harrison would be forced to call on the SEC and it would not be the last time Tech was on an island, isolated from its peers. Georgia Tech was about to be thrust into a brave new world.
A world where Tech is a curiosity - an elite academic institution that, somewhat incongruously, also has top-tier athletics. And yet, those athletics exist tangentially to the culture in which its city fits - sure it’s the heart of college football, but it’s also certainly the heart of the SEC. It’s a world where Tech sits more or less alone among peer institutions in its region with its large population yet sharp focus on cutting edge research at a school that solely grants bachelors of science degrees. A world where Tech is transformed from a small, regional engineering school solely attended by white men to the most diverse granter of engineering degrees in the nation. Throughout history, there have been two Georgia Techs. Sure, literally the name changed, but there’s the one that Marion Brittain describes in The Story of Georgia Tech and the one we know today. On the afternoon of November 18th, 1961, the final chain reaction started that would bring about the end of Tech as Brittain, but also Alexander and Heisman, Hopkins and Hall, Grady and Harris, Matheson and Field knew it.
And, though Harrison, Griffin, Dull, and Dodd all bridged the gap - let alone other notables like Coon, Crosland, and Weber - it all came to a peak the day the calendar flipped over to Fall Quarter, 1961.
I want to let Furman Bisher close it out with one last example of his smooth prose. It didn’t fit cleanly into the rest of the column, but what he said was true in 1962, but, given how the game and its participation numbers are trending today, it’s still just as true today. And it would’ve been true in 1905, too.
“What the remedy is, how a return to sane behavior is to be brought about, I can’t say. Football must be played hard, and players must be trained into good condition. But the players who have achieved this superior condition must acquit themselves on the field as sportsmen rather than bully boys. Otherwise football will surely be called to face a general public indictment. Reformation should originate with the coaches themselves. If it does not, and soon, it must surely come from the offices of the college presidents who recognize the true value of collegiate athletics and their proper place in campus life. In the revolution that developed after the season of 1905, Dr. Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard, made this observation: “Death and injuries are not the strongest argument against football. That cheating and brutality are profitable is the main evil.” That statement is still applicable fifty-seven years later.” - Furman Bisher, 1962
I think you all know where the ultimate fallout from this game leads. But, until we get there, Tech won’t fully turn the corner from its roots in the Southeastern Conference. And, next week, well, it’s back to the life and times of Edwin Harrison. At least, that’s the plan. Thank you for reading the latest edition of From the Rumble Seat’s Rearview Mirror.