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Rearview Mirror: “The Notre Dame of the South”

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The Southeastern Conference called our bluff. So we left.

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The first independent Georgia Tech football team, 1964.
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photograph Collection (http://history.library.gatech.edu/items/show/7534)

I suppose it’s a reflection of the semester, with how this column has looked the past few months. There’s a lot of very heavy stuff to talk about in this phase of history, and, well, I figure it’s better to put these out when I can do the topics right. So, a little late, but, here’s the column I’ve been looking forward to writing for a long, long time.


Edwin Harrison was hired to be the sixth president of the Georgia Institute of Technology to make tough decisions.

The situation was a little bit different in 1964 than it was in 1961 when Tech integrated. Unlike that monumental task, which Harrison knew was looming when he was hired, no one expected him and Bobby Dodd to be sitting at the SEC Winter Meetings on the edge of leaving the conference it helped found. I suppose the story starts a little further back than that, though.

It’s important to realize how different the landscape of media, region, and school looked back then. Georgia Tech existed on a different plane than the rest of the SEC. Not necessarily because it was better on the football field, but it was undeniable that the national conversation ticked through Atlanta, the most important city of the Southeastern Conference. To the extent that a small-ish engineering school could be elitist, Georgia Tech was that. And, well, they were good on the gridiron. That combination - the urban, industrial, somewhat ivory tower, superior sports - coupled with Dodd’s disdain for schools like Mississippi State and Ole Miss meant there was little love left for Tech. So when the Hill and Dodd started to chafe under SEC policies, they weren’t seeing a lot of sympathy from the rest of the conference. Perhaps the biggest personality among them, though, was Alabama head coach Bear Bryant.

Bryant and Dodd went way back. For a long time, one could probably consider them good friends. But that changed with the Chick Graning hit in the 1961 game.

It’s hard to blame change on any one particular moment. But, from that day on, there was probably no going back to the way things were. Sure, at the heart of Tech’s desire to leave the SEC lay a simmering feud between two of the greatest individuals to ever coach the sport of football, this is certainly a part of it. But not all of it. The divisions and rivalries between Tech and its longstanding opponents, like Auburn, as well as those that felt like Tech shut them out, like the Mississippi schools, were too irreparably deep to overcome. Georgia Tech was lurching down a path out of the door.

Of course, at the time, all the media circus around Tech and Alabama focused not on potential for Tech to leave the conference, no, but on a more simply truth: Tech and Alabama, historic rivals, were severing football relations. This phrase, almost unheard of anymore today in the age of set conference schedules, shrouded a fact: things were not good between the two schools that held significant cache in Southern football lore.

In 1962, Bear Bryant set out to prove a point - he would abandon the conservative offense style he was known for - and, in the process, he got burned. Many at the time were convinced the 7-6 contest was the greatest game Dodd ever coached. Whatever combination of his notorious luck - Bryant was quoted before the game as having said “This is Dodd’s weather,” Bryant trying and failing to humiliate him by airing the ball out, or playing up to the level of talent contributed to the win, Dodd had earned every bit of it. Especially after the tragic twists of the 10-0 nothing loss the year before, The Tall Gray Fox couldn’t resist just one dig at the Bear, asking “I believe that was the cleanest game I’ve ever seen. What do you think. Coach?” It was a remarkable truth, considering the Crimson Tide’s hard-nosed reputation. The teams had combined for just 30 penalty yards. Dodd could very well have said that with a straight face and been totally right.

And then the bottom fell out.

For a long time, Tech had been grumbling about conference recruiting practices. Of course, the most notable voice in denouncing the 140 Rule, as it was known, was Bobby Dodd. But he found open ears in the highly principled Institute president, Edwin Harrison.

The 140 Rule was a rather convoluted piece of regulation mandating that every SEC school could have up to 140 athletes on scholarship between football and basketball. In addition, each school could recruit up to 45 young men per football signing class. The simple math shows that this doesn’t add up. You can either have 140 athletes for four years, or start to “process” athletes, that is cutting them if they don’t pan out as intended on the football field. Bobby Dodd believed in the former. The rest of the conference leaned into the latter camp. The Dodd promise was simple - come to Tech as a football recruit and work hard in class, and the Gray Fox would take care of you. If you didn’t pan out on the field, well, that was on him for mis-recruiting the player. This paternal care for his players, coupled with his less physical, more mental game made him an outlier in the bruising, burly, win-at-all-costs SEC. It was little surprise, then, that few agreed with him that the rules needed to change. There was a vested interest for schools intent on winning football games to keep the rules in place. So Dodd and Harrison, in the 1964 conference meetings, decided to challenge the status quo. The end after the means would be either a conference that Tech supported or a journey into the murky waters of independent status.

There were 12 teams in the conference in 1964. Tulane, Alabama, Auburn, Georgia Tech, the school in Athens, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, LSU, Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt. Even Dodd insisted that he didn’t care what the number was, as long as kids weren’t getting processed. As discussed, the Mississippi schools despised Tech. After all, Dodd had deemed Starkville and Oxford far beneath Tech to travel to. And the two certainly wouldn’t travel to Atlanta. Other schools didn’t see an issue with the rules. When the matter was called to a vote, Bryant assured his old friend Dodd that there would be no issues. Bryant, however, was absent in the vote. Alabama dissented. The vote was deadlocked at 6-6. The mater failed. Harrison, true to the word he declared at the start of the discussion that morning - “Georgia Tech’s interests would be best served by withdrawing from the conference” - walked up the the podium and announced his school’s departure.

The thing is, though, at the time it kinda made sense. Tech played in a mammoth stadium in by far the biggest stage in the region, unsaturated by professional sports, would add more home dates to the schedule in said stadium, and had national media appeal and could draw big teams to Atlanta. They were, in their eyes, the “Notre Dame of the South.” Matchups, such as those with the Fighting Irish, would draw more eyes than the Tulanes, Vanderbilts, and Floridas of the world, while Auburn, Tennessee, and the school in Athens could stay. It was, theoretically, the best of all possible worlds.

But it wasn’t to last. This is the great fork in the road in Southern intercollegiate sports. To borrow a phrase, “Anything that’s the something of the something isn’t really the anything of anything.”

The after-effects of this change are still felt today, and are certainly fascinating, perhaps even more fun to speculate about that this was to write. They’re absolutely worth exploring in a future column, so stay tuned, but in the meantime, check out SB Nation’s own Matt Brown in his book What If? where he dedicates a whole chapter to the premise.

There’s a lot to look forward to this week. With From the Rumble Seat at the McAuley Aquatic Center for the Toyota US Open National Championships (tune in Friday and Saturday to NBCSN at 7pm for finals), later we’ll have a look at the Campus Recreation Center and the usual holiday gift recommendations coming soon. 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. To those that have suggested events post-1960s over the last year - I promise we will get there soon! They’re on the schedule!