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Rearview Mirror: Assistant to the Head Football Coach

Why, of all places, would Bobby Dodd return to the school that spurned him in the first place?

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The basketball arena was named after the guy on the left. The football stadium is named after the guy on the right. Yep.
Georgia Tech Archives/George C. Griffin Photograph Collection (

I told myself I was going to wait until our journey reached the present day before I went back and profiled individuals, but the the Bobby Dodd years, perhaps the most seminal of all the Georgia Tech football coaches, at least to the current fanbase, can only be understood if we realize what it took to get the Tall Gray Fox to prowl the sidelines of Grant Field in the first place.

I know I throw random Georgia Tech literature reviews into this column seemingly without warning, but that’s the historian’s responsibility, I guess. The book I’m currently reading is surprisingly relevant, as it happens to be the foremost biographical work on Robert Lee Dodd. Dodd’s Luck, written by Dodd himself with the able assistance of Jack Wilkinson, a longtime Atlanta sports journalist with several Tech books to his name. And I think that’s just what makes it such a strong read.

A good biography does a few things. First, it is an honest portrayal of its subject. This is key, for obvious reasons. Second, it is a compelling read. Whether it’s about a key historical figure or a regular kind of guy, there has to be some sort of hook to draw the reader in. Otherwise, what’s the point? Finally, it adds depth. It’s one thing to say what happened, it’s another to explain why, who, and how - productive, satisfying reading stems from a writer that answers the right questions. But back to the book.

Perhaps the best place to start the story of Bobby Dodd is to start at the end, indeed, a handful of years after his death. In 1993, the longtime coach was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame. This is, of course, five years after his death, and in recognition of more than two decades at the helm of one team - the Georgia Institute of Technology. The thing is, though, is that it was also his second selection to join the ranks of the hall. The first came from his days as a player.

In 1908, Bobby Dodd was born in Galax, Virginia, a small town near the southern border in the hills of Appalachia. Almost from the start, the future legend was known for his athletic abilities. As the youngest of several children, Dodd was almost always outmanned. As the youngest, you learn to compete. And compete he did, getting involved with many of his older siblings’ activities. After some business deals led to his father deeming there to be better opportunity across the border in Kingsport, Tennessee.

The very first year the town had a football program, fittingly, Dodd was on it. He was a tiny seventh grader, sure, and rarely saw the field, but his six years playing for Kingsport eventually saw Dodd starring on two state title runs, from a team that started from literally nothing. In high school, as was common in those days, Dodd played a variety of positions. On defense, he played end. On special teams, he was a kicker. And, as most know, on offense, Bobby Dodd was a prolific quarterback.

Usually, it isn’t too hard for generational quarterback talents to get recruited by schools. The problem for Dodd, though, was that he, frankly, didn’t give two shakes for his classes in high school. After deeming he could do better than the offers he had - he had his sights set on a place like Vanderbilt or Georgia Tech rather than Tennessee - he quickly found himself out of luck. Thus, he set off on an expedition around the greater Southeast to find a place to play. His swing through Atlanta was fruitless, as he was deemed an unworthy use of a scholarship due to his lack of, well, scholastics. Ultimately, he trudged back to Knoxville to ask General Robert Neyland for a spot on his roster. Neyland acquiesced.

It goes without saying that Dodd had a legendary career at Tennessee. He is, after all, one of just four men to be enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach. In the offseason, he also was a member of the baseball, basketball, and track teams. Bobby Dodd, of Kingsport Tennessee, was always known to be a versatile athlete. His stint at Tennessee, both in his prolific play on the gridiron, as well as in other sports, will never be equalled in the modern era. His back-to-back unbeaten years, and 27-1-2 record as a starter, are easy numbers to read, but almost unfathomable to understand.

Dodd’s path back to Georgia Tech began before he was even done playing football. As the story goes, the Yellow Jackets were to playing North Carolina and coach William Alexander needed a scouting report on the Tar Heels, so he sent Mack Tharpe, of Alexander-Tharpe Fund notability. On the way to Knoxville, where Carolina’s game was, Tharpe’s car broke down. Understandably, he missed the game. In those days, of course, there was no film to watch, and Tharpe feared he was straight out of luck. Upon consulting with Neyland, though, he was directed straight towards the senior quarterback. The information was so good, that Tharpe admitted to Alexander that it was better than anything he would have been able to say. After the season, Dodd had an assistant coaching job lined up for him on the Flats.

Sidenote: I find it ironic that the primary fundraising arm of Georgia Tech Athletics, which is responsible for endowing scholarships, is named for the two men most singularly involved with getting the man the stadium is named after to Midtown, but wouldn’t offer him a scholarship. But, in the end, I suppose the sequence worked out well enough for Alexander, Tharpe, and Dodd.

Bobby Dodd was a hot commodity while he was an assistant at Tech. Frankly, he missed Alexander’s golden years, to be sure, but his innate ability to read the game was more than the base for a simply good coach. Though he remained a Tech assistant for more than a decade, Dodd was working under his mentor the whole time, being groomed as the successor to the legendary Tech man. Despite many schools’ attempts to poach Dodd for a coaching role, the Tall Gray Fox remained at Tech. The mentor-mentee relationship was strong - Dodd had always had a talent for the game, but his years with Alexander taught him to better handle his players and other people, as well as appreciate the academic value of Georgia Tech. But that’s more of a story for another time. Dodd, who came to Tech still a rough-around-the-edges, cocky football star, wizened well at Tech. On Coach Alex, he said “He taught me to treat athletes as men, not boys – to never use their failings as an alibi for a loss,” which is far more mature than his class-cutting, authority-questioning ways in high school and college would have led one to think. When it came time for Alexander to step down because of his advancing age and deteriorating health, Dodd was next in line to be his successor.

As World War II ended, a new era was beginning for Georgia Tech. The old guard - Marion Brittain had been at Tech since the end of the Great War, and Bill Alexander the same - was aging into retirement. The GI Bill was coming into full force as veterans returned home. The inklings of increased diversity of all kinds at Tech - integration, co-education, major programs, student life, graduate studies, and research - were beginning to rear their heads. And with Blake Van Leer next in line for the presidency and Bobby Dodd leading the football team, it was time for Georgia Tech to take its first step into truly becoming the school we know it to be today. That would come just two years later, in 1947.

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.