“The South stands at Armageddon.” Those words, backing up a bogus stance though they may be, are both definitive and not chosen by accident. This is neither the right blog nor the right context to discuss why the governor was saying that, but it is the right column to find out how the heck the 1955 edition of the Georgia Tech football team played themselves into one of the more controversial games in the long history of the sport on the Flats.
As seen in the cover photo, Tech started the 1955 season with familiar-sounding captain. Jimmy Morris was the brother of George Morris, who led the team to the 1952 championship. And though Jimmy wouldn’t follow his brother to the College Football Hall of Fame, their years as the captain of the Yellow Jackets started rather remarkably similar.
In the Yellow Jackets nationally-televised season opener on NBC, Tech led off their year with a top-ten matchup when the no. 10 home team versus no. 9 Miami. That convincing 14-6 victory sent the Jackets rocketing up the polls to the penultimate place atop the list in time to visit Florida. And whereas past trips to the Swamp yielded debilitating, title-chance-wrecking losses to an underwhelming, backwater Gator horde, the no. 19 rank of the home team meant that not only was it a win, it was a quality win over a ranked team for the second week in a row. This, somehow, yielded a one point drop in the standings, but, no less, the Jackets were 2-0 heading into the remarkably familiar early-season matchup against Southern Methodist. In the middle of the century, the Jackets and the Mustangs were frequent opponents, with SMU representing a step up in competition from the Citadels and Davidsons of the previous decades. The Jackets were again rewarded for their efforts with another demotion in the polls before heading on the road to Death Valley. Sorry, the home of the Tigers. Still not clear? sorry, my bad. It’s to the west. The purple guys. They let the band play “Neck” sometimes. Yeah, Louisiana State. Those fellas. Anyways, LSU had been having a middling year, and Tech’s defense held tight in a 7-0 victory against their conference foes, in a very similar win to most of the grind-it-out, outlast-the-other-guys style of play that was common on the Flats in the middle of Bobby Dodd’s career. Again, Tech was rewarded with a dropped spot in the polls. Things didn’t make much sense then, either.
Where Tech started to deviate from its 1952 edition was upon their return home to play longtime rival Auburn. And, for the first time in a few years, Auburn was back to their respectable self, sitting at no. 17 coming into the game in Grant Field. Tech lost a nailbiter in front of a sellout crowd, 14-12. The next weekend, Tech, now down at no. 13 in the country, blew the doors off of a barely-relevant Florida State team, completing the rare Florida-Miami-Florida State triangle. They were rewarded with a one place bump in the polls in time to host Duke for homecoming, a sentence seemingly nearly as common as “Tech played Duke in football.” I suppose the timing just always seems to work well for a Tech-Duke homecoming feature. I’d argue that this is yet another reason Tech should feel more vitriol for the Blue Devils, but that argument seems to get lost sometimes. Tech, in front of another huge crowd, smacked the no. 17-ranked guests and inched up the poll yet again. However, this next week would be perhaps more damning than the Auburn game - a 7-7 tie to an unranked Tennessee Volunteers team. Granted, they finished at 6-3-1, a respectable line, but Tech should have by all measures won the game. Naturally, Tech slid back down to the no. 11 position in time to head to Birmingham to face Alabama.
How odd does this sentence sound: Alabama won no football games in the year of 1955. Luckily, Tech was not the exception to that ignominious record. The brackish Crimson Tide had little in terms of answers for the dominant Yellow Jackets, who won 26-2. The school in Athens, who would go on to finish barely ahead of Alabama in the conference standings, was up next, and took their own loss 21-3 in Atlanta. Tech finished the season no. 7 in the country, after a 9-1-1 season. Definitely a solid bowl resume.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again - perhaps one of the most momentous and turbulent times in the long arc of politics, society, culture, and sports in the history of the state happened in late November 1955. It’s somewhat shocking to me that the Wikipedia page for this season lacks even a footnote about any details from the season. However, thanks to the helpful resources of Wallace and McMath, it’s pretty clear - Tech was outraged at the prospect of not being able to play Pittsburgh in the Sugar Bowl.
I’m not going to sit here and pretend that all of the students and fans enraged by the governor’s actions were caught up in a righteous rage in defense of an oppressed people. The sad truth is that a lot of them probably were only awoken to the issue by their unfair denial of a game of football, potentially. But, if that’s what it took to open their eyes to the bigoted hatred that the openly racist, and even hypocritical, decision represented? Keep in mind, Athens had played integrated teams in the recent past, and Georgia Tech had, too, when they ventured to Michigan in a rare game up north. I wrote a whole column about it, after all. But really, if it took sports for students, fans, and curiosity seekers to see how wrong it was, that’s probably at least a positive. In the end, Tech played the game, and won. The ultimate decision was probably not the best possible outcome for equality. But it was a step. And people rose up to make that change happen. Even if what they wanted most was probably to watch some football.
Now that we’ve talked Institute history and sports background, and provided state context, maybe next week, we’ll actually get to talk about the football part of the 1956 Sugar Bowl. Because it was certainly interesting, and even controversial, in its own right.
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.