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Rearview Mirror: The Tall Grey Fox

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I would probably have seen this one coming if I’d been able to finish reading Dodd’s Luck before I got to 1956.

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Bobby Dodd, during a practice.
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photograph Collection (http://history.library.gatech.edu/items/show/1156)

The musings of Bobby Dodd in 1963, before his coaching career had even ended, and as Tech was right on the cusp of leaving the Southeastern Conference to become the “Notre Dame of the South” are fascinating to peruse. Though we already know his backstory, his thoughts on the past few teams were just the most noticeable time, of several, that he made a bewildering statement.


“Back in the late thirties, another SEC school approached me about the head coaching job. I had about decided to take it and went to tell Coach Alex of my decision. He just looked at me straight in the eye and said, ‘You better stay at Tech, Bobby. This is where your future is.’ So I stayed at Tech, because you always did what Alex told you to do. He might not have been the greatest football coach, but he was the greatest man I ever knew” - Bobby Dodd on William Alexander

I took this as far harsher than it was probably intended the first time I read this while I was researching this column. Bold to call a national championship winning coach not that great, for sure. However, I think he said it more to emphasize Alex’s character than anything. But that quote sets the tone for a rather off-the-wall interview between Wallace and Dodd.

In the past, we’ve already taken a look art how Dodd got to Tech, but for those just joining us, he tried to play for Tech, wasn’t able to get the grades to get into the school, so he wound up at Tennessee. After he graduated, the head football coach, General Neyland, asked him to stay around the program. In 1930, Tech came calling, almost by chance, when Mack Tharpe needed scouting on North Carolina after missing the Tennessee-North Carolina game due to a broken car. Neyland pointed him towards Dodd. When Tech needed a backfield coach in the offseason, Tharpe basically annoyed Alex into hiring the Tall Grey Fox. And after years of assisting football and basketball and coaching baseball, eventually it was Dodd’s turn to lead the football team, after Alex stepped down.

Right from the start, he had a reputation as a players’ coach. The boys were drawn to him. And not to spoil the last six or seven years of Tech’s SEC tenure, but clearly Dodd loved his boys right back. Scholarships, and treating the players who got them right, was an immense deal to Dodd. He wanted to treat his student-athletes well. And students and athletes they were. He believed in the power of the Tech degree. He is famously quoted as saying, “while they are wasting energy we will conserve ours. We will direct our energy into constructive action. I have told you they are bigger, faster, and tougher than you. All that is true, but we do have one advantage. We are smarter than they are,” (Dodd via Featherston, FTRS).

But his comment that the 1947 Tech team was his best is a little peculiar. He then adds that 1956 and 1962 - certainly very good teams in their own right - came next. And in fourth place? His national champions, the 1952 Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket football team. While the rest of his comments could be further dissected - and that day will come - today’s column will take a look at the 1956 team. It’s a near certainty that, injurious Duke game or not, the 1947 team is not better than George Morris, Buck Martin, and a young Pepper Rodgers. But perhaps 1956 could be? After all, they finished fourth in the country in the AP Poll, selected before the bowl game, and were selected as national champions in two rankings. Yet Tech, much as 1951, refuses to claim the title. But how’d they get there?


They would start the season fourth in the polls coming off a bowl win against Pittsburgh in the previous season’s Sugar Bowl, an event over which much ink has been spilled already. But remember that team and that ranking. That’s important. They were on the road in Lexington to play Kentucky and the game would air on NBC, the only appearance of the regular season for the Jackets. They would win that game, as expected against the unranked Wildcats, by a score of 14-6. Firmly entrenched in the top 5, now at the second spot in the country, Tech would remain on the road, a curious early season scheduling quirk, and head to the Cotton Bowl to play Southern Methodist. The Mustangs, normally vastly outclassed by the Jackets, came into the contest also ranked in the top five. Tech would narrowly edge their hosts by a score of 9-7 to stay unbeaten, yet slide to third in the polls.

Tech kicked off a three game homestand with the Louisiana State Tigers visiting to kick off the Grant Field slate, whom were easily dispatched 39-7. The Jackets maintained their pole position as Auburn followed, and they handled them easily as well, winning 28-7. The next weekend, homecoming on the Flats, the no. 15 Tulane Green Wave visited and were promptly dealt Tech’s most dominating win of the season, period. The hosts, in front of a sellout crowd of 40,000, won 40-0. Tech had just five home games that year, but came 500 fans in the LSU game and 1,500 fans in the Alabama game from selling out the season, in fact.

The Jackets would then head out on the road for a short trip to Durham to face the unranked Duke Blue Devils. Tech eked out a win, 7-0, but the narrow win for the now-no. 2 Yellow Jackets would be an ominous sign of what was to come the next week, when Tech was shut out by the no. 3 Tennesee Volunteers, 6-0, in what would be their only blemish of the season. This 2 versus 3 matchup remains one of the most hotly anticipated sporting events in Tech history, yet the Jackets couldn’t muster much to get themselves the win. A letdown of an unranked Alabama team showed up the next week, in front of less fans and less hype, and the guests were promptly shown the door with a 27-0 drubbing.

Tech headed to Jacksonville to face Florida at the Gator Bowl Stadium in what was the second of a two game stand for the Gators against public schools from their neighboring state to the north at the neutral site. I’ll let you figure out who the other one was. Anyways, the Gators had beaten the Athenians the week before, finding themselves ranked thirteenth in the country, but they were no match for the Jackets, who pounded them 28-0. Tech got their own hack at the boys from Clarke County the next week when they visited the World’s Largest Outdoor Temple to Invasive Species and shellacked their gracious hosts between the hedges in front of 50,000 witnesses. The Athenians must’ve walked through their arch on the way to the stadium, or something.

It was enough for Tech to maintain their spot at fourth in the country and to earn a bid to the Gator Bowl, where they would play for the second time in a month and a half, against Pittsburgh, for the second bowl in a row. Once again, they would handle the Panthers, earning them a nod as national champions in multiple polls, though none of the most important ones. Tech wasn’t ranked outside of the top five in the nation all year. Their one loss was to the team that would eventually finish at second in the AP Poll, though that team lost to no. 13 Baylor in the Sugar Bowl.

Ultimately, the 1956 team, on paper, wasn’t as successful as the 1952 team. They won their sixth straight bowl, yes, against a well-regarded team. But it can widely be accepted as the beginning of the end of the Golden Age of Georgia Tech football, or, at least the first one. There’s not much doubt in my mind that they were talented, and talented enough to be named national champions by two outlets. But there’s a reason there’s a 1952 hung up underneath the scoreboard at Bobby Dodd Stadium and not 1956. These guys had one game where they didn’t quite come through. And even though they were talented, maybe even more than that championship team, they just didn’t put it all together like they did in 1952.


Between 1951, 1952, and 1956, do you think the best team won the title? Cast your vote and let me know why below. I’m curious to see what you all think.

Poll

Which team was most talented?

This poll is closed

  • 10%
    1951
    (3 votes)
  • 60%
    1952
    (17 votes)
  • 28%
    1956
    (8 votes)
28 votes total Vote Now

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.