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Rearview Mirror: Finds Dodd in the Wilderness

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1964 represented a turning point for the fate of Yellow Jacket football.

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When a coaching tree is but a sapling: Dodd, Broyles, and Graves.
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photography Collection (http://history.library.gatech.edu/items/show/8881)

Sure, we were going to talk about Harrison hightailing it out of town (spoilers, I know, but, let’s be real, he ain’t here now, so you knew he was leaving at some point), but, knowing the interests of the Commentariat, and my readership numbers, I don’t think a column about Bobby Dodd or football will be too disappointing.


When we last checked in on Head Football Coach-slash-Athletic Director Bobby Dodd, it was January 24th, 1964, and it had just been announced for all the world to hear, specifically the Southeastern Conference, that Georgia Tech was going independent. After Dr. Frank Rose, with Bear Bryant absent, voted against the 140 Rule, the legislation capping combined football and basketball scholarships at 140, with 45 able to come in each year, since the gauntlet had been thrown down, Tech had been painted into a corner. Alabama’s support would have broken the 6-6 deadlock over the issue, and there was no chance either Mississippi school would budge - like Heisman and Alexander before him, Dodd saw little benefit to taking his team all the way out to rurual, pre-interstate Mississippi hinterlands when they refused to come to Atlanta like Auburn and take the much higher gate - nor would LSU, who took issue that Dodd wouldn’t schedule them consistently out of preference for nearer rivals or more urban destinations like Nashville, Birmingham, or New Orleans, or local rivals down the road in Auburn or up the road in Athens. The latter two saw Tech departing from the SEC as a golden opportunity: they lived and died with the exposure in Atlanta, and Auburn in particular saw Tech as its closest recruiting parallel. Though Tulane and Vanderbilt would have also benefitted, the other schools in favor of the rule, the eastern flagship state universities Florida, Tennessee, and Kentucky aligned with the western ones Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana State, and the Athenians, and the rest of the conference fell into lockstep. Tech was done, and Bobby Dodd saw opportunity in departure, but also felt the writing was on the wall for the “second fiddle” state schools and private institutions like Tulane, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, and Auburn that weren’t leaving. He noted that, like Tech, Auburn was the only one winning, and even that situation was tenuous. For all the wrought wrists over Tech’s departure from the SEC, Tulane wouldn’t be far behind, reading the writing on the walls and their institution de-emphasized sports and they were exiled to the dank Superdome, and Vanderbilt, outside of baseball, is nothing to write home about, while Mississippi State’s best-ever football season, 2014, when they did upset no. 6 Texas A&M and no. 2 Auburn, ended in a stinking Orange Bowl loss at the hands of, well, uh, Georgia Tech. Awkward. Dodd was right and, really, so were Auburn and the Athenians.

Let’s be real, though. Take Bear Bryant for his word or don’t. That’s irrelevant. He was absent, maybe on purpose to avoid being obvious about his treachery or maybe not, and, no matter how prevalent the opinion was that Frank Rose was a squish and a yes man, be it to Bryant, on integration, or whatever else, there was no chance he would vote in favor of the Tech proposal. No proud Alabama man like Rose would side with the elitist, slandering liar friends of Atlanta newspaperman Furman Bisher, no matter how much he kowtowed to Bryant. Bryant and Dodd had perhaps the most erratic, bipolar relationship of any era coaching duo, and Bisher, who is worth a column on his own, between writing the column that stoked the Graning hit into an inferno and the tangential involvement in the Butts-Bryant game-fixing scandal piece that led to the infamous Saturday Evening Post defamation lawsuit, added to a resentment that coursed through the veins of the man who dealt with enough consternation, strife, and tumult in his time as a university president to last an ordinary man several lifetimes. It is unsurprising he took that into the vote.

The helpful thing about being a football coach rather than an administrator is that people write biographies of them. In Dodd’s Luck, he shares an interesting tidbit. Almost two decades before it eventually joined the conference, Tech was approached by the ACC, who wished for Tech to join the eight member conference (South Carolina had not yet departed because of Tobacco Road politicking and economics - that was 1971). As the AD, it was primarily Bobby Dodd’s decision. What did the calculus come down to? Basketball.

At the time, Tech basketball really wasn’t much to write home about. In the mushy SEC schedule, Tech under Whack Hyder may have been famous as a giant slayer - he was 9-16 against Kentucky with several memorable upsets - but they had qualified for the NCAA tournament only once in the past decade and really weren’t much to write home about.

Of course, joining a conference also mooted one of the primary benefits of leaving in the first place. Dodd knew what would get the butts in the seats in Atlanta. The much-vaunted “Notre Dame of the South” plan hinged on increasing Tech’s revenue, whether that was getting big names and drumming up interest to increase the gate, having the flexibility to have more home games, as Tech would average about seven home games for nineteen years of independence. Keep in mind, this is a fairly typical number today (we average about six and a half home games per year), but, for the vast majority of that span, football teams were only playing ten games before bowls, unlike the twelve of today. Like all statements, this one requires some caveats: the nineteen years include the 1979-1982 transition into ACC scheduling, which threw some wrenches into the average, and was still considered football independence despite every other sport playing a league schedule and being a full member otherwise. We’ll talk more about the seventies in the future, but, for example, Tech’s 1975 football schedule (South Carolina, Miami, Clemson, Florida State, VMI, Auburn, Tulane, Duke, Notre Dame, Navy, the school in Athens) was the last time we played eight home games. In independence, Tech had the flexibility to schedule traditional rivals like Auburn, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Auburn, Duke, Tulane, and Alabama, natural foes like South Carolina, Florida State and Clemson, and vaunted, old school tilts with Pittsburgh, Navy, and especially Notre Dame.

Dodd reflected that, “Everybody said ‘Georgia Tech can get along fine as an independent.’ [Herbie Hancock], Notre Dame’s an independent, Penn State’s an independent, Miami, too. If you have a good football team, it don’t make any difference whether you’re in a conference or not. If you got a weak football team, a lot of people think you oughta be in a conference ‘cause you get to split the bowl and TV money. But if you’re in a conference, it’s more obvious when you put the standings up there that you’re down near the bottom. If we had stayed in the conference, [Huey Lewis and the News], all the SEC teams would have been beating us, except Vanderbilt and Tulane. So, it wasn’t getting out of the SEC that hurt us. It was the quality of the football.”

As one of my favorite Simpsons quips goes, “anything that’s the something of the something isnt really the anything of anything.” Notre Dame of the what?

That sentiment seems to reek of hindsight, though. For starters, Tech’s quality in the mid-60s may have been lower than the Golden Age of the early 1950s, but Bear Bryant was still known to quip that he would rather see any other man than Bobby Dodd on the opposing sideline. In 1964, the first year of independence, Tech won their first seven games, with wins over Clemson, Auburn, and Duke, and cracked the AP top ten in the process before dropping three in a row to end the season against Tennessee, Bryant’s no. 2 Alabama, and the Athenians in their first year under some former Auburn assistant named Vince Dooley. Despite the solid 7-3 record and reputable wins, it was a tough world out there for a middling independent to try to get a bowl berth in, so Tech spent the holidays on the couch. Surely none of those things will be relevant later.

In 1965 with Kim King, the sophomore dubbed the “young left hander” by legendary Tech radioman Al Ciraldo, a name surprisingly not yet encountered yet in this series, taking the reins at quarterback, the Jackets won seven games for the fifth year in a row, thanks to a solid 6-3-1 regular season record with notable wins again coming against Clemson, Auburn, and Duke before defeating Texas Tech 31-21 in the Gator Bowl. It would be Dodd’s first bowl victory since the Gator Bowl win a decade prior. It would also be his last.

Bobby Dodd had bristled against the academic standards at Georgia Tech for a while. Despite being out of the SEC and no longer up against teams that were not competing on an equal playing field, his existential problem - recruiting to an elite academic school - still existed. It was hard enough to recruit, he stated, without a hand tied behind his back in the form of mandatory calculus. The old legend goes that all opposing schools had to do was plop the textbook down in front of the average recruit and that would be enough for him to cut the Jackets loose. Of course, parents were thrilled by the prospects of a quality Tech education and a guaranteed scholarship - a rare thing in those days, given that was the primary motivator behind leaving the SEC, and arguably not true today under the current coaching administration, and yes, that is both a bold statement to make and a damning one for the staff if true - and Bobby Dodd was infamous for the quote, “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.” All that brain played into how Bobby Dodd played football. He abused the substitution rules and found men who were light on their feet to run the proto-halfback option play that is a key base of smart modern football. Revisiting an old point, Dodd knew firsthand just how tough it was to be a prospective football player up against Tech’s academic standards. Granted, he was a terrible, unmotivated student in high school whose success came because he was perhaps the best all-around football player to ever play the game, not in the classroom, but he was still someone that sought out Georgia Tech, despite the rigor, and was denied. All he asked was for a little leeway - business math, communications, and public speaking - and they gave him humanities. And kept the calculus.

So, when Tech rattled off nine straight wins to start the season, finished 9-2, was ranked in the top ten, and went to one final bowl game, a 27-17 Orange Bowl loss to Florida, Bobby Dodd hung it up for good. He reminisced, saying, “‘This is when I oughta get out. I’m frustrated, I’m getting bitter.’ I was getting bitter at the administration up here on the hill. I was getting mad about the fact that [Athens] and Auburn could take all these boys I couldn’t take.” He also grumbled that Auburn “might as well be a state university.” Bisher knew before the season was up, of course.

The morning Dodd handed in his resignation, citing health and age, February 6, 1967, the news was already on the front page of the Atlanta Journal. 1966 was the last year that Tech was the number one game in town, Atlanta’s team. The nine win start kept eyes on the Jackets and away from an okay professional baseball season and a terrible football one. With the Bobby Dodd era closing hot on the heels of the birth of the Atlanta Falcons and Braves, the ground was shifting quickly under Tech’s feet. Dodd knew this, too. In explaining his reason for resigning, he knew that if the football play fell off, the city’s sidewalk sports fans in the stands without a strong emotional connection to Tech would be fewer and farther between, supporting “their” egalitarian professional teams rather than the ivory tower institute of the mid-1960s. This, of course, in addition to shrinking the relevance to the average out-of-metro Georgian, who, in the west, south, and north saw schools like Auburn, Florida, Florida State, Clemson, and Tennessee gnawing at the margins while the red and black mutts playing in an ever-expanding porcelain bowl lined with an invasive Chinese weed drew the eyes of the salt of the state away from the elitist school in the elitist city with little draw if the football team went into the metaphorical toilet. As we all know, that is pretty much exactly what happened.

When Dodd left, he and Tech football were an institution, “like Bobby Jones or Peachtree Street,” a man beloved by his fans, students, players, and peers. He was no ordinary coach - in a sea of win-at-all-costs, rough men, he was a calm and gentle presence, yet still among the best to ever coach the game. Named to the College Football Hall of Fame as a player and a coach, as well as the Tennessee, Georgia, and Atlanta Sports Halls of Fame, no man has ever done what Bobby Dodd did for Georgia Tech on the gridiron, and he even had his hand at coaching baseball. When Vince Dooley got off the phone upon hearing the news that Dodd retired, his wife was relieved to hear no one had died, after noticing the somber tones of the call. But, Dodd’s Luck notes, “something was dead, or at least dying: Georgia Tech football, as it had come to be known under Bobby Dodd.”

The thing is, though, that Bobby Dodd was still the athletic director, as he would hold that position for another ten years. Seeing as this is about the man and no longer the game of football, the exact results of those ten years are unimportant, but the heir apparent, defensive coordinator Bud Carson, managed a 27-27 five year record, peaking with a 9-3, Sun Bowl winning season in 1970. The next year, they went 6-6 and got pounded by former SEC political rival, though not football rival, Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl that would not have been a home game for the Jackets. Humiliated in the stadium that was also the biggest symbol of the modern city of Atlanta having moved on from them, enormous pressure built behind interim Institute president James Boyd, who fired Carson.

His replacement, Bill Fulcher, had dreams of a 20 year-long career like his coach and mentor and was off to a solid 7-4-1 start, including a Liberty Bowl win, but was ready to call it quits after just one year due to personal reasons. When a 5-6 record quickly followed, Fulcher was out. Dodd was hiring his third replacement in eight years, while he himself had been the third coach in a trio that spanned more than six decades. Tech’s academic administration was in similar turmoil. When a rouge group of alumni once again failed to hire Dodd’s former assistant and then-Arkansas head coach and athletic director Frank Broyles away from Fayetteville - he had a cushy job, near-guaranteed permanent employment, and his family didn’t want to leave - Broyles pointed them towards Pepper Rodgers, who had been a standout placekicker and quarterback for the Jackets in the 1950s. Dodd noted that the man had matured, and the hire was made. When Dodd reached the mandatory retirement age two years into Rodgers’ tenure, he wished for the assistant he had been grooming for years, John McKenna, to take his place. Rodgers wanted his ally and friend Doug Weaver to take the reins. We’ll leave Pepper Rodgers to a future column.

Those waning days of the 1970s were also the waning days of Bear Bryant. Bill Curry, another 1950s Golden Era Tech player who Dodd would recommend to succeed Pepper Rodgers upon his firing in 1979, negotiated peace between the erstwhile friends-turned-foes. Between the Holt/Graning hit and the treachery of Bear’s absence and backstabbing 140 Rule vote, the men had not so much as drifted apart as lurched wildly away from one another. In coaching, Dodd spoke highly of Curry, highly enough to think his accomplishments with “meager” talent warranted him a place on a pantheon of Heisman, Alexander, and Dodd, who is a good man, but whose time at Tech probably doesn’t reflect Dodd’s desire to have Grant Field renamed after Curry. Curry would leave for Alabama, a curious hire in the wake of lingering memories of the tremors of the 1960s, a decision the two men never spoke of. Though Bobby Ross did what Curry never did - win an ACC title and a national championship - Dodd made it into the ACC era but wouldn’t live to see Tech at the top once more.

Bryant would make repeated overtures to get Tech back into the SEC, first in the late 1960s, and then again following the personal baggage between the men was put in the rearview mirror. His motivation? “I don’t want to die with Bobby and me feeling about each other the way we do,” as told to Ray Graves, who worked with Bear to get the Jackets back in. But it came down to the men in Athens and Auburn. In 1976, when Bear and Bobby made up for real, the effort began anew. TV deals and bowl tie-ins essentially shut Tech out of money and the postseason. The second time around, Bryant inked a six game series as a sign of goodwill, but seven affirmative votes were needed out of ten. Auburn, who was still an annual opponent, along with Ole Miss and Mississippi State, who never overcame Tech’s decades of spurning them, said no. Athens abstained. And that was that. Dodd insisted, “It’s a terrible conference for Georgia Tech to be in. You see, people don’t seem to realize—and I have never heard anyone with enough sense to realize—how handicapped a school is against a [flagship] university,” citing family ties, politics, differences in education, and the like. When the vote failed, the ACC, with their three “state universities,” came knocking again with a lucrative basketball deal accompanying football tie-ins and competitive minor sports, and, most importantly, a vote already in the bag. Longtime Tech rivals Clemson and Duke didn’t even need to do any politicking; the seven members had already unanimously decided to offer Tech membership. Institutionally, it was a better fit, and it remains Tech’s home to this day.

Dodd, who had been diagnosed with prostate cancer in the mid 1970s, hung on until 1988 before he passed. He served largely as clout, organizing for the athletic and alumni associations and working out of an office in the Alumni House on North Avenue. He and another notable Atlanta journalist, Jack Wilkinson, finished a biography (autobiography? ghost-written autobiography? I’m not sure how to put it) in the year before Dodd’s passing at the age of 79.

Fittingly, after his retirement, local interests and companies came together to found the Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year Award, given to the best coach in college football. Two months before he passed, the stadium he spent his entire career coaching in was renamed in his honor, and the road leading to it was named for him as well. He was an innovator, a schemer, a planner, and, a “human engineer.” Were he not a legendary football coach, he could have had great success in baseball. Though he led Tech through lean years in his experience as the head baseball coach, he was also talking about sabermetric-type stuff long before that was a thing, in the vein of Earl Weaver. But, in death, Dodd is remembered as one of the best to ever coach the game of football, a great relator and leader, and a genuine, caring family man, and Georgia Tech icons.


A few extra quotes I liked but couldn’t work in:

Bear Bryant on Dodd’s Luck:
“So-called Dodd’s Luck and Grant Field Luck was really Dodd Smart”

Wally Butts on Dodd’s Luck:
“If Bobby Dodd were trapped at the center of an H-bomb explosion, he’d walk away with his pockets full of marketable uranium.”

Dodd on Dodd’s Luck:
“Lucky? Bet your life I am lucky. I’m lucky and so are my teams. It’s a habit. You know, if you think you’re lucky you are.”

Bear Bryant on Dodd’s unorthodox coaching style (limited spring practice, valuing quickness over muscle, volleyball, focus on smarts):
“No one else in the country can coach like Dodd and win.”

Dodd on Bear Bryant skirting scholarship limitations:
“Twenty of the biggest swimmers you ever saw. They damn near drowned when they put ‘em in the pool, but they could play football.”

Dodd’s Favorite Coach at the Time of his Death (which, in hindsight, is interesting, to say the least):

“[Paterno] runs a program just like I hoped I ran. He graduates his players. He treats ‘em good...He has a good football team every year, and hes a class guy. He also stands for something I stood for in football: honesty.” Dodd also notes he wouldn’t want to coach in modern football: too much pressure, money, spring practice.

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. In the coming weeks, we’ll look at some of the other events of the 1960s before we look at the Twilight of Edwin Harrison.