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Rearview Mirror: When You’ve Said Bud Carson

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You’ve said it all?

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A drawing of Head Football Coach Bud Carson.
Georgia Tech Archives/George C. Griffin Photograph Collection (https://history.library.gatech.edu/items/show/22611)

Just three seasons after leaving the Southeastern Conference, Bobby Dodd was out and, for the only the third time since 1903, Georgia Tech was in need of a new head football coach.


Bobby Dodd had been the head football coach at Georgia Tech for quite some time by the fall of 1966. Having succeeded his boss and mentor William Alexander as the head man in the midst of World War II and chronic health problems for Coach Alex — Dodd had also coached in stints previously so Alex could recuperate — who had himself succeeded his boss and mentor John Heisman at the end of the Great War, Tech was a long ways from its last coaching search. When Frank Turner lured Heisman down out of upstate South Carolina to the tune of a few thousand dollars and a chunk of gate receipts, little did he know that Tech would not have to worry if they would “get their man” for more than sixty years after that.

Much like his predecessor, Dodd knew that both his health was starting to go, as well as his edge. It wasn’t for lack of love for the game - he would privately waffle back and forth on his decision throughout the season, not hading in his resignation until the beginning of February 1967, and his friend Furman Bisher had it in the Atlanta Journal before the day was up. That year, his team even had a solid regular season, finishing 9-1 with an Orange Bowl invitation to play his protege, Ray Graves, and his Florida Gators team, and, despite whispers both ways, and explicitly telling the Atlanta Constitution he planned to stay half a decade more, the end was still the end. Bobby Dodd did as a Technique editorial had advised earlier in the year, and went out on his own accord.

Understandably, it was a proud Tech tradition to promote from within to find the next head coach. After all, the last two times that happened, well, things turned out alright for the Jackets. Heisman and each of the next two up after him would go on to have illustrious careers, both spending the entire length of it in Atlanta and adding their own national championship titles to Heisman’s pioneering 1917 squad. This time, unlike in years past, though, the path of succession wasn’t quite so clear. Having been a successful coach of a major program for decades, there were many branches on Bobby Dodd’s coaching tree rip to be pruned. However, several of the most promising were either firmly rooted in new homes, like Graves in Gainesville and Frank Broyles in Fayetteville, or even former Tech linebacker-turned-defensive coordinator Jim Carlen who had just moved up to Morgantown to take command of the Mountaineers, or yet too young to take command of a football program, like Bill Curry or Pepper Rodgers. It was Carlen’s departure for West Virginia that would open the door for the former North Carolina Tar Heel-turned-Marine Leon “Bud” Carson to join Dodd’s staff for that final 1966 season.

Carson, to his credit, took full advantage of his first big opportunity.

The product of a typical post-war industry town in Western Pennsylvania, Brackenridge, Carson was a three sport star at his alma mater, Freeport High School. The town of Brackenridge, home to roughly 6,000 people in the 1930s and 40s in Carson’s youth, was known for its glass manufacturing and, of course, steel, and is situated in Allegheny County to the northeast of Pittsburgh. With recruits hailed much like, well, the Atlanta area is today, being good at football in Western Pennsylvania in those days was a near-guaranteed ticket to a college education. For Carson, that meant taking the trek to Chapel Hill, where he was a stand-out defensive back and quarterback. After school, he went on to the Marines, where he served for a few years before returning to Freeport to coach, and subsequently got his first head coaching job at nearby Scottdale High. Two years later, he was coaching the freshman team back at North Carolina and assisting the varsity team, but by 1965 he would be the head of the defense for the South Carolina Gamecocks, his last stop before Atlanta.

Though other assistants had been around longer, there was no heir apparent to Bobby Dodd. Tech didn’t start by turning inward, either, as Dodd singled out the unattainable Broyles as his number one choice to bring home to coach the Jackets. Of course, Broyles had ascended to Dodd-like status at Arkansas, having already won a national championship and thus wouldn’t budge. Tennessee coach Doug Dickey, a longtime Broyles assistant, wouldn’t leave Knoxville, either. Another former Dodd assistant, Charlie Tate, was coming off a top ten finish in Coral Gables, but that went nowhere, either. So Carson, who was in the spotlight a lot that year for his vaunted “The Tech Wrecker Defense,” was their man.

Carson, as McMath, et. al. succinctly note, “faced the combined challenges of succeeding a legend and trying to revive Tech’s winning ways.” Dodd said it himself, that Tech was waning, after experiencing something akin to a golden age in the 1950s. Recruiting was harder, and the freshmen teams were turning up alarming records, which was not a great omen. Even with Kim King, commonly regarded as one of the best to ever play for Tech and someone well-loved for his post-graduate stint as a beloved media and communications ambassador for his alma mater, returning for his senior season, Tech was off to an ignominious start under Carson when they went 4-6. This middling record was not for lack of effort from King, who is on the record as having been greatly saddened that Dodd didn’t return to finish out his tenure with his last star quarterback. The Jackets, coming off Dodd’s last major bowl appearance and a top ten finish, were widely seen as a disappointment to the greater Atlanta area. As mentioned in the Dodd profile, this was a particularly unfortunate development, as Tech was no longer the only game in town, with the Braves and especially the Falcons eager to win the hearts and minds of the average Atlantan. This, of course, was compounded by the schools in Athens and Auburn eyeing Tech much as a lion eyes a defenseless antelope down by the watering hole. Slip ups for Tech were, well, not great!

It started well, though, for Tech in 1967. Three straight wins, coming on the road at Vanderbilt, at home against TCU, and then an oversold game against Clemson, came before injuries piled up and the season took its toll. King was one of the notables to miss time. Three straight losses, to Tennessee on the road, Auburn at home, again oversold, and Tulane on the road sent Tech back down to an even 3-3. Tech bounced back to take the homecoming game against Duke, but three straight losses to end the season to Miami, Notre Dame, and the school in Athens left Tech on the outside looking in, their only bowl trips that year being the regular season jaunts to New Orleans and Miami that year to play Tulane and, well, Miami. The Notre Dame game saw 60,024 in attendance, well above the listed capacity near 58,000, both numbers likely not possible today due to reconfigurations since. Despite the teething pains, people were grumbling. Failing to remember that Alexander had particularly disappointing years and as did Dodd, Carson was increasingly tasked with the hardest standard to beat: the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia.

Sidenote: Is it weird to wish to have been able to see a game with the old south stands?

Carson did little to improve his situation the next two years. His normally-vaunted defense turned porous in 1968, when they were gashed to the tune of a -105 point differential, when a decent 4-2 start with wins over TCU, Clemson, Auburn, and Tulane at homecoming and losses against ranked Miami and Tennessee teams turned sour in a hurry with losses against Duke, Navy, Notre Dame, and the school in Athens to close out the year with a second 4-6 record. In 1969, captain Renso “Rock” Perdoni was a prime example of improvement from individual playmakers, but the record wouldn’t show any signs of improvement. Early back-to-back wins against SMU and Baylor contrasted with another four game losing streak, this time to Tennessee, Auburn, Clemson, and USC. A homecoming win over Duke and a Clean, Old Fashioned win to close the season weren’t enough to salvage a year that also saw losses to Tulane and Notre Dame.

Bobby Dodd’s 1969 GTAA Annual Report noted that the department regarded “the future of the Georgia Tech Athletic Association with concern, even pessimism.” Finance and athletic prowess were on the wane, and, regardless of hyperbole, there were legitimate concerns for the program from top to bottom. Of course, it was important for the Association to secure the right to solicit donations directly from private donors, but Bud Carson’s lone season with a winning record didn’t do much to raise the fortunes of the team that made or broke the health of the athletic organization as a whole, even more so as independents.

That season would be 1970. Tech rumbled out of the gates with four straight wins coming over South Carolina, Miami, Florida State, and Clemson giving them their first poll ranking in years before dropping back-to-back contests against Tennessee at home and Auburn on the road. Wins against Duke, Tulane, and Navy and a narrow loss at Notre Dame set up Tech with a road game against the school out East with a ranking and a bowl bid on the line. Tech came through, winning 17-7 and securing their place in the Sun Bowl. The Jackets handled Texas Tech 17-9, in their first bowl win since the Gator Bowl following the 1965 season, also against Texas Tech. Their no. 13 rank in the AP Poll lead to some optimism going into 1971.

Alas, the optimism was misplaced. Tech would still make a bowl, the Peach Bowl on the other side of town, but with their 6-5 record, it’s somewhat surprising that even happened. Heading into homecoming against Duke, Tech was 3-4 with wins against Michigan State, Clemson, and Tulane, while dropping the Auburn, Tennessee, Army, and South Carolina games. A source of mine referred to the Tulane, Duke, Navy, and Florida State four game winning streak as the beating the “weak sisters” that saved Tech’s season. A narrow loss to the Athenians at home was bracketed by a Peach Bowl blowout at the hands of Ole Miss and left Tech 6-6 overall and the fans clamoring for Carson’s job. He was squarely on the hot seat.

Interestingly, said source also refers to a drop in attendance in 1971 demonstrating fan unhappiness after the “breakthrough” 1970 Sun Bowl win. Since I had also heard of another significant drop in the similar timeframe due to a change in season ticket policy (i.e. requiring donations of a certain amount, which scared away a lot of the less diehard type of fans) and figured the Falcons had a bit to do with it, I went to the data.

Sidenote: Now that I have this data, I would like to do more with it. I’ll fill it out to present day sometime later in the month. Data is from start of availability (1949) for Tech and the start of franchise (Falcons) through the 1990 national championship/1991 Falcons departure for the Georgia Dome period.

Georgia Tech Attendance, 1949-1991. Source: Tech Football Media Guide.
Tech Football Media Guide
Falcons Attendance Data, 1966-1991. Source: Wikipedia.
Wikipedia
Falcons and Tech Attendance Comparisons. Sources: Tech Football Media Guide, Wikipedia.
Tech Football Media Guide, Wikipedia

As you can see in the first graph, there were noticeable, statistically significant declines in the Tech attendance numbers in 1968, 1974, and 1978. The Falcons and Tech saw similar linear trends (not shown) over this span, despite growth in the Atlanta market and occasional (though not frequent) football success. Tech’s drop in 1968 came in just the second season after the stadium had been double-decked on both the East and West Stands. Never again in the dataset would its average meet the pre-completion mark, even, but it would hold steady above the level it could hold with the first upper deck. The 1968 drop could very well be attributed to Bud Carson’s lack of success in that first year, but would represent a pretty fickle turn from the fanbase, as it had only been one season since Dodd’s departure, and a 4-6 record against a solid schedule and in a new program would have been seen, say, this past season, as a massive success (yes, we did play 12 games, but the relative ratio stands). If you know what year the season ticket adjustment was made, leave a comment below. My guess is 1978, since 1974 was coming off a worse season than 1978, and ‘78 would see the Jackets go to the Peach Bowl. Anyways, where were we?

To put it lightly, Bud Carson was not very well liked. He suffered from the unfathomably high reputation of the man that both preceded him as head football coach, and that became his boss, ever present in the athletic department operations. Dodd’s legacy is clear not just from his stadium and his statue, but from the much more recent and close-to-home example that he won this site’s vote for Tech’s most beloved and influential figure. Dodd was renowned for his light hand on the rudder as a head coach. He saw success despite preferring volleyball games to spring practice and didn’t expect his practices to be [Huey Lewis and the News] bent for leather. The “avalanche of grumbling” came not just from players and alumni, but from the people had to work closely with, and, critically, that held his job in their hands. The Marine veteran was, to hit the nail rather firmly on the head, a drill sergeant. Helmet Hut’s Dr. Ken recalled that, “the level and frequency of hard physical contact was multiplied many times over what Dodd had established. When camp opened, it seemed as if full contact scrimmages were the order of the day, every day,” (Helmet Hut). To quote McMath, “talk of deemphasizing athletics was in the air,” (Engineering the New South, pg. 402). The financial situation of the AA, what with the outstanding debt from a stadium expansion that was looking more and more to be a white elephant, football’s struggles, and its inability to collect both state and private funds meant that the shrieking choir raging in disapproval of the football coach was harder and harder to ignore. The golden goose needed to be set straight.

Tech had never fired a football coach. All three men to have formally head the position became, in their own rights, figures of myth and legend. All won championships, and all were beloved. Carson’s pedestrian 27-27 record after five years showed little signs of positive trend, this despite the known issues confronting football recruiting, competition, and curriculum. Alumni took to their magazine to contrast the “go-for-broke-and-win” style that wasn’t producing wins, while conversations in person stirred about his “mistreating and humiliating players, of exhibiting ‘unsportsmanlike conduct’ in games, and a host of other wrongdoings,” (McMath et. al., 402). Kim King was quoted saying “Coach Dodd was supportive; he rarely fussed, hollered, or got on players. Bud was more a Marine drill sergeant; he’d get on guys, rarely being supportive. All of a sudden, overnight, we were cast into this boot camp mentality where players were fussed at more and made to practice more. The practices were more physical. Not many players adapted very well, especially the seniors,” (Helmet Hut). When the AA Board of Directors met to discuss the coaching situation, they chose both to not renew Carson’s contract and to refuse Dodd’s resignation as athletic director. This placated the alumni and papered over the systematic issues plaguing Tech football. President-elect Joseph Pettit wrote, “As a newcomer, I feel a need for thorough evaluation of the whole athletic program, including but not limited to football, assessing its strength and potential for the future,” (McMath et. al., 403). This would not be the only chorus of controversy James Boyd faced in his interim presidency, but we have the whole presidency of Arthur Hansen to get through before we circle back to Boyd. The Institute as a whole, needed some strength assessment and evaluation of the potential for its future.

Ultimately, Carson was eager to break in as a young first-time head coach, and Tech was one of the most prestigious places to do it. However, it also meant the added pressure for the untested head coach was that of a fanbase that had just experienced 15 years of a second golden age lead by its all-time most beloved leader that was also situated at an crossroads financially, existentially, and in its identity. He wasn’t doomed to fail, but the deck was stacked against him. Ultimately, his style contrasted too hard with Dodd’s and the results didn’t come fast enough. This forced Boyd, Dodd, and the Athletic Association to make a drastic change, with the goal of saving athletics at Georgia Tech altogether. This would not be Tech’s last existential reckoning, but it would be perhaps its most urgent.

Carson, though, had his best success in front of him. The Cover 2 defense he schemed up at Tech became one of the vaunted defenses of its age, and his implementation for the famed “Steel Curtain” Pittsburgh Steelers defense in their 1974 and 1975 Super Bowl seasons, before leaving for Los Angeles and leading that unit to the Super Bowl again, where they fell to none other than his former team. He would bounce around the league off and on for another twenty years before retiring in 1997. He eventually got his shot as a head coach with the Cleveland Browns from 1989 to 1990. He died in 2005 at the age of 75.

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. For the upcoming plan, see the June 1, 2020 column here. The History of Swimming and Diving (and Drownproofing) is coming up next.