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October 29, 2014

When Les Is More

Miles' mark representing late-game success
is no laughing matter. Richt's on the other hand...
You too may have seen the same staggering statistic ESPN showcased while recapping LSU's fourth-quarter comeback win over Ole Miss last Saturday night: since he became the Tigers' head coach in 2005, Les Miles has actually won more games than he has lost when trailing entering the fourth quarter. 

According to the ESPN graphic, the top four teams in winning percentage when losing entering the 4Q from 2005 to the present

.511- LSU (24-23)
.346- Texas (18-34)
.300- Ohio State (9-21)
.292- Boise State (7-17)

After the astonishment had worn off that a team could be so much better at winning games late than everyone else over nearly an entire decade, I was next surprised Miles had actually entered that many fourth quarters losing to his opposition. Forty-seven games trailing in the 4Q equates to about five annually, or 37% of the head coach's games since he's been at LSUa rather high percentage considering Miles has guided the Tigers to an overall winning percentage of around 80%.

As I like to do, I wanted to figure the same for our Georgia Bulldogs, and not only since 2005, but for the last 50+ seasons covering the last four head-coaching regimes.  First, the percentage of his total games each UGA head coach trailed entering the 4Q:

31%- Dooley
44%- Goff
37%- Donnan
26%- Richt

It just so happens that the ranking of coaches lowest to highest by percentage of games losing entering the 4Q is the exact same listing of the coaches by winning percentage (Richt-Dooley-Donnan-Goff), which certainly makes sense. Next, and most telling, the winning percentage and record of the four head coaches when trailing entering the 4Q:

.313- Dooley (26-59-3)
.153- Goff (5-30-1)
.318- Donnan (7-15)
.196- Richt (9-37)

Notably, both Dooley and Donnan's late-game mark would rank an admirable 3rd if compared to the top four programs since 2005 in fourth-quarter success. As for Goff and Richt, not so much.

Specifically, Richt's teams since 2005 when trailing entering the 4Q have won just 6 of 35 games, or a winning percentage of only .171, which my guess is wouldn't even crack the nation's top 50, much less be among college football's best.

It may appear on this blog that my nerdy statistical comparisons at times are an attempt to "pile on" Coach Richt; I receive the complaining emails saying as much. However, as they say the "numbers never lie" (speaking of ESPN...).

Nevertheless, Georgia has experienced fourth-quarter success in the past, resulting under two different head coachesone tenure lasting for a quarter-centuryboth of which, although not on the level of Coach Miles, would rival the very best since 2005 in late-game comebacks.

Evidently, with Dooley and Donnan at the helm, if the Dogs were down entering the final quarter, they still had a legitimate shot at a victory. However, seemingly under Richt, if Georgia is trailing entering the 4Q, like during the Goff years, you probably might as well chalk it up as a loss. 

October 28, 2014

We Love the WLOCP

You know this game has always been called the World’s Greatest Cocktail Party, do you know what is gonna happen here tonight, and up in St. Simons and Jekyll Island, and all those places where all those Dawg people have got these condominiums for four days? Man, is there going to be some property destroyed tonight!
—Larry Munson 

How do we Bulldogs describe the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, or the annual Georgia-Florida football game in Jacksonville and its surrounding days of partying? The easiest way to describe it is for you to simply go experience it for yourself. It’s something every football enthusiast should go do at least once in their lives, and if you do indeed have the experience, it likely won’t be your last trip to Jacksonville in late October-early November.

Perhaps the best way to describe Georgia-Florida weekend where the “weekend” is as long as four or five days for a good portion of Bulldogs followers is by the time Saturday finally arrives, many of us have nearly forgotten that there is actually a football game to be played.

Thus, the Bulldogs and Gators battling it out on the gridiron is only a small part of the Cocktail Party, which actually is a series of parties. The partying lasts for days and stretches for roughly 125 miles from St. Simon’s Island in Georgia to the north to Florida’s St. Augustine to the south, while leaving the fans of the losing team exclaiming an outcry that can be traced back in the rivalry for nearly 40 years: “We might have lost the game, but we’ll win the party!”

Outsiders to the Georgia-Florida rivalry often wonder why the game is played at an off-campus site and why particularly in Jacksonville, especially considering the “neutral” city is approximately 250 miles further from Athens than Gainesville. In the beginning, it’s evident that no one could determine the permanent site of the game, as four different cities hosted the series’ first four meetings. In the rivalry’s first 13 games over 30 seasons, from 1904 to 1933, not once was it held at the same site in consecutive years.

Played in 1904, the game’s first site was Central City Park in the city of Macon, Georgia. Like the game of football, the location of Georgia-Florida would soon change drastically and repeatedly, yet it’s interesting to note that the foundation of the Cocktail Party was already being built. Leading up to the initial meeting of the schools, Macon’s Telegraph stated, “The social side of the game will be a feature. Football has ever been the favorite of the ladies and doubtless will continue to be.”

In 1933 Jacksonville’s Fairfield Stadium hosted the Georgia-Florida game, and like the three previous meetings in the city, the contest was a complete sellout. It was decided then that because of the large crowd and since the two teams and their fans could easily reach Jacksonville by train, the following year’s game would be held at Fairfield Stadium, as well. 

In the early era of the sport, several rivalries, particularly in the South, usually met at a neutral site since the teams’ on-campus stadiums could not accommodate a large crowd. In fact, for a quarter-century, Georgia would face rival Auburn annually in neutral Columbus, Georgia only a week or two after playing Florida in Jacksonville. However, by the late 1950s, Columbus’ Memorial Stadium could no longer hold the number of spectators the Georgia-Auburn game was attracting, and the yearly meeting was moved to the home stadiums of the two schools.

Since 1933, except for a two-year period during the mid-1990s, when the Gator Bowl was being renovated, Georgia-Florida has remained in neutral Jacksonville. Currently, it is one of only two annual games in college football played at the same neutral site every year. The other is the Oklahoma-Texas rivalry—the “Red River Shootout,” or “Red River Rivalry” if you prefer to be politically correct—which takes place during the State Fair of Texas.

So, how do the last two remaining neutral-sited rivalries in college football compare to one another? For most Georgia fans, we haven’t the slightest idea. The weekend of Oklahoma-Texas, we’re usually in Athens or a place like Knoxville, watching our Bulldogs play. It’s hard to comprehend a football game at a State Fair, which prides itself on serving unusually deep-fried items. For most of us, a good party and a cocktail seem much more enticing than a huge Ferris wheel and a deep-fried Twinkie.

While the partying increased, so did the HATE.
Even before the start of World War II, the Georgia-Florida meeting in Jacksonville had already become an annual tradition. Just as anticipated as the game itself, if not more so, was the social aspect of the weekend, especially considering the performances by most of the Gators’ teams back then. Economically, the weekend was acknowledged as the biggest of the year for the city of Jacksonville, where the Bulldogs and Gators played a game on Saturday after the “spectators play one all night long,” according to sports writer Jack Troy in 1939.

“[The fans are] still up by the dawn’s early light,” said Troy. “There is no thought of sleep…if there is time, they go gaily to municipal stadium and see if they had figured things out.”

In the late 1950s, the annual event first came to be known by its distinguished title—the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. Bill Kastelz, the editor of the Florida Times-Unioncreated the moniker but would use it just once in a column. Regardless, the nickname was soon picked up by other writers and the title stuck.

“All the other sports writers in the press box asked me why I wrote that, and I said because it was true,” said Kastelz in 2000. “There was drinking all over the place in those days. People would use their binocular cases to put a flask in there and drink very openly, and there was no crackdown.”

Prior to the 1960s, Florida Gators football was mostly about the parties rather than the team’s performances. The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party was brought to the attention of a national audience by writer John Underwood of Sports Illustrated, indicating that even “all the fun of the [Georgia-Florida] weekends could not make Florida fans happy with their lot.” 

Over the next decade or so, while Gators football started to slowly improve, the Cocktail Party was steadily growing even more in popularity.

The Spirit and "spirits" of 1976
By the 1970s, Georgia-Florida was viewed nationally as more of a spectacle lasting for days rather than a single football game. While the host city of Jacksonville had begun to devote months of planning for the weekend, some surrounding areas would prep for nearly an entire year for the pre- and post-game partying.

The rivalry was “the 100 proof bowl. The 2:00 pm happy hour,” said writer Ron Hudspeth just prior to the 1972 meeting. “The game with the extra touch of spirit and spirits. Hic.”

However, during this time, the week-long spectacle was evolving into something the city and its Gator Bowl had not originally planned for: the Cocktail Party was now fully overflowing into the stadium itself, while the crowd—split down the middle of the stadium according to rooting interest—had never been so raucous and inebriated, perhaps a little too much so. More and more Bulldogs and Gators fans were stuffing liquor bottles into every little nook and cranny of clothing prior to entering the Gator Bowl, and often in plain view of law enforcement without hesitation.

After Georgia’s memorable comeback victory over Florida in 1976, elated Bulldogs fans spilled into the stadium’s end zones and tore down both goal posts in what was thought to be the first time the Jacksonville stadium’s posts had ever been dismantled. A high school football game immediately followed Georgia’s win and the teams were forced to use a single makeshift structure as a goal post. The celebratory act by Bulldogs fans would eventually cost the Gator Bowl $2,695 for a set of new goal posts.

During the game in 1978, reports of gate-crashing by frustrated fans unable to get tickets surfaced. Groups of as many as 50 individuals rushed past ticket-takers or climbed fences to enter the stadium and join the party in the stands. When Georgia defeated Florida by a mere two points, some UGA students attempted exactly what they had done the last time the Bulldogs had defeated the Gators and tear down the goal posts. This time, however, they were met by a ring of police, preventing any fans into the end zone. For any student who happened to reach the field, he or she was soon tackled or beaten back away from the Gator Bowl’s newly installed goal posts.

All that's missing from this shot of the Gators'
celebration of '84 is for those jeans to be jorts.
For six straight years from 1978 to 1983, Georgia defeated Florida and for each of the six occasions, Bulldogs fans attempted to rush onto the Gator Bowl turf, but to no avail. For some of those who tried to reach the field, they were met by Jacksonville’s finest, who would often make arrests and on occasion physically throw students over a dividing fence.

In 1984 Florida defeated Georgia soundly by a score of 27–0 for what seemed like the Gators’ first victory in the series in an eternity. Florida fans stormed the field, unearthed a newly sodded playing surface, tore down and dismantled both goal posts, carried them around, and eventually left the Gator Bowl with the goal posts in tow. Like previous years, police had been posted around the field to prevent fans from entering. However, during the mêlée, officers merely watched as the destruction took place and did not make a single arrest. Police restraint was exercised, according to a spokesman for the Jacksonville Sheriff’s office, “because the surge of fans was too great.”

Jacksonville’s mayor at the time and an apparent Florida fan, Jake Godbold, inexplicably stated that the city “would be tickled to death to pay for [any damages to the field]. If [the Gators] beat ’em like that next year, they can tear it down then, too.”

Much to the mayor’s presumed dismay, there would be no victory for the Gators in 1985, but instead a 24–3 Georgia upset win over a top-ranked Florida team. As the Gators had done the year before, Bulldogs fans attempted to rush the field following the victory by climbing over a fence; however, this time, the jubilant crowd was held back by police. Nonetheless, spectators would eventually open a gate and soon there was a red and black throng covering the field.

Jacksonville police did not exercise restraint that particular year as law enforcement took to the Georgia crowd wielding nightsticks. Numerous arrests were made while 15 fans were treated on the field alone for injuries suffered during the police-engaged chaos.

Entering the 1986 match-up, a “war on alcohol” was more or less declared in and around the stadium and security was greatly increased. This included the addition of police dogs, mounted police on horses, undercover law enforcement, reinforced fences, and, if necessary, even helicopters and marine patrol boats could be used. Apparently, lessons had been learned from previous years and drastic steps were taken by both teams and the city of Jacksonville to keep the Cocktail Party out of the confines of the Gator Bowl.

The notion of moving the Georgia-Florida game out of Jacksonville periodically or entirely, and converting the rivalry to an on-campus series or one which includes an additional neutral site, like Atlanta, is nothing new. The idea was suggested as far back as the 1970s when the city of Jacksonville and the stadium’s handling of the game was first widely criticized. Specifically, price gouging by hotels, poor supervision of parking by police officers, and gate-crashing at the Gator Bowl, which had reportedly increased attendance by as many as 3,000 spectators above capacity, were all cited as primary reasons why the game possibly needed a new home.

The idea of moving the game was again suggested off and on throughout the 1990s and 2000s. However, instead of the host city’s management of the game being challenged as before, the actual “neutrality” of Jacksonville was questioned by Georgia supporters. As indicated, “The Bold New City of the South,” as Jacksonville is called, is a heck of a lot further south toward Gainesville than Athens.

Admittedly, for the Bulldogs backers who want to take the game out of Jacksonville, the primary reason for this sentiment—and if we’re being totally honest—is simply because of Georgia’s struggles in the series the last couple of decades. However, that’s not the city of Jacksonville’s fault or its stadium, rather players and coaching should be held accountable. Few Bulldogs wanted to take the game out of town when we defeated the Gators 13 of 16 times from 1974 to 1989.

Most Georgia fans want to keep this game right where it is. Besides the rivalry’s tradition and party-like atmosphere, both universities currently make more revenue from the game at its current location on a yearly basis than if the site rotated between the schools’ respective home stadiums. In addition, the week of the game is extremely lucrative for the city of Jacksonville, which stands to lose millions of dollars each year of not hosting the rivalry. As mentioned, the weekend is the biggest of the year for the city and has been since the 1930s.

Former Jacksonville mayor Hans Tanzler might have put it best when the possibility of moving the game out of his city was introduced to him in 1978: “Talking about moving, it doesn’t make any sense. It ain’t going to be moved. No. 1, it’s too valuable.”

The mayor would be correct in his assessment, at least for the next nearly 40 years. In 2009 UGA’s athletic board unanimously agreed to a multi-year contract, keeping the game in Jacksonville through 2016.

I concur.
Soon after the city cracked down on excessive drinking at the game during the mid-1980s, Jacksonville dropped its use of the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” title. In 2006 UGA President Michael Adams led a campaign to do away the phrase altogether. CBS Sports, who televises the game annually, and two other networks were approached and asked to drop the phrase due to concerns regarding alcohol abuse by attendees. Reportedly, preferred titles were the “Georgia-Florida Football Classic” or the “Florida-Georgia Football Classic,” depending on which school was considered the home team.

During the president’s campaign, his spokesman stated to the Associated Press: “We don’t like phrase. We don’t use the phrase. We would prefer that nobody use the phrase.”

The fact that Adams, or anyone for that matter, doesn’t use the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” is absolutely fine, but to suggest that nobody should use the title may be going too far. Many Bulldogs familiar with the rivalry have used the phrase since they can remember, and will continue to do so.

In reality, when CBS Sports was initially contacted about the issue, the network indicated that it rarely used the phrase to begin with, if at all. “[The phrase is] not part of the focus of CBS coverage,” said Leslie Anne Wade, vice president of communications for CBS Sports. “CBS coverage is about the rivalry and the competitive match-up of these two schools.”

The fact of the matter is that Georgia-Florida could be labeled the “World’s Largest Outdoor Ring-Around-the-Rosie Party,” and drinking—some of it binge, most of it controlled—would undoubtedly still occur outside the stadium. For most Georgia fans, the campaign to drop a phrase that had been around since most anyone could remember was believed to be yet another example of people in power attacking everything but the actual problem itself.

In closing, you can have your “Georgia-Florida Football Classic,” or whatever ho-hum label you choose. For Georgia and Florida fans alike, most undoubtedly prefer to use the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.”

October 24, 2014

Bye Bye Bulldogs

Although winning, barely escaping
like last year in Jacksonvilleis the 
recent trend for the Bulldogs after a bye.
In the same interview I mentioned in my last post, I was asked what possible advantages, besides the obvious, Georgia had over Florida a week from tomorrow. Among other things, I mentioned the Bulldogs had an extra week to prepare; they would be coming off a bye.


It dawned on me later Florida too has a bye this Saturday. Also, Georgia had an open week prior to this season's South Carolina game, and we all know what resulted in Columbia. So much for the Bulldogs' "advantage" in Jacksonville.

Finally, I recalled a piece I posted two years ago prior to the Bulldogs' mid-season bye against Kentucky regarding a historical view of "what to expect" from Georgia following an open date. 

I've done some updating, including Coach Richt's bye results since my original post, while discovering Coach Dooley's results following an open date for his entire tenure. Listed by winning percentage of head coach, the following are Georgia's records off a bye week over the last 50 years:

.786- DOOLEY (27-7-1)
.762- RICHT (16-5)
.667- DONNAN (8-4)
.464- GOFF (6-7-1)  

As mentioned in my "bye-week" post from two years ago, comparing head coaches by their straight-up records is hardly fairCoach Dooley faced some rather easy Tech teams off a bye; Goff some rather difficult Florida and Auburn squads.  Perhaps a better comparison would be the coaches' records against the spreadin my mind, a good measurement of a team in terms of straining its potential/exceeding expectations, and vice versa:

.583- DONNAN (7-5)
.500- GOFF (7-7)
.457- DOOLEY (16-19)
.452- RICHT (9-11-1)

Although ranking last among the four coaches, Richt actually had success at first against the number following a bye, covering 7 of his first 9 games. However, beginning in 2008and this is near staggeringalthough 6-3 straight up, Georgia is 1-8 against the spread after an open week.

If the recent past is any indication for the future, like eight days from now, the Bulldogs will likely "underachieve" after their bye, although probably escaping Jacksonville with a victory. And, if I was to make an early guess, I'd say Georgia will be around a 9- to 13-point favorite next week. That's a lot of points in a series decided by 8 or fewer points in 9 of the last 12 games, and a rivalry where the Bulldogs have defeated the Gators by more than 12 points just once during the last quarter-century. Nevertheless, a win is a win over the GatorsI don't care if it's by 1 or 100 pointsto improve to an admirable 7-1 on the season. 

Although, now that I think about itand I just thought of my replacement "possible advantage" Georgia has over Florida for next weekthe current edition of Richt's Dogs, a squad which should continue to have a no-one-man-team and chip-on-shoulder attitude, appear to be unlike his teams beginning in 2008. Seemingly, the underachieving Georgia program of the past several seasons (on the whole), fielding teams falling below expectations even almost everytime after having an extra week to practice and prepare, might continue to strain their potential continuing through this week's bye to the Florida game, and beyond. 

October 22, 2014

Far From Extraordinary

As Demetrius Douglas (left) demonstrates in '89, 
Emmitt Smith (right) had a hard time getting  
his footing when facing the Dawgs. 
In an interview yesterday regarding the Georgia-Florida series, in so many words, I was asked to compare Herschel Walker with the "extraordinary" Emmitt Smith.

My response: there is no comparison, especially when it comes to the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. 

You see, in three games against Florida, the legendary Walker averaged more than 216 rushing yards per contest, 5.5 yards per carry, and scored nearly three touchdowns.  Most importantly, Herschel's teams were 3 and 0 in the rivalry. Emmitt, on the other hand, averaged a paltry 81, 4.5, and ZERO, respectively, and was 0 and 3, or the last time prior to the current streak Georgia had defeated the Gators three times in a row.

I continued, Florida football fans relished the 13-1 run they had in Jacksonville from 1990 through 2003, while seldom speaking of Georgia's dominance leading up to their winning ways in the rivalry.

Taken from my I Love Georgia/I Hate Florida book, I touch upon the latter portion of the Bulldogs' series supremacy, specifically when it came to facing the not-so-extraordinary Emmitt: 

Clemson football fans love to rehash how our legendary Herschel Walker never scored a touchdown against their Tigers. However, conveniently not brought up is how Herschel twice rushed for more than 100 yards in the three meetings and, most importantly, the Bulldogs won two of the three games.

But perhaps that’s a Love/Hate book for another time…

Rarely, will you hear Bulldogs fans recount how Florida’s Emmitt Smith never scored in three games against Georgia. In addition, Smith rushed for more than 100 yards just once in three tries, and above all, Georgia won all three meetings.

At any rate, Smith’s lack of production against Georgia is hardly a big deal to the Bulldogs (although maybe I can touch upon it solely for the purpose of this book). In 1987 Smith broke the NCAA freshman record by reaching the 1,000-yard rushing mark in just his seventh game. Three weeks later, Georgia would be facing Florida’s freshman sensation—the best first-year running back in college football since the Bulldogs’ own Herschel Walker seven years before.

“I’m really looking forward to playing in my first Florida-Georgia game,” said Smith. “They have a strong defense particularly against the run. We’ll need a good week of preparation to play in this one.”

Come to find out, Smith and his fellow Gators would have needed much more than a week to prepare as Georgia cruised to a relatively easy victory. In the 23–10 Florida loss, Smith was held to 46 yards on 13 carries.

In 1988 it was more of the same as Smith was limited to 88 yards on 19 rushes in a 26–3 Bulldogs victory. A year later, in his final season at Florida, Smith totaled 108 yards in Jacksonville but yet again, he couldn’t find the end zone and the Gators were defeated 17–10 by Georgia.

In three games against the Bulldogs, Smith averaged just 81 rushing yards per contest, gained 4.5 yards per carry, and did not score a touchdown. Compare those figures to Smith’s 132-yard average, 5.7 yards per carry, and a total of 36 touchdowns in his 28 games against other regular season opponents.

Prior to a brilliant NFL career, there’s no denying Emmitt Smith had an outstanding three-season run at Florida. His accolades included being a three-time first-team All-SEC pick, a two-time top-10 finisher in the Heisman Trophy voting, the 1987 SEC Freshman of the Year, and the 1989 SEC Player of the Year.

Be that as it may, Smith certainly had his troubles against—as he himself identified—the Bulldogs’ “strong defense particularly against the run.”


October 17, 2014

A Dream-Come-True Starting Debut at Arkansas

Pledger's starting debut at Arkansas in 1992 was one to
remember for the Athens native. 
Growing up both in Athens and just outside the city, I was more inclined to follow Bulldog players from the Classic City and its surrounding areas  when I was younger. Therefore, when I recently thought of the Bulldogs playing Arkansas in Little Rock tomorrow for the first time ever, it was rather natural of me to think back to when Georgia was hosted by the Razorbacks for the first time in 1992, and the hometown boy who experienced a memorable first in the state then known as "The Land of Opportunity."

Attending school in Athens while growing up but living just outside of Clarke County, Charles Pledger had his pick in the mid-1980s of which Athens-area high school to attenda choice that was obvious: Clarke Central High School, where Billy Henderson was the head coach of the football team.  Henderson had been a standout halfback at UGA in the late-1940s, and was amidst a legendary coaching career still considered one of the greatest in Georgia high school football history.

"Billy was the best; he truly cared about the kids," Pledger informed me this week from his office in Atlanta.  "On Christmas Day, he'd open the gym at the school, and if there was a kid who didn't have a home or a family to celebrate with, Billy was waiting for you."

Pledger added Henderson was "the best motivator of young men I have ever seen," which is fitting since Henderson once regarded Pledger as "the most coachable young man I have ever seen."

At Clarke Central, Pledger tallied 19 career interceptions from his safety position, including leading the state's AAAA classification in interceptions as a junior in 1988.  It was during that season Pledger began to be recruited by colleges, in a way, by accident.  

Teammate Adrian Jarrell, who would attend Notre Dame, was one of the most highly-recruited quarterbacks in the country that year. "It seemed like everytime [recruiters] would come watch Adrian play, I'd make an interception," Pledger said laughing.

At a UGA football camp the summer prior to his senior year, Pledger did something rather uncommon for 20+ years ago: commit to a school early, and pledged his allegiance to the Georgia Bulldogs.

"Growing up in the Athens area and playing Saturday football games for the YMCA at Sanford Stadium, it was obviously a childhood dream come true to attend Georgia and play for the Bulldogs," Pledger said. 

After redshirting in 1990, Pledger was one of Georgia's top defensive backups in 1991. Now playing cornerback, he was a backup the following season, as well, until the fourth game of the season against Ole Miss, when starting safety Mike Jones was injured.  Jones' injury moved starting cornerback Al Jackson to safety, leaving Jackson's spot open for Pledger.  Against the Rebels, Pledger recorded his first career interception as a Bulldog.

Next on the schedule for Georgia was a 750-mile trip to the newest member of the SEC along with the University of South Carolinathe Arkansas Razorbacksplaying their first SEC game in Fayetteville, while the Bulldogs were playing in the state of Arkansas for the first time.

"It was such a unique trip because we stayed in a golf course community with more than 100 holes of golf instead of hotel rooms," Pledger recalled.  "They were like cottages or golf course homes, and a really different experience from what we were used to. Also, we were located more than an hour from the stadium, and the game had a really early start (11:40 a.m. local time)."

Former Clemson coaching great Danny Ford had been hired by Arkansas as an "Offensive Assistant" just days before the game (Ford would become the Hogs' head coach the following season).  Ford, who had recruited Pledger heavily in high school in an attempt to seize another Athens boy for Clemson, decided to pick on the first-time starter on the very first play from scrimmage.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," Pledger said.  "On the very first play, the Arkansas quarterback threw a bomb for the receiver I was covering.  I would have an interception later, but I should've had two that game because the long pass hit off my fingertips for an incompletion."

With Georgia leading 17-3 in the third quarter, but with Arkansas nearing midfield, Pledger corralled his memorable interception.

"I played wide side [cornerback], so I was pretty much man-to-man the entire game," Pledger said.  "The Arkansas receiver ran a crossing route, and I just read the quarterback's eyes and jumped on it, making what was kind of a diving interception."

Pledger's interception led to a Garrison Hearst touchdown runhis second of the game. The Bulldogs would go onto an impressive 27-3 road victory.  Georgia's pass defense, led by its first-time starter, held the Razorbacks to a lowly 9 of 29 passing for 87 yards and 3 interceptions.  Besides his interception, Pledger also added six tackles (four solo), including a touchdown-saving stop, in a game which left a lasting impression.

"Obviously, anytime you have your first start, especially coming against a team belonging to the caliber of the SEC, and especially in making an interception, it's a really great moment," Pledger said.

As soon as Jones returned from being injured, Pledger finished out his sophomore campaign as a backup like before; however, with the start of the 1993 season, he was starting at corner again.  As a junior, Pledger intercepted passes against Texas Tech and Ole Miss, while his team-leading eight passes broken up for the season were twice as many as any other Bulldog.

A recurring finger injury plagued Pledger in spring practice of his senior season. He could have another surgery on the fingerhis thirdand play football, but risk losing the finger permanently.

"I loved the game, but there comes a point when your body can only take so much," Pledger said.  "It seemed liked everytime I turned around, I was having an issue with my hand, and at cornerback, I used my hands a lot."

Prior to the 1994 season, Pledger decided to "retire" from the sport he loved.  

Today, golf is Pledger's sport to play. For work, he is Managing Director for Newmark Grubb Knight Frank, a large commercial real estate service firm.  As far as maintaining his ties to Georgia football, according to him, "I stay in touch with some of the guys."

One of those "guys" he's gotten to know over the last decade or so is Jerome Rosettia walk-on/scout team member of Georgia's 1980 national championship team.

"Jerome is a great friend and a great coach, and we have a good time," Pledger said.
The one-time Bulldog player has been coaching
groups of younger "Bulldogs" for a decade.

Coaching their games at Chastain Park, Rosetti and Pledger have volunteer coached 9 and 10-year olds in NYO Football of Atlanta.  Fittingly named, Pledger's team, the Bulldogs, have won two championships, including last season, capping a perfect 12-0 campaign.  

"It's rewarding to coach 9 and 10-year olds and then see them play later at the high school level; four of the starters off Lovett's (The Lovett School) state championship team a year ago once played for us," Pledger proudly stated.  "I guess it's my way of giving back to the community."

Seemingly, beyond becoming a notable Georgia Bulldog player, it appears the great Billy Henderson"the best" who "truly cared about the kids"rubbed off on Charles Pledger in a number of ways.

October 7, 2014

From "Impressive" to Inferior

What once was an impressive listing in the weekly  
game notes has been Goff-like of late.
It wasn't too long ago when it was recognized as Mark Richt's "most impressive stat"the head coach's success "in an opponent's stadium," and appropriately brought up because of this Saturday's game at 23rd-ranked Missouri.   

The results for such circumstances have been listed in the UGA media guide for years.  Attending the weekly press conference on Tuesdays, I've noticed all season the same results have been listed in the weekly game notes; assuredly, they will be listed in today's notes, as well.  I've noticed the mark is even cited in Richt's online bio amongst his other achievements.  And, at 43-14as indicated by UGAhis record in an opponent's stadium is certainly impressive.

On second glance, however, Richt's career away game record is actually 43-15 to begin withbut who's really counting...  Most telling, the away mark is more like a tale of two completely different eras: the first, when the Bulldogs even when underdogs, were a major threat to win at an opponent's home venue, no matter the opponent, or how good they were; the second era, not so muchnot really at all.

Simply based on Richt's overall winning percentage from 2001 to 2008 (.788) compared to the last six seasons (.667), one would figure there would also be some drop off in his winning percentage in opponents' stadiums, but certainly not like thisa drop off which is more like a deep plunge.

What was once an impressive stat through the 2008 season has essentially turned a complete 180, beginning with the loss to Oklahoma State in Stillwater to start the 2009 campaign through the setback to South Carolina in Columbia four weeks ago.

Richt's away-game overall, versus ranked teams, and as an underdog winning pct./records from 2001-2008 compared to 2009-2014:       

.882- First 8 seasons (30-4)
.542- Last 6 seasons (13-11)

vs. Ranked
.833- First 8 seasons (10-2)
.222- Last 6 seasons (2-7)

as Underdog
.800- First 8 seasons (8-2)
.222- Last 6 seasons (2-7)

There was a time when facing a highly-ranked foe
as an underdog at their place was actually a prob-
able victory for Richt's Bulldogs. Not anymore. 
An absolute staggering difference between the two eras.  

For comparison, I figured the same three away-game winning percentages for the three preceding Bulldog head coachesVince Dooley (1964-1988), Ray Goff (1989-1995), and Jim Donnan (1996-2000)ranking the three head coaches from best to worst for each measurement:

.661- DOOLEY (59-29-5)
.650- DONNAN (13-7)
.500- GOFF (14-14-1)

vs. Ranked
.429- DONNAN (3-4)
.382- DOOLEY (6-10-1)
.188- GOFF (1-6-1)

as Underdog
.467- DOOLEY (13-15-2)
.429- DONNAN (3-4)
.375- GOFF (4-7-1)

Strikingly, Richt's Bulldogs through 2008 far exceeded the previous regimes in all situations playing in opponents' stadiums.  However, and perhaps even more notable (and, let me first say, I like Ray Goff, having thoroughly enjoyed him in interviews, but let's face it, his head-coaching tenure at UGA could be characterized as somewhat of a failure), when it comes to Richt's teams the last six seasons when playing away, they've been rather "Goff-like." In fact, they've been even more inferior in an underdog role than Goff's Dogs were in opposing stadiums.

Finally, if I could make a suggestion: like the forgotten 15th loss by Richt in opponents' stadiums that's omitted from UGA's records, I think the "impressive" perception of Georgia still being a major threat on the road should also be forgottenit's no longer the 2008 season or before.  

Maybe there'll come a more appropriate time to acknowledge Richt's away game prowess, like if the Bulldogs can actually and consistently defeat formidable opponents in their stadiums again.  And, there would be no time like the present season, when after Missouri, difficult away tests at Arkansas and at Kentucky soon follow. 

October 4, 2014

Today, I'm Especially Grateful for Change

Jermaine Johnson running all over Bulldogs, a dejected
Coach Goff leaving the field with some players who 
"obviously" didn't look like they cared...
During one of the few nail-biting moments of Georgia's close victory over Tennessee a week ago, my friend sitting next to me leaned over and muttered, "If we drop this one, it would have to rank as one of the biggest upset losses by the Bulldogs I can remember."

Fortunately, we didn't "drop" the game; however, my friend's remark compelled me to later wonder what if.  And, as far as point spreads, which are considered "reliable" beginning around the mid-1960s, a loss to the Volunteersan 18-point underdogwould have indeed ranked as one of Georgia's biggest upset losses since a lot of us can remember:

Losses by Georgia since 1964 as a two-touchdown favorite or more
-20 over Vanderbilt, 1994 (lost 43-30)
-18 over Wake Forest, 1979 (lost 22-21)
-17 over Vanderbilt, 1973 (lost 18-14)
-16 over Kentucky, 1996 (lost 24-17)
-15½ over Vanderbilt, 1991 (lost 27-25)
-14½ over Tulane, 1970 (lost 17-14)
-14½ over Vanderbilt, 2006 (lost 24-22) 

What first grabbed my attention regarding the above was most of Georgia's significant upset losses have come to Vanderbilttoday's Homecoming opponent and current 33½-point underdog.  Next, I noticed all of the upsets were actually quite closethe Bulldogs losing by only a single touchdown or lessthat is, except for the biggest upset, which wasn't even as close as the 43 to 30 score indicates.

It has been 20 years since the 1994 Vanderbilt debacle, which was that season's Homecoming game, as well.  However, besides the Bulldogs' dismal play on the field, what also made for one the most depressing experiences I had as a UGA student was the protesting which persisted during the game, and the disheartening rumor which lingered afterwards.

I try not to make a habit of reminiscing about discouraging moments or events I experienced in the past.  But, I do believe reflecting upon certain rough times from the past helps us appreciate the present even more, while looking forward to an even brighter future.  Such is the case with the Vanderbilt game from two decades agoI'd like to think times have certainly changed since then.

I reached out to a player from the '94 team, who still remains relatively close to the program today, wanting to inquire about three occurrences I recall the most surrounding the infamous Vanderbilt fiasco.

1) The Game: After being only a late third-down completion away from upsetting Alabama on the road, followed by routing Clemson, Georgia stood at 4-2 overall and 2-2 in the conference with presumably easy victories over Vanderbilt and Kentucky ahead prior to facing Florida.  Armed with senior quarterback Eric Zeierone of the leading candidates for the Heisman Trophy at the timethe Bulldogs seemed to be on the verge of contending for the SEC East title.  With the much-inferior Commodores winless in the SEC at 0-3 while starting three freshmen defensive backs, it appeared Zeier and the rest of the Dawgs would certainly have their day, and their way with Vanderbilt on Homecoming. 

2) The Protest: Despite the school's crowning of an African American on Homecoming in 1993 and the fact seven of the original 38 nominees for Miss Homecoming a year later were minorities, UGA's Homecoming of 1994, which was given the theme of "Glory Days at Georgia," was more like the "Olden Days at Georgia" to some.  No minorities being chosen among the 10 Homecoming finalists, plus a lack of minority representation on the panel of judges, whose committee admitted their judging process was flawed, created what was regarded as "racial tension" which was "not just about lack of representation but lack of consideration," according to a student group member.  In protest, a number of student groups, consisting primarily of minority students, decided to not participate in most of the weekly Homecoming activities, while planning to march to Sanford Stadium during the Vanderbilt game. 

3) The "Rumored" Fix: I can't tell you exactly when I heard it, or from exactly whom, but not long after Vanderbilt defeated Georgia, there was a rumor that some Bulldog players laid down, or didn't necessarily give it their all, in the loss to the Commodores as a way of joining in the protest against UGA's selection of Miss Homecoming.  The rumor made then-head coach Ray Goff's postgame comment of "Obviously, we didn't look like we cared to play," rather ironic.  

For two decades, I haven't thought much of the rumor, believing it was just thata fabrication, and a ridiculous excuse for a bad loss.  Regardless, this past week, I contacted an old college friend and big Georgia fan, asking if he too remembered any such rumor. Not only did he remember it, but claimed he and another individual had actually discussed the rumor "not long ago."  I did a quick Internet search and found the following in a comments section of a blog, discovering we weren't the only ones to recall the rumor:

Does anyone remember the rumor going around regarding the surprising 1994 thrashing at the hands of Vandy? The rumor was that a number of black players "laid down" as a form of protest against, what they thought was, an unjust selection of the Homecoming Queen.

After asking the '94 player I contacted if there was anything to the rumor from what he remembered, he declared, "Patrick, what it was was an ass whippin'plain and simple. That guy ran all over us."

"That guy" was tailback Jermaine Johnson, who rushed for 177 of Vanderbilt's staggering 415 rushing yards that day against Georgia.  The Commodores ran the ball 71 times while having an unfathomable 41:51 to 18:09 advantage in time of possession.  

...and "racial tension" dampened Homecoming in 1994.
Twenty years later, I'd like to think times have changed.
Early in the second quarter as protesters began crowding the rail at the bridge overlooking the stadium while chanting "No justice, no peace," the Bulldogs' offense began to bog down after an early 14 to 7 lead.  Zeier entered the game having completed 61 percent of his passes, while averaging just 12 incompletions per game and an interception thrown almost every 50 pass attempts during his then-41-game UGA career. However, against Vanderbilt's inexperienced secondary, he completed just 43 percent of his passes, while throwing 31 incompletionsalthough this included a number of drops by his receiversincluding an uncharacteristic three interceptions in 54 attempts.

In what was the perfect storm of Georgia failing in all facets of the game, even steady Kanon Parkman had a rough outing.  The Bulldog placekicker's lone missed PAT of 41 attempts all season resulted against Vanderbilt, as did his only missed field goal of 17 attempts from less than 46 yards out.

At one point, the Commodores outscored the Dogs, 36 to 10, to take a 43-24 lead. Georgia tacked on a late touchdown, but it mattered little as any hope for a Heisman for Zeier, and most importantly, the Bulldogs being a threat in the SEC East were completely dashed.    

The '94 player hardly recalled the protest, but stated, "What's the saying—'cooler heads prevail'?  These are 18, 19, 20-year-olds, and any young personblack, white, whatever; student-athlete, or notcan be highly influenced by a larger group of people who want to protest. Therefore, it's been my experience that often college-aged cooler heads don't prevail."

The player admitted he faintly recollects some "rumblings"not necessarily within the program itselfabout how some players might not have tried their hardest, while adding, "And, when there's smoke, there's usually fire.  However, any talk of guys not playing hard went away fairly quicklyI honestly never heard about it again."

The former-player's overall assessment of the rumor: "If I had to say, no, nobody 'laid down' against Vanderbilt in '94; we just weren't that good.  But, I will say, I don't know for 100% sure, and anything is possible."

He ended our conversation stressing that he was "not sure" the Vanderbilt game rumor had anything to do with that particular team, head coach, group of players, etc.  "Rumors like that had been around for a long time, and not just at the University of Georgia," he said. But then, the rumors, especially ones as extreme as players laying down, ceased for the most part 10 to 15 years or so ago, or "when all this technology came about (i.e., internet, cell phones, social media, etc.)."

"As I said, anything is possible, and it's been my experience that players engaged in extreme wrongdoingslike laying downcould happen at any point in time," he concluded. "However, unlike when I played and before, now, there are very few places to hide (most wrongdoings are discovered and publicized)."

Today, with my seven-year-old son, I'll return to my alma mater on Homecoming. Although there are undoubtedly issues which surround us, I'm grateful for a few drastic changes at UGA, and its football program, since I attended school.

For one, although I tend to believe the conduct of today's scrutinized collegiate athletes is somewhat unfairly judged compared to those prior to "all this technology," I'm grateful today that there are "few places to hide."  The fewer the number of places to hide, the fewer the scandalous rumors, and the more we discover the truth.

Also, I'd like to think a loss as a substantial favorite to Vanderbilt on Homecoming although once a reality, is simply impossible now.  Although far from ideal, Georgia's football program is in much better shape than it was 20 years ago.  

While we sat in Sanford Stadium in 1981, I remember my dad awkwardly trying to explain to his confused son, when I was about my son's age, why black players didn't play for the Bulldogs just 10 years before. Thirteen years later on Homecoming as a confused student, I stared at the "racial tension" on the Sanford Stadium bridge, stemming from minority students believing they weren't being fairly considered.  However, and the current situation is far from perfect, UGA has since culturally changed for the better.  While the school's percentage of minority students has risen to 17 percent currently from 12 percent in 1994, within the last five years, UGA crowned an African-American Homecoming queen and king the same year for the first time in school history. 

Today, I'm especially grateful for change. While my son could become confused today (like father, like son) for a number of reasons, on this Homecoming day, I'm blessed any confusion he has will have nothing to do with race.