November 16, 2023

Reflecting on 57 years in Sanford Stadium


            Kickoff was at 1 o’clock.

            The Ole Miss Rebels were in town to play 34-year-old Vince Dooley’s Georgia Bulldogs.

            And there I sat on Oct. 8, 1966, baking my buns on an aluminum bench in Sanford Stadium. The sweat beneath my starched Gant shirt and wool sport coat was trickling down my back. I loosened the knot on my silk club tie. My freshman date was in her Sunday best, heels and all.

            That’s the way we went to Georgia games back then.

            The Bulldogs won by a baseball score, 9-3, on the way to a 10-1 season and sharing an SEC crown with Bear Bryant’s Alabama Crimson Tide.

            Fast-forward to Nov. 11, 2023.

            Kickoff was at 7 o’clock.

            Lane Kiffin’s No. 9 Ole Miss Rebels were in town, cocky to knock off Kirby Smart’s AP-Poll No. 1 Dawgs.

            And there I sat in a wool sport coat. I was sweating for a different reason. On its first possession, Kiffin’s Rebels made scoring look easy, too easy. I would have loosened the knot on my tie if I had been wearing one.

            But then Georgia began to play up to its back-to-back-national-championship credentials. (The final score was 52-17.) The more the Dawgs took control, the more I relaxed. My mind started to scroll over the past 57 years.

            At 1 Selig Circle, legendary coaches Wally Butts and Harry Mehre would have never fathomed the athletic “Taj Mahal” named after them. Coach Dooley—namesake of the sprawling complex—got it started. Coach Smart will continue expanding and enhancing it beyond anyone’s imagination.

It’s easy to predict that Kirby will ascend into the elite stratosphere of college football coaches. You might say, “He’s already there.” And should he lead the Dawgs to a three-peat national championship, what monument will we build to honor him?

But as Kirby would warn, “Let’s beat Tennessee first.” And then there’s that North Avenue nest of pesky Yellow Jackets. Only then can we think about our SEC nemesis, Nick Saban’s cleated pachyderms.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

There I sat on Saturday night—at halftime—listening to the incomparable Red Coat Band. My mind whirled, reflecting on Sanford Stadium’s transformation since 1966. The closed ends of the stadium. Gone are fans packing the railroad tracks or the Jim Gillis Bridge.

Here are upper decks, club-level seats, luxury suites, the Reed Hall Plaza and the Dawg Walk. The list goes on. If Butts and Mehre reappeared, they wouldn’t recognize the glorious gridiron edifice that sits atop Tanyard Creek.

The UGA athletic department’s creative genius has taken the game-day experience above the clouds. How ’bout when the lights go out and a Bulldog-red glow fills the stadium? And then there’s the fourth-quarter tradition of lighting up the night with cell phones. The big-as-three-charter-buses jumbotron, the flashing lights, and the blaring music keep the place rocking.

I like it all.

Well, I’d like it better if I would remember to wear ear plugs.

Waiting for the second-half kickoff, I kept reflecting.

Just after the Herschel Era, our daughter, Emily, was old enough to make the trek—by herself—up the Section 106 steps to the ladies’ room. She came back, sporting blue eyes as wide as goalposts.

Daaaaad, you won’t believe what I saw.”

 “What, Em?”

Daaaad, a lady pulled up her skirt, and she had a bottle of whiskey taped to her thigh.”

I’m glad I remembered that, but I’ve tried to forget the encounters with intoxicated fans over the years.

It’s almost impossible to keep booze out of ball games. Alcohol flows at tailgate parties, not all but many. I get that.

I do not get this: The idea of some folks to sell beer in Sanford Stadium. The games are rowdy enough without making it convenient for some fans to imbibe too much. Having beer slopped on you or dealing with more obnoxious drunks will not improve game-day experience.

Beer in the bleachers is a bad, very bad, idea.

OK, I’ve had my say.

Now, let’s go to Knoxville and plant the Dawgs’ flag on Rocky Top, again.

Woof, woof!