Here in the South, we identify ourselves by tribe. Not Cherokee or Creek. But Bulldogs, Yellow Jackets or Bears.
While I’m a fourth-generation UGA graduate, the Bulldogs have not always been my tribe. Growing up in Raleigh, N.C., I was such a big Carolina Tar Heel, you’d find black spots on the bottom of my feet. I cried when the powder blue boys lost.
To most people, being a Tar Heel means you’re a basketball fan. The best part of fall for most UNC adherents is the Blue v. White basketball scrimmage. But not me. Since my parents were from Georgia, and my granddad a high school coach, we were football fans. So naturally, I was the world’s biggest, and perhaps only, Carolina football fan.
It didn’t hurt that our neighbor growing up, Rob Rogers, was the placekicker for Carolina in the early 1980s. I’ll never forget Christmas Day 1982 watching the Sun Bowl at his parents’ home as Rob kicked a 53-yard field goal in the snow. He was named MVP when the Tar Heels beat Texas. When we’d go to games in Chapel Hill, we’d get to go by his dorm room and say hey. He used to punt with me in our cul-de-sac. He was my hero.
Alas, I came south for college, following my ancestors to Athens. Having grown up watching ACC football, I felt like I’d died and gone to pigskin paradise that first fall. UNC had 50,000 at their games. UGA had 85,000. UNC fans prepared for the game by parking next to the stadium 10 minutes before kickoff. Tailgating in Athens was an all-day affair of pageantry and pomp. I was hooked after watching Garrison Hearst, Eric Zeier and Andre Hastings lead Georgia to what would be its best season of the Goff Era. (We pause now to mourn those UGA students cursed to matriculate during that era).
Despite the struggling years that followed, like a bulldog, I wasn’t letting go of Georgia football. My Kappa Alpha brothers and I traversed the South for games home and away, to Knoxville, Oxford, Nashville and Jacksonville. I was way overboard.
If I ever learned perspective, it was one late night at Lulu’s Bait Shack in Athens. I looked across the bar and there was our starting quarterback, Mike Bobo (now the head coach at Colorado State), wearing a safari hat and enjoying a gold fish bowl full of blue punch. We were days away from playing Auburn. If the quarterback didn’t care enough about the game to stay out of the bar during the season, perhaps I was overcommitted.
Alas, Mark Richt brought brighter days to Georgia football, and Kirby Smart is expected to do even more. And, in case you haven’t heard, the Bulldogs open the Smart Era on Saturday against the Tar Heels. Despite the fact that the two states adjoin, their flagship universities haven’t met in football in my lifetime. The schools have a lot in common, including a healthy dispute over which was the first land grant college. Georgia had the idea first—the legislature gave UGA a charter in 1785, the first land-grant college to get one. But alas, we couldn’t find the money yet. So UNC, while chartered after UGA, was the first to hold classes.
Both schools’ football stadiums, Kenan at UNC and Sanford at UGA, were built on campus in natural valleys in the 1920s by the same architect.
Carolina and Georgia have met 30 times with the Bulldogs holding a 16-12-2 advantage. One of those early games was played in Macon. The two teams were original members of the Southern Conference in 1921.
The last meeting was a 7-3 Georgia victory in the 1971 Gator Bowl. That game was a battle of the Dooley brothers, pitting UGA’s Vince Dooley vs. UNC’s Bill Dooley. Sadly, the latter died earlier this year, just months before he was to appear at the game.
I’m not sure your plans for Saturday, but our clan, all 10 of us, will be going full Tar Dog at the Georgia Dome. I asked my 12-year-old nephew Charlie which team he was going to support. He did not speak for me when he said: “Whoever’s winning!” Go Dawgs!