With coaches resigning, conferences realigning, NCAA investigations continuing, and Justice Department inquiries commencing, these are tumultuous times in intercollegiate athletics, yet still some traditions die harder than others; viz., the Michigan Wolverines will play their first night game in the Big House next September.
That, to me, is a wild idea. Having grown up with the idea that only day games were played at Wrigley Field, I am entirely comfortable with the notion of a ban on night games in Midwestern athletics venues, but, honestly, although I knew intuitively that meaningless Big Ten trophy games always seemed to clog up my noon Saturday football viewing, it had never occurred to me that night games were verboten in Ann Arbor.
The funny thing is, it wasn’t so long ago that football after dark was a comparative rarity, or even nonexistent, in Sanford Stadium. Before the SEC’s lucrative deal with ESPN put kickoff times completely at the mercy of the Worldwide Leader, the policy in Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall was to forbid kickoffs after dark late in the autumn. Prior to that, the Red and Black went a generation without hosting a night game between the hedges.
Nearly three decades ago, the ‘Dawgs played their first home night game in more than three decades. In 1982, the 1980 national champion Georgia Bulldogs and the 1981 national champion Clemson Tigers agreed to move their then-annual rivalry showdown to Labor Day night, in order for the contest to be broadcast nationally by ABC in prime time. A dozen poles equipped with 420 metal-halide bulbs situated 150 feet above the field were installed in Sanford Stadium, belatedly replacing the unsightly lights that had been removed following the hiring of Joel Eaves as Georgia’s athletic director in 1963.
That September 6 clash marked the first season-opening outing pitting the two previous national champions in Division I-A history, and the game was viewed by the 82,122 fans in the stands of newly-expanded Sanford Stadium and the largest television audience to view an opening-weekend college football game to that time. It also marked the first weeknight confrontation between the Bulldogs and the Tigers since 1947.
It would be hard to overstate the importance of that 1982 game. The Red and Black were ranked seventh in the preseason polls, and the Orange and Purple were the country’s No. 9 or No. 11 team, depending upon whom one asked. Vince Dooley, who celebrated his 50th birthday two days before the 51st series meeting between Georgia and Clemson, was going for the 141st career victory that would move him past Wally Butts and into sole possession of first place on the all-time school wins list, a position he has not since relinquished. As Athens bar owner Cliff Walls put it beforehand, "This ain’t football. It’s war."
Despite the fact that rising junior Herschel Walker had broken his thumb 16 days before the game and was not expected to play, the titanic struggle lived up to its billing. In the first quarter, Clemson middle guard William Perry recovered a fumbled exchange between Georgia center Wayne Radloff and first-time starting quarterback John Lastinger. Three plays later, the Tigers were in the end zone for a 7-0 advantage.
At the end of the first quarter, Bulldog snapper Mitch Frix downed a punt at the visitors’ one yard line, setting up a Clemson fourth and one from the Country Gentlemen’s ten yard line. Red and Black end Dale Carver went in untouched and blocked the ball as it left the foot of Jungaleer punter Dale Hatcher, leading to a touchdown for the Athenians. When placekicker Kevin Butler successfully converted the extra point try in the first minute of the second period, Georgia and Clemson were tied at a score other than 0-0 for the first time since 1967.
A holding penalty negated a 40-yard Bulldog score on a Tron Jackson reverse that worked because the wounded Walker was sent into the game as a decoy, and a 59-yard field goal try by Butler fell two yards short of the crossbar. (Two years later, Butler would have his redemption against Clemson.) Red and Black cornerback Tony Flack, the first freshman ever to start a season opener for Coach Dooley, intercepted a Tiger pass at the Bulldog 40. All these circumstances combined to keep the score deadlocked as halftime neared, but a 39-yard field goal by Butler put the Athenians out in front by three with nine seconds remaining until intermission.
Walker, who had played only sparingly in the first half, persuaded Coach Dooley to make greater use of him in the final 30 minutes. The Goal Line Stalker gained three yards on his first carry of the third quarter before throwing the block that enabled Lastinger to connect with Scottie Williams for a 16-yard pickup. A Walker dive into the end zone on third and goal was called back on a penalty, but Butler split the uprights on a 23-yard field goal attempt.
The Red and Black retained their 13-7 lead in the closing moments, when the Country Gentlemen found themselves with a fresh set of downs inside Georgia territory. A second-down sack sandwiched between first- and third-down incompletions set up a do-or-die fourth-down try. During the time out preceding that critical play, Bulldog linebacker Nate Taylor told his teammates: "This is the last play in the world. Let’s make it a good one."
Taylor proceeded to pick off the Tiger pass on fourth down to seal the deal. It was Clemson quarterback Homer Jordan’s fourth interception of the evening, and Taylor was the fourth different Bulldog defender to have snagged an errant Jordan aerial in the course of the contest. In eight series meetings between 1977 and 1984, one team or the other would see its signal callers throw multiple interceptions without any individual opposing player hauling in more than one of those picks six times, with Clemson quarterbacks committing those miscues thrice and Georgia field generals being guilty of those ill-advised throws the other three times.
The Bulldogs finished that 1982 season with an SEC championship, an 11-1 record, and an AP No. 4 final ranking. Georgia’s only loss was to the national champion Penn St. Nittany Lions. The Tigers ended the campaign with a perfect ACC mark, a 9-1-1 ledger, and a No. 8 finish in the Associated Press postseason poll. Clemson’s only loss was to the Classic City Canines. The game everyone spent the summer anticipating would be a classic proved to be as good as advertised and as consequential as expected.
Such are the reminiscences rattling around in the minds of the denizens of Bulldog Nation in this time of change, while we await another autumn that is set to begin with a nationally-televised night game on Labor Day weekend between Georgia and a top ten team clad in orange.