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The State of the Bulldog Nation Address: Thoughts From a Meal at the Mayflower

I was in Athens on Friday for a continuing legal education seminar. I know that a lot of MaconDawg’s and my fellow lawyers read the site, but, for the benefit of those of you who happen to have avoided becoming members of the State Bar of Georgia, attorneys are required to attend a certain number of continuing education hours annually.

Most of these seminars are offered in downtown Atlanta and begin early enough in the morning that those of us who do not make it a part of our regular routine to drive downtown would just as soon go somewhere else---anywhere else, really---to complete our C.L.E. hours. I started attending this particular yearly institute in Athens not long after I began practicing law, initially in order to have an excuse to go to Athens, and I found upon my arrival that I actually had an interest in the subject matter. As we shall see, that has been a recurring theme of my adult life.

Although the seminar includes a luncheon, I generally do not pass up an opportunity to head Archward and enjoy a meal at the Mayflower on Broad Street. This was the case on Friday, and, when I entered the restaurant shortly after 12:30, I spotted Michael Adams eating his midday meal in a booth to the left. I have my quarrels with the man where the administration of my alma mater is concerned, but I will give him this: Dr. Adams has good taste in restaurants.

I turned right, towards the counter. It would be an exaggeration to claim that I had plans to meet anyone for lunch, but I made it known to an old friend who is back in Athens pursuing another degree where I would be for lunch, and when. Because his schedule evidently did not permit him to join me, I had a glass of sweet tea---all right, a couple of glasses of sweet tea, if you must know---and a cheeseburger platter all by my lonesome.

It was a pleasant winter day in the Classic City, warm enough by 1:00 that a sweater was not necessary but not so hot by then that wearing one was uncomfortable. After eating, I left the Mayflower and walked down Broad Street past the Arch. My journey, first on foot and then by car, carried me by Phi Kappa Hall, Oconee Hill Cemetery, Sanford Stadium, and Myers Hall, where I lived for two years, two decades and half my life ago.

O.K., so here is the thing: last football season stunk. It isn’t that the players didn’t play hard or that the coaches didn’t coach well; we are past the point of recriminations, and, besides, it isn’t as though they would matter much at this juncture, anyway. We came in expecting a national championship and what we got was 10-3, with nary a conference, division, or even state title in sight. We all were ready to book rooms in Miami and we wound up occupying hotel rooms in Orlando. In the S.E.C. East, unlike in the Super Bowl, "I’m going to Disney World!" is the battle cry of the team that lost the big game.

When you get past that thing, though, there still is this thing: walking across campus with the clarity of mind that can only accompany the afternoon of a day in Athens which does not fall on a football weekend, I realized how much has changed for the better since the chapter was closed on the 20th century.

Seeing Michael Adams reminded me of Charles Knapp, whose enduring imprint upon the University of Georgia remains his deracinated conviction that education is a fungible commodity, that the Classic City ought to be nothing more than a drive-through window with a four-year-long line, at which matriculants are able to receive precisely the same instruction they would receive at any other point on the map.

That is why Dr. Knapp, upon becoming president of the University, identified the institutions he wished to emulate by location rather than by name---Ann Arbor, not Michigan; Berkeley, not California---because naming them would have highlighted the distinctions he wished to ignore. That is why, during Dr. Knapp’s tenure, the since-restored letters "Lustrat House" were taken down and replaced by the generic "President’s Office." The latter could be found anywhere; the former emphasizes the uniqueness of the antebellum home of Joseph Lustrat of the Department of Romance Languages, whose wife rented rooms to students following his death.

I am sure Charles Knapp is a good man, and I know that much of what he did while in Athens served to boost the institution’s academic reputation, but the president whose signature is scrawled across every University of Georgia degree I ever earned treated as modular and universal that which is as rooted in the Clarke County soil as William Faulkner’s canon is in his Mississippi home. Anyone who wonders whether Dr. Knapp was mistaken in his approach has not driven often enough the route I took on Friday, which led me along Cedar Street past the fabulously anachronistic "Rock House."

College sports matter in ways professional sports never can and never will because they are grounded deeply in ancient communities from which they can never be uprooted. As an Atlanta Braves fan, I am acutely conscious of the fact that my hometown team was swiped twice---from Boston, then from Milwaukee---before becoming my local major league franchise. The Atlanta Falcons have never in their history gone two consecutive seasons without reminding me that the city was foolish not to take Rankin Smith up on his threat to move the team to another locale so we could all be fans of the Atlanta Jaguars or Panthers instead. The Atlanta Thrashers will never be anything more to me than the poor man’s Flames.

The University of Georgia, though, was chartered in 1785, more than three years before the United States Constitution was ratified. It has its own glorious quirks and qualities that distinguish it from every other institution of higher learning in the land. That’s what the Charles Knapps of the world just don’t get, although it might have dawned on them had they bothered to read the Carl Sanders quotation engraved in the marble wall of the plaza beneath the law school.

Quick . . . tell me, if you can, the state in which Charles Knapp was born, or the colleges and universities he attended. You probably can’t do it off the top of your head, because those places seem to have had no appreciable impact upon him. The man viewed himself as being every bit as fungible and modular as the education he sought to impart.

Now, try this exercise. Suppose the University of Georgia had never existed. Then try imagining me.

I, for one, can’t do it, and I know me as well as anyone. I went to my first football game in Sanford Stadium with my father, and my son went to his first football game in Sanford Stadium with me. I met my wife on the University of Georgia campus and married her in the Chapel; someone was sent around back to ring the bell after the ceremony. The education I received in Athens has made possible the career I have pursued. In short, every good thing in my life since I was 19 years old has been, directly or indirectly, the result of my decision to attend the University of Georgia.

If, on Christmas Day 2000, you had told me that the Bulldogs would win ten or more games in six of the next eight seasons, I’d have been thrilled at such a prospect. After the absolute meltdown that had been the 2000 campaign, I would have found unsatisfying yet nevertheless acceptable the prospect of going into an autumn as a putative national championship contender and coming out the other side having won ten games, including a New Year’s Day bowl and road outings over South Carolina, Arizona State, Louisiana State, and Auburn.

Last football season stunk, but last football season is over, and we are where we are, where we are left with this fact: if the arc of your life intersected at any point with the University of Georgia, you should consider yourself blessed. I say that not to disparage any other institution’s history, tradition, or curriculum, but rather to praise our own.

However disheartening or discouraging last autumn may have been, there still has never been a better time to be alive and with ties to the University of Georgia. By Christmas, I couldn’t wait for football season to be over; now, just after Valentine’s Day, I find myself counting down the days again.

Yesterday is history, but at least we have a history. Tomorrow, as we say in the Empire State of the South, is another day. It’s great to be a Georgia Bulldog.

Go ‘Dawgs.