SMITH COLUMN: Remembering Batman Varnedoe

Published 5:24 pm Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

When Vince Dooley became Georgia’s head coach at age 31, that turned heads. Cynics considered him wet behind the ears and not up to the task of restoring UGA to football prominence. Many observers concluded the administration’s decision was confirmation that the Bulldogs were headed for the depths of the Southeastern Conference.

That could have well been the case, except for his propensity for underscoring fundamentals — running the football, playing defense which was linked with a cogent philosophy of not beating yourself.  His intellect and command of the situation belied his tender age.

He was not, however, the youngest coach to manage the on-the-field affairs of the university. That distinction belongs to Gordon Saussy, who coached the Bulldogs at age 26 in 1899.

We don’t know a lot about Coach Saussy, but some of his background we became privy via the word-of-mouth offerings of his grandson Gordon Varnedoe, affectionately known as Batman, who was named for the coach.  Batman died last weekend which brought about a flurry of calls and emails from around the state. Batman was lovable and memorable.

Sonny Seiler, whose life with Uga, the mascot, was always being lionized by Batman, called with the regrettable news. There were random sad news emails. Fran Tarkenton who knew Batman as a student and spring game teammate on campus, called to reminisce about their friendship.

With his lineage, you might have suspected Batman for lawyering in a three-piece suit; banking in a white shirt or toting a briefcase into the boardrooms of the business world. Maybe even following in the footsteps of his grandfather, toiling in the hot sun with a coaching whistle around his neck. Batman simply wanted to enjoy life and his multitude of friends.

He considered himself a “foaming-at-the-mouth” Bulldog, but he had a wanderlust that took him far from the hedges of Athens and the moss draped oaks of his hometown of Savannah. But, he never lost his love of either.

Batman had a redeeming quality of focusing on a person’s positives. If a former player robbed a bank, Bat would have said, “but he recovered the fumble that allowed us to beat Tech,” or “he made the tackle that kept Auburn from beating us” in such and such a game.

Enjoying life was his modus operandi. An aficionado of the comic strip character, Batman, he took on the Batman’s persona to perfection. He engaged a tailor fashion an authentic Batman costume which he wore to Georgia games as a doting alumnus. The KA fraternity allowed him to build a loft at the frat house where he slept when he was in town. He sipped beer deep into the night, regaling his younger fraternity brothers about his travels and experiences.

When he and his wife, Catherine, decided to settle in California, they drove across the country to “witness the USA first hand,” which moved them to detour through Minneapolis so he could enjoy a reunion with Tarkenton.   

His obituary in the Savannah papers touched on several of his affiliations, but I have in my possession his own words about his life which he emailed to me at 8:53 a.m. Sunday Sept. 1, 2013.  He wrote about his concerns about the dollar influence which had come to college football and noted that the watching of a movie with his daughter, who was dying of a brain tumor, was more important than the arms race of college football.

Nonetheless, he recalled his “Rudy” thing when he “went out” for spring practice in 1960 which allowed him to experience the following fantasy box score about life as a Bulldog, asking how many ‘Dawg fans have the following experiences:

4 Grandfather was Georgia’s youngest coach?

4 Played in Sanford Stadium?

4 Wore Silver Britches?

4 Took hand offs from Fran Tarkenton?

4 Tackled by Pat Dye?

4 Intercepted a pass, ran for a first down and made an unassisted tackle in a G-Day game?

A member of the St. Andrews Society, he participated in the Highland

Games, both in the U. S. and Scotland. He once tossed the caber in competition in Scotland in front of Queen Elizabeth.

Once, when in San Francisco, I drove over the Bay Bridge to his home in Oakland. I have never had such a warm welcome. I was an old friend and nobody appreciated old friends like the Batman. He “showed me off” to his friends, always nothing that he really hated me. “You see,” he would smile, he found a way to live his life in Athens, Georgia and work for the Bulldogs.”

Every time the Vikings played in San Francisco, he and Tarkenton enjoyed get-togethers that lifted all spirits. 

When Batman returned to Savannah, he connected with his beloved hometown in a number of ways. One was giving tours as Gen. James Edward Oglethorpe. As you would expect, he dressed the part.

He loved Savannah as much as he loved Athens. No better evidence of that than the confirmation that he was a member of both Christchurch Episcopal and the First African Baptist Church of East Savannah.

In my pantheon for Great Dawg fans, Batman Varnedoe has a front row seat, an unforgettable character who passionately wore his love for UGA on his sleeve.